Southwestern Farmers Share Their Water with Endangered Birds

In the West, as the saying goes, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. So why on earth did New Mexicans--during a severe drought, no less--decide to give precious drops to southwestern willow flycatchers?

One blazing hot day last June, I stood on the banks of the Rio Grande at New Mexico’s Broad Canyon Arroyo, about 20 miles north of the sprawling city of Las Cruces, to witness an act of creative destruction. The agent this day was not the river, though its floods once wiped out local houses and irrigation canals. Instead, a team of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees was unleashing chainsaws and excavators on the riverside shrubs.

Scrubby trees were uprooted and piled into heaps, waiting to be burned. The soil was churned up. Here and there, windrows of garbage gave mute evidence of the kinds of activities—wild-cat dumping, teenage parties—that plagued the site before the workers started their job. Above the flat, narrow floodplain, sere desert hills were a stark reminder that the river is what makes any kind of plant abundance possible at all in this place.

The Rio Grande is an exceedingly tapped watercourse, one engineered so thoroughly that it hardly merits the label “river” anymore, and certainly not grande. “Growing up here, this stretch of the river was always neglected,” said Kevin Cobble, a tall, gray-mustachioed biologist wearing the agency’s regulation brown uniform. “It’s always been a little disheartening to me how the river is treated. It’s like that trash pile over there—that’s how people have seen the river. It’s just been an irrigation ditch.”

Cobble, then manager of the nearby San Andres National Wildlife Refuge (he has since moved on to manage Bosque del Apache, about 100 miles upstream), was inspecting his team’s habitat renovation. A wolfberry shrub, 18 inches high, stood on the berm just above the river; higher up, screwbean mesquite trees bloomed, their yellow flowers attracting bees and butterflies. Those native plant species, Cobble said, make much better wildlife habitat than saltcedar or tamarisk, pink-flowered invasive trees and shrubs from Eurasia that have colonized numerous river systems in the Southwest. A few years ago this was mostly saltcedar, he said. “Now that the competition’s been removed, the natives are starting to come back.”

The new plants signal the beginning of a new era of cooperation. This stretch of the Rio Grande is managed by the International Boundary and Water Commission, a federal agency that oversees water supplies on the country’s two large rivers that flow through both the United States and Mexico: the Rio Grande and the Colorado.

As a result of the southwestern willow flycatcher’s 1995 listing as an endangered species and other environmental concerns, the commission consented to provide funding—$11 million over a period of about 10 years—for a pilot project aimed at restoring some 550 acres of riparian habitat at scattered sites along the lower Rio Grande. Motivated in part by the heavy hammer of the Endangered Species Act, the farmers are now sharing a scarce and contested resource, providing enough water for irrigation and habitat restoration for the willow flycatcher, a small gray bird that builds its nests only in dense riverside thickets. Audubon New Mexico would coordinate the project, and the Fish and Wildlife Service would provide the workers. The new deal meant everybody would have to work together, no matter where they stood on the issue.


Cobble and I were touring restoration sites with Beth Bardwell, an energetic activist who worked as a Native American rights lawyer and assistant city attorney before returning to school for a master’s in biology at New Mexico State University, where she studied the bill shapes of scrub jays. She is now in charge of freshwater conservation projects for Audubon New Mexico.

For a fast-forward glimpse of what the Broad Canyon Arroyo site might look like in the not-too-distant future, she steered our silver Scion toward a place where the tamarisk had been removed three years earlier. It was the height of the irrigation season, which meant that an engineer upstream at Elephant Butte Dam had opened a valve to release water. The river, pinched between rocky highlands, ran fast—flush for now with mountain snowmelt. In a couple of weeks the valve would be shut, and the Rio Grande would revert to being a string of shrinking pools.

This site certainly looked lush. After the tamarisk was removed, members of the local Mesilla Valley Audubon Society planted native trees and shrubs: cottonwood, Goodding’s willow, coyote willow, New Mexico olive. Volunteers returned weekly to water the plants, which were now head-high. Dense, sprawling thickets were beginning to form—just the kinds of places willow flycatchers need. Cobble pointed out that some of the plants had grown roots deep enough to intercept the water table, which, in a few years, would make supplemental watering unneeded.

