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Diverted Water, Longer Droughts and Climate Change Threaten Birds in the Arid West

A new report from Audubon highlights dangers facing birds living in the Colorado River basin and across a network of saline lakes.

DENVER, Colo.—In the arid West of the United States, water sustains tens of millions of people as well as some of America’s richest diversity of birdlife. Today, the National Audubon Society published Water and Birds in the Arid West: Habitats in Decline, the first comprehensive look at the unprecedented impact of western water loss and climate change on birds. Focusing on the Colorado River basin as well as the network of saline lakes across eight Western states (Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming), Audubon determined that a combination of water development, drought and climate change threaten these habitats and put millions of birds at risk: U.S. and global populations of many birds that depend on these habitats for resting, feeding and nesting hang in the balance.

“The most urgent threat facing birds and people in the West is a precipitous decline in water quality and availability,” said Dr. Chad Wilsey, Audubon’s director of bird conservation and main author of the Audubon report. “Both rivers and saline lakes across the West need reliable sources of fresh water to continue sustaining not only a rich diversity of birdlife but also the millions of people across rural and urban areas that depend on these systems.”

The future of seven bird species, including several species protected by the Endangered Species Act—Eared Grebe, Wilson’s Phalarope, American Avocet, American White Pelican, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Yuma Ridgway’s Rail—is tied to the rivers of the Colorado River basin, western saline lakes and scarce wetlands across the West.

The Colorado River Basin: Refuge in Flux

Riparian zones account for less than five percent of the landscape in the Southwest, but they provide habitat for more than half of the region’s breeding bird species, including 400 species that breed along the lower Colorado River. In particular decline are the region’s cottonwood-willow forests, which depend on spring flood events and sustained ground water levels in the river basin. Reduced flows in the Colorado River means less breeding habitat for federally-listed bird species like the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Yuma Ridgway’s Rail.

In addition to a decline in cottonwood-willow forests, reduced flows allow the encroachment of non-native species along the basin. The tamarisk tree, also known as saltcedar, has spread along the Colorado River but does not provide habitat of similar quality to native trees for bird species that breed along riverbanks.

“The main culprit is hydrologic change of the Colorado River, including dams, flow regulations, diversions and groundwater pumping,” said Dr. Wilsey.

Typical habitat transitions with decreasing water availability in the Colorado River Basin. Graphic: Lotem Taylor/Audubon

“We know what’s good for the birds of the Colorado River will also be good for people too,” said Jennifer Pitt, Audubon’s Colorado River project director. “Because the situation here is so urgent, all water users have an opportunity and a responsibility to take a fresh look at Colorado River management.”

Saline Lakes: A Critical Web

And across the Intermountain West, saline lakes — landlocked salt water lakes often fringed with freshwater wetlands — act as a hopscotch-like network of stopovers for millions of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl. This synthesis emphasizes the interconnected nature of these bodies of water, specifically nine lakes that provide key habitat for globally significant populations of certain bird species. For example, more than 99 percent of North America’s Eared Grebes, 90 percent of the Wilson’s Phalaropes and more than half of the American Avocets depend on this network. More than half of the saline lakes involved, however, have shrunk by 50 to 95 percent in the past 150 years.

Side-by-side comparisons of satellite imagery for selected saline lakes in 1985 and 2015; two years separated in time for which precipitation across the western U.S. was similar for a two-year period (1984-85 and 2014-15). Photos: Google Earth

“In 2014 and 2015, nearly all saline lakes in the Intermountain West were at their lowest levels or completely dry,” added Dr. Wilsey. “These lakes are interconnected and impacts to one lake affect the health of this entire system, which provides irreplaceable habitat for birds.”

Less water means fewer wetlands, increased salinity, which threatens the food supply for birds in the lake, and the creation of land bridges from the lake’s edge to islands used for nesting, allowing predators to wreak havoc on waterbird populations.

Audubon’s Way Forward: Hope for a More Sustainable Future

In response to these urgent threats, the National Audubon Society will mobilize members and supporters, nearly one million strong, to advocate for science-based solutions that protect birds and the places they need. The increasing pressures on western water have put birds in a perilous situation, one that will require creative approaches and unprecedented collaboration.

“If we give birds half a chance, they’ll find a way to survive,” said Karyn Stockdale, director of Audubon’s Western Water Initiative. “The most important fact to keep in mind is that there is enough water to implement water-sharing practices across the West that protect birds and people. We’re all in this together, and that’s the best chance for success.”

Click here to read FAQs about the Water and Birds in the Arid West: Habitats in Decline. To read the full report and learn more about Audubon’s Western Water Initiative, please visit www.audubon.org/conservation/western-water. Graphics attributable to "Lotem Taylor/National Audubon Society" available for download and use here.

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon's state programs, nature centers, chapters and partners have an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Since 1905, Audubon's vision has been a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. Learn more how to help at www.audubon.organd follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @audubonsociety.

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Contact: Nicolas Gonzalez, ngonzalez@audubon.org, (212) 979-3068.

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