As Water Levels Plummeted to Historic Lows across the West in 2022, Urgency for Audubon to Protect People and Birds

Facing challenges head on this year: dedicated water, dollars, and improved policies.
Western Sandpipers. Photo: Karl Bardon/Audubon Photography Awards

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Another year added to the multi-decades-long chronic drought in the West, with serious challenges to rural and urban communities and bird populations because of plummeting water levels that affect water supplies and habitats. Climate change is intensifying drought and extremes in our water cycle. With increasing urgency, Audubon worked across the West and in Washington, D.C. to improve water security and the health of bird habitats this year—with major gratitude for the support and efforts of our members, donors, partners, and talented staff. Here are some highlights of what we achieved in 2022:

Habitat in Key Watersheds

Birds need water. Hundreds of bird species rely on water resources across the arid West for breeding, resting, and feeding—in both freshwater and saline ecosystems. If rivers, lakes, and streams go dry, millions of birds and our own communities are at risk. Audubon and partners are taking actions to reduce pressures on water supplies while finding opportunities to improve riparian and wetland habitats as well as adapt to changing conditions.

Water Flows in the Colorado River Delta Again

The Colorado River flowed in its delta once again this year—a much needed lifeline for one of the most productive bird habitats in North America. The flows, which ran from May to September, are the result of binational collaboration between Mexico and the United States, with deliberate management. The water is dedicated to supporting the ecosystem and local communities in a landscape where the river has not flowed for most years in the past half century. Audubon and its partners have been key in advocating for these water deliveries to the Colorado River Delta which benefit local communities and birds, including Black Phoebe, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, and many more species. The water delivery is a heartening bit of good news for the Colorado River, which earlier this year was designated as America’s most endangered river.

Surprise Bird-Rich Wetlands Emerge on Shrinking Salton Sea

In the last 10 years alone, the Salton Sea, the largest remaining body of water in California, shrunk by 38 square miles—primarily due to increasing diversions of Colorado River water to southern California cities. While an otherwise desperate scene further stressed by climate change, conservationists recently discovered more than 6,700 acres of surprise wetlands emerging from the exposed lakebed. Audubon is working to expand and protect the Bombay Beach wetlands, a new-found bird sanctuary where American Avocet, Common Yellowthroat, Marsh Wren and many more species have been seen and heard recently.

Utah’s Bear River and Great Salt Lake Vital to Birds

Audubon’s Saline Lakes and Science teams partnered with state agencies in Utah to produce two publications on long-term trends at Great Salt Lake. The first analyzed impacts of hydrological changes on waterbirds at Bear River Bay, a vitally important wetland at the mouth of the Bear River where it enters Great Salt Lake. The second analyzed 21-year trends in shorebirds, waterfowl, and other waterbirds across the Great Salt Lake as a whole. These two studies will be used to help inform Great Salt Lake conservation efforts over the coming years and contributed to the establishment of a $40 million water trust for Great Salt Lake (more detail below).

Improvements in Water Policy  

Audubon worked in state houses and the U.S. Capitol to achieve significant policy changes that are critical steps to living in a future with less water. Even though western water policy is notoriously complex and difficult to change, we’re working with elected officials and partners to craft, adopt and connect new and long-lasting solutions for the reality of our water limitations. The well-being of communities and wildlife relies on this work.

Generational Advancements in Great Salt Lake & Utah Water Policies

Water-related matters topped the Utah Legislative Session this year (again!) with generational investments and policy changes, including important policy measures for Great Salt Lake. These water policy changes—many of which Audubon publicly advocated for and supported—aim to change the status quo and help Utahns thrive within the limits of our water supplies. These laws aim to reduce water consumption rates, create flexible water-sharing approaches, and they recognize the role the natural environment plays in the water cycle and Utah’s vitality. And birds like Wilson’s Phalarope, Western Grebe, and Ruddy Duck will benefit too.

New Policies to Protect Water in Colorado

Audubon helped secure several water policy wins in Colorado’s 2022 legislative season. More than 2,400 Audubon members advocated for the Wildfire Prevention Watershed Restoration Funding Bill, which passed and provides $20 million to restore watershed resilience. Audubon also testified in support of Colorado’s newly passed turf replacement program, which incentivizes water-wise landscaping.

