Amid a Drought Crisis, Inspiration from Our Work in Western Water for Birds and People

In 2021, Audubon led the way in protecting rivers, lakes, and bird habitat in the West.

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Maybe it’s this holiday season or maybe it’s my need for inspiration to counter this ongoing pandemic and drought impacting our lives and families, but I find myself looking back at 2021 for the gems of hope in our Western Water work.

This year, dry conditions across the West were the worst they have been in recorded history—lowest levels at Lake Mead, Great Salt Lake, and diminishing flows across the Colorado River and Rio Grande basins. And the superlatives are not hyperbolic. Extreme. Exceptional. Unprecedented. Catastrophic. Record-breaking. There’s no doubt that the conditions have been terrible—and rivers, lakes, and wetlands and the birds and wildlife that depend on them are suffering as a result.

But even in the midst of these dire circumstances, Audubon and our partners were able to create hope for a brighter future. These impactful successes this year and their stories of courage and collaboration will stick with me—and our Audubon team—as we push for more change in the year ahead. Hopefully you’ll find inspiration from our water work too, as we need your support to help birds and the places upon which they depend across our arid western landscape. Here are our top three wins:

#1: Water flowed again in the Colorado River Delta—connecting the river to the sea again

From May to October 2021, the Colorado River flowed again in its final 55 miles thanks to binational commitments from the U.S. and Mexican governments. Water in the river provides an oasis in the midst of the Sonoran Desert for birds and the people that live there. The water creates and supports habitat for birds like the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, and Vermilion Flycatcher.

I know I’m not alone in feeling tremendous hope seeing birds return, and smiling faces and playful splashes as people enjoyed the of water flowing down the Colorado River.

On top of that, Audubon and Raise the River partners are excited that the binational collaboration took a sophisticated approach to water delivery. Using results from prior monitoring, scientists designed the flows to optimize the location and timing to benefit the restored habitats that have documented increases in bird abundance and diversity. This year’s flows were also studied in order to add to our understanding of how to best use the limited supply of water available for the environment. This will inform management of the Colorado River for the future.

#2: Even in this dry year, rivers (and Great Salt Lake) are getting more dedicated flows

From the amazing partnership that implemented water deliveries down the Jordan River to Great Salt Lake in Utah to the groundbreaking state policy changes in Colorado and Arizona to allow more water for rivers, our efforts this year resulted in good news for people and birds in seeing water return to important bird habitats.

An innovative collaboration led by Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program, with businesses, government agencies, and the Nature Conservancy, achieved a first in Utah water rights history in securing water for the drying Great Salt Lake. With dedicated water rights on the Jordan River donated to the cause, we are now delivering water to the Farmington Bay in Great Salt Lake-and will do so for up to ten years.

With two wins for rivers in a dry year, we highlighted how our multi-year efforts succeeded in expanding the State of Colorado’s existing “instream flow” program for water rights holders to loan water to the environment, allowing for more water to stay in a river. This policy change was immediately put to use to benefit 43 stream miles in western Colorado. And with the unprecedented engagement of our supporters, we were able to retain water quality protections for all of Colorado’s rivers.

In Arizona, we took a pivotal step forward to benefit rivers and the bird habitats they provide. With our support, a new state law was passed to allow surface water users like farmers an incentive to conserve water on their property—by switching to less thirsty crops for example—and be confident that any water saved will not be subject to the loss of water rights.  

#3: Birds will benefit from new and restored habitats

Of course, our work in water policy and management benefits birds and other wildlife, but our team accomplished some key wins focused on bird habitat this year that bring new hope for migratory birds and communities.

In Nevada, a long-awaited transfer of more than 23,000 acres of wildlife habitat gives birds a boost. Along with lands from Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Wetlands, Carson Lake and Pasture is part of the Lahontan Valley Wetlands complex, now as a state wildlife management area, within a designated Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) site of hemispheric importance. The 220,000-acre site, east of Reno, has freshwater marshes and shallow flooded mudflats providing excellent habitat for breeding and migrating shorebirds like American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and Wilson’s Phalaropes, as well as Canvasbacks, White-faced Ibis and Pied-billed Grebes. And we have more work ahead for shorebird management planning in the Lahontan Valley.

Audubon’s team at the Salton Sea is leading the way in adaptive habitat management with opportunities at emerging wetlands such as those near Bombay Beach. With partners in 2021, we focused on the existing 400-acre Bombay Beach wetlands to stabilize and preserve existing high-quality wildlife habitat; increase the amount and quality of habitat available for target species; provide dust control benefits to the adjacent playa areas and decrease dust emissions for local communities improving public health; and provide local and regional public access and research opportunities. This project is in the first phase of habitat and dust control project design, with scientific monitoring and data collection underway, and community engagement in planning design.

In the Southwest, Audubon continues to collaborate with numerous partners to implement sustainable on-the-ground habitat restoration projects to address habitat loss and degradation along the Isleta Reach of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. And in Arizona, from the freshly renovated wetland habitat at the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center in Phoenix to the newly planted cottonwoods, mesquites, and willows along the Colorado River with the Cocopah Indian Tribe and Yuma Audubon, birds and other wildlife are benefitting from many partnerships.

Even as 2021 will go down as one of the driest years ever recorded in the West, with record-setting heat, catastrophic fires, and continued declines in river flows and lake levels, birds tell us when we are doing some things right. Birds remain beacons of hope for me—and so many of you, I know. Birds and the places upon which they depend across this arid western landscape need our support—and capturing gems of hope and inspiration keep us going. It’s also a call to do more in the coming years.

Please help us to accomplish much more in 2022 and join us in speaking up and taking action for the birds, rivers, lakes, and habitats they so desperately need.