We didn’t see or hear any willow flycatchers that day. But we heard the chattering calls of mockingbirds, the wichity-wichity songs of common yellowthroats. And Bardwell was confident that the fast-growing plants would soon provide even better habitat. “As we restore the structure of the native riparian woodland,” she said, “we expect to see an increase in the bird population until it’s higher than you’d see in a tamarisk-dominated woodland.”

Remove invasive species, plant natives, water them a bit, watch and wait—it sounds like an easy restoration project, similar to the work Audubon is doing along other arid-lands waterways under the aegis of its new Western Rivers Action Network (see “Get Active!”), which aims to conserve and restore these vital migratory corridors. But the reality is a lot grittier than that.

Wildlife habitat has long been a low priority here. When the federal government completed Elephant Butte Dam in 1916, the giant structure’s purpose wasn’t flood protection; it was to provide water for irrigation. Thanks to a long growing season, sufficient water, and lots of hard work, it succeeded. The 150,000 acres of family farms along the lower Rio Grande (in New Mexico and Texas) produce nearly $200 million worth of pecans, cotton, alfalfa, vegetables, and other crops every year, including what farmers around the small town of Hatch claim are the nation’s best chilies, a crop as vital to New Mexi- cans’ self-image as lobsters are to Mainers.

Of course, the river and its riparian habitat picked up the tab. Like an open-air conveyor belt, the channelized river now transports precisely timed and measured parcels of water to fields in New Mexico, Texas, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua. It no longer has any surplus to renew riverside thickets—or irrigate more than a few willow seedlings.

For decades that wasn’t much of a concern to most area farmers. Today, however, they’re paying lots of attention to the river’s health. In 2013 New Mexico was in its second severe drought in 10 years. In July, Elephant Butte Reservoir was at only about 3 percent capacity. When conditions are good, farmers downstream of the dam are allowed to irrigate their crops with three feet of water during the eight-month-long growing season (which amounts to almost a million gallons per acre). That’s happened only once since 2003. This year they had to make do with about a tenth of what’s permitted (most make up the difference by relying on well water, a practice that can lower the water table and cause soils in certain areas to become increasingly alkaline). The Rio Grande ran for only a few weeks in June and July before Elephant Butte engineers closed the dam’s water-release valve. Looking forward, the picture seems bleak: Atmospheric modeling suggests the Southwest is likely to be hit hard by climate change, which will mean less snowmelt, higher temperatures, more drought.

As Bardwell and Cobble began planning restoration projects, it was hard to imagine where water for riparian plants would come from. And without water to support seedlings, restoration projects would go nowhere fast.

“We need to retrofit water into a legal and institutional framework that never considered environmental needs,” Bardwell said. “The farmers had the position that the water had been fully appropriated for 100 years.” There wasn’t any left over for anyone else. So where was the water going to come from?

The answer to that question was both simple and audacious: Audubon New Mexico would become farmers, tending a crop of willows instead of vegetables.


If a diminished Elephant Butte Lake is a nightmare for farmers downstream, it is a boon for southwestern willow flycatchers. In the late 1990s, as the reservoir’s water level began to fall, the moist, exposed bottom formed fertile ground for willows and other riparian plants. The reach of the Rio Grande north of the reservoir’s remaining open water is thus a mecca for the endangered subspecies. Biologists estimate that some 200 pairs, or nearly a quarter of the entire population, nest here.

I went to take a look with Vicky Ryan, a cheerful, dark-haired biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. We drove along a river channel where willows, scattered tamarisks, and cottonwoods on the banks were growing into impenetrable-looking thickets 20 or more feet tall. The Broad Canyon Arroyo restoration site might look like this in another 10 years.

Ryan was here to monitor some nests that her colleagues had located earlier. Following pink flagging, we half walked, half crawled though a maze of stems. Within minutes we were bathed in sweat, dusted with cattail pollen, showered with dead tamarisk leaves, pocked with mosquito bites.

“This always happens in good WIFL habitat,” Ryan said cheerily, using the standard biologists’ acronym for the spe- cies. “It’s really thick stuff near flowing water, with lots of bugs.”

Before we reached the first nest site, we heard a perky sound: fitz-bew!, the willow flycatcher’s territorial call. We looked up to see its maker, a small perched flycatcher. Willow flycatchers may be the epitome of a nondescript little gray bird—they’re often hard to distinguish from related Empidonax flycatchers—but they’re spirited. This one darted from branch to branch, clearly annoyed that we were close to its nest.

Ryan pointed out some strips of pink tape tied to branches. She glanced at her notes to check where the nest was in relation to the tape, and after a minute found it, about seven feet up in the crotch of a gangly willow. She tied a folding compass to a stick and used its mirror to peer in. Three chicks, she reported.

At the next nest the results weren’t so good. There were no adult birds in sight. A few days earlier the nest had held an egg and a freshly hatched chick. Now, Ryan said, its delicate cup had been torn apart by some hungry raccoon or other predator.

“Bummer. Still, you can see why this is good habitat. It has a good structure for nesting. We’ve got a bunch of different age classes and successional states. But this area is getting to be just past its peak.” Ryan meant that the woodland was becoming just a bit old to be optimal, with too many dead stems, not enough sprouting vegetation. Under natural conditions, such a riparian woodland might get flooded out, and the successional clock would be reset.

“Flycatcher habitat by its definition is temporary,” she said. “It’s a dynamic system.” How that habitat will evolve in the future in the artificial conditions in the reservoir basin is a big unknown. And along the river below the dam, given that floods no longer occur, it will likely be up to people to continue to establish new swaths of riparian vegetation with their sweat—and some well-applied water.


When Elephant Butte Dam was built a century ago, its discharge was designated solely for watering crops, not golf courses or lawns. The releases are managed by two farmers’ cooperatives: the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, in New Mexico, and the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, in Texas. Anybody looking to irrigate farmland in the river corridor needs to work through those agencies. In 2009, when Bardwell proposed creating some restoration sites with International Boundary and Water Commission funding, she went to talk to Gary Esslinger, the treasurer manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

Esslinger is a wry and practical manager with swept-back hair that wouldn’t look out of place on a surfer. He wasn’t predisposed to dwell on ecological concerns. But he knew the elaborate rules that govern irrigation. “If you want to use any water,” he told her, “you have to become an e-farmer. You’re going to have to become a constituent.”

He was recounting the story in a wood-paneled conference room at the district headquarters in Las Cruces. Sitting next to him was Robert Faubion, an area farmer who is one of the district’s board members. Faubion, who is in his upper 50s, has dark hair and was wearing a crisp tan shirt. He represents the fourth generation in his family to farm in the Rio Grande Valley.

The notion of “e-farming” (for environmental) was new to both men, as was any connection to a conservation group. But they respected the time Bardwell had put into attending meetings and building bridges; before joining Audubon, she had worked locally for the World Wildlife Fund and had frequent contact with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. They also knew that the district, like the International Boundary and Water Commission, was bound by the Endangered Species Act since the 1995 listing of the southwestern willow flycatcher. They worried that if the Rio Grande were to reenter a wet cycle, the flooding of the many nesting territories in the upper reaches of Elephant Butte Res- ervoir could potentially violate the ESA. The Fish and Wildlife Service might pro- hibit the reservoir from filling to capacity, or even near it—anathema to the farmers needing water. And so it was that district officials began considering how they could plan ahead by creating new willow flycatcher habitat along the district’s stretch of the river.

“When we saw the lake receding,” said Faubion, “we started looking for mitigation sites. We thought that this was pretty proactive. We felt we’d be in a much better position to defend ourselves if we developed a plan.”

“But our board was reluctant at first,” Esslinger pointed out, carefully couching major misgivings.

Faubion agreed. “There was quite a level of distrust. But what we didn’t want to have was environmentalists suing. We wanted to create a mechanism so environmentalists would have the same rights as any farmers. And we’d rather do this proactively with individual environmental groups than deal with the government.” The farmers decided they could trust Bardwell. With a government agency, they never knew when a decision by one official might be overruled by anonymous bureaucrats in some other office.