Public Funding for Water Priorities

Significant public funding is needed to protect and invest in our waterways in the West. This year, Audubon led the way in securing significant investments for our Western Water priorities, while we still work to dedicate longer-term and sustainable funding.  

$440 Million for Arizona Water Conservation

Audubon helped secure nearly $440 million dedicated to conservation and water reliability projects throughout Arizona, including unprecedented funding for improving surface water flows, groundwater recharge and aquifer health, and landscape watershed protection including through green infrastructure. Northern Shoveler, Summer Tanager, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo will benefit. This funding—if used wisely—can help jump-start the long-term transformation the state needs in order to adapt to drought and water scarcity supercharged by climate change. In Arizona, more than 1,270 people took action with Audubon this year to advance sound water management and protect the state's natural resources.

Great Salt Lake Gets Boost with $40 Million Investment in Water Conservation

In a huge step forward for birds and the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, Audubon and The Nature Conservancy were awarded an unprecedented $40 million grant to lead and implement a watershed enhancement trust to benefit Great Salt Lake and its wetlands. Ensuring water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands over the long term is the single most important strategy to prevent further drying of the lake and protecting the birds and people that depend on the health of this irreplaceable ecosystem. Audubon’s leadership, scientific expertise, commitment to collaboration, and long-standing conservation record at Great Salt Lake led to this major investment.

Federal Funding for Saline Lakes Science

Building upon scientific findings that saline lakes across the West provide interconnected bird habitats—as documented in our Water and Birds in the Arid West report—we are so excited to share that Congress just passed legislation authorizing a program within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to assess, monitor, and benefit the hydrology of saline lakes in the Great Basin and the migratory birds and other wildlife that depend on them. Saline lake ecosystems, such as Great Salt Lake in Utah, Lake Abert in Oregon, Mono Lake in California, Lahontan Valley Wetlands in Nevada, and others throughout the Great Basin, provide an essential network of habitats for millions of migrating shorebirds, waterfowl and other waterbirds. These lakes, as well as their water sources, also benefit millions of people, businesses, livelihoods, and contribute to quality of life. With more than 99 percent of North America’s Eared Grebes and 90 percent of Wilson’s Phalaropes depending on this network of lakes, this science-based approach to inform management actions is crucial. Partners across the Great Basin were essential in getting this legislation across the finish line.

Groundbreaking Funding for Climate Resiliency & Megadrought in the West 

Audubon and our partners were instrumental in helping pass the Inflation Reduction Act with new climate resilience and drought funding, including adding in language for ecosystem and habitat restoration projects to address issues directly caused by drought. This landmark bill provides billions of dollars to help birds and people be more resilient in the face of climate change, including $4 billion for drought resilience in the West and $2 billion for wildfire risk reduction, including natural solutions. Additionally, millions of dollars are included for Tribal climate resilience and adaptation programs, watershed health and forest management for the U.S. Forest Service, resilience actions for the National Wildlife Refuge System, and Endangered Species Act recovery plans.

Audubon Member and Volunteer Engagement around Water

Recruiting, training, coordinating—these are terms Auduboners know all too well in our constant work to galvanize supporters and volunteers to help us perform bird surveys, speak up for water policies and funding, and direct attention to what birds tell us. Thank you to our committed leaders.

Regional Shorebird Surveys Provide a Look at Changing Habitat Around the West

In August, hundreds of volunteers, non-profit biologists (including many of our own!), and state and federal agency staff grabbed their binoculars and spotting scopes to do something that hadn’t been done in almost three decades: count migrating shorebirds across the Intermountain West. The wetlands of the western U.S. act as oases for these birds, and for millennia, shorebirds such as Dunlin, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Western Sandpiper have funneled to irreplaceable habitats twice a year during spring and fall migration. This massive mobilization of surveyors – led by Audubon and Point Blue Conservation Science – will help fill in important data gaps relating to shorebirds and their vulnerable habitats.  

Arizona Cuckