Saline lakes and their associated wetlands throughout Intermountain West create a network of critical habitat that millions of birds depend on for breeding, resting and feeding during migration, and wintering.
Audubon identified nine priority lakes that historically provided essential habitat and food sources for shorebirds, waterbirds, and waterfowl. More than half of these have shrunk by 50 to 95 percent over the last 150 years due to a combination of upstream water diversions, consumption, and drought.
Drier conditions under climate change will exacerbate effects of water diversions by decreasing flows to lakes and wetlands. Lower water levels increase lake salt content, altering the food web that resident and migrating shorebirds and waterbirds rely on. No other ecosystems in the arid West can meet these species’ unique requirements. Since shorebirds and waterbirds congregate in large numbers at these sites, they are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss.
Maintaining healthy bird populations depends on proactively managing these habitats amid water demands across the region. Solving these water challenges will require collaboration, innovation, and flexibility in how we use, share, and manage water so that people, birds, and wildlife can thrive together.
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Key findings from our Water and Birds in the Arid West Report:
- Collectively, saline lakes in the West support global populations of birds, including over 99 percent of the North American population of Eared Grebes, up to 90 percent of Wilson’s Phalaropes, and over 50 percent of American Avocets.
- Saline lakes are critically important to migratory shorebird species, whose populations have declined nearly 70 percent since 1973.
- Water levels in saline lakes have declined dramatically in the last 100+ years due to draining, diversions of inflows, and lake and groundwater extraction.
- Lower water levels have increased lake salinity, altering food webs and reducing invertebrate food sources for migrating and resident shorebirds and waterbirds.
- Drier conditions under climate change will exacerbate the impacts of water diversion on saline lakes by decreasing freshwater inflows.