An agreement hammered out between Audubon New Mexico and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District now permits conservation groups that are district members to lease or purchase water rights from willing sellers. This past June the district passed a policy that explicitly allows irrigation water to be used to irrigate native plants for habitat restoration. Bardwell anticipates soon being able to buy water rights on a small scale, probably from landowners who are in arrears in their irrigation district payments and might welcome a sale.

With these new rights, though, come responsibilities. The district’s board members wanted to be sure that their cooperation in creating new riparian habitat would not run afoul of the law—specifically, the ESA. They sought assurances that water used to create habitat for an endangered species would not take precedence over water used for crops. Both parties agreed that if drought dictates ongoing cuts in water deliveries—as was the case this year—water use at resto- ration sites would be curtailed to the same degree as that on fields.

Bardwell also agreed to exchange an enhanced level of federal protection for the willow flycatcher for local collaboration. In 2012 the Fish and Wildlife Service revised its designation of critical habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher (critical habitat areas can be subject to special protection). But Audubon New Mexico asked the agency to exclude the 46-mile stretch of the Rio Grande upstream from Las Cruces from the list, arguing that the hard-won cooperative agreement with the International Boundary and Water Commission and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District provides a better prospect for the long-term protec- tion and improvement of riparian habitat than a simple administrative classification would. In January the agency agreed.

Such a decision by the federal government technically amounts to a weakening of legal protections for an endangered subspecies, at least in one river reach. It also rests on a certain measure of trust—the same sort of trust that both farmers and conservationists have shown in deciding to work together. Emboldened water users and environmentalists along the middle Rio Grande in New Mexico are shifting their attention to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District’s decision as they consider whether to develop a similar program aimed as sustaining riparian habitat—in that case, for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow, a rare native fish.

“These farmers are our neighbors,” said Bardwell. “They live next door to the resto- ration sites. So it makes sense that whatever we’re going to put in has to work for them.”

It may be that “work” is the operative word there. Just as it takes a lot of physical effort to restore native vegetation along a river channel that’s out of whack, it also takes a lot of time and responsibility to maintain the underlying human relationships. But the results are worth it, as Robert Faubion, the farmer, told me.

“We’re stepping out a little bit in faith and a lot in fear,” he said. “We want to share our resource as long as it is not impaired and as long as it doesn’t become an obligation. I’m willing to share half my burrito with you at lunch as long as I don’t have to feed you lunch every day.”


Rivers in the U.S. West are home to a wide range of vulnerable bird species that depend on reliable wintering, stopover, and breeding habitat from Canada to Mexico. In the past century, the alteration of floodplains and rivers throughout the intermountain West has devastated bird and wildlife populations. Audubon’s new Western Rivers Action Network aims to protect functional riparian habitats by managing critical Important Bird Areas, developing collaborative programs with water managers, and activism. For more, go to conservation.



Scientific Name: Empidonax traillii extimus

Range: This subspecies breeds mainly in southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico, north into southern Nevada and Utah, and possibly into southwestern Colorado. Other subspecies of willow flycatchers breed across much of the northern and central U.S. and southern Canada. The southwestern subspecies winters mainly in Central America, perhaps especially in the Pacific lowlands of Costa Rica.

Habitat: Nests in dense thickets of tall shrubs along southwestern rivers—mainly native willow but also exotic saltcedar and Russian olive. In migration and winter, found in any kind of semi-open habitat with some dense, low cover.

Status: Listed as endangered in 1995. The total population has been estimated to be fewer than 2,500 individuals. The bird has disappeared from many regions where it occurred in the past.

Threats/Outlook: The serious decline of this bird has resulted mainly from the destruction or degradation of streamside habitats in the arid Southwest. Nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds has played a role as well. In some areas the flycatcher has adapted to nest in thickets of invasive saltcedar, and in those places, new efforts to control the saltcedar may be a setback for the flycatcher. Its future survival will depend on balanced approaches to managing and protecting streamside habitats in the Southwest.—Kenn Kaufman

 This story originally ran in the November-December 2013 issue as "New Deal."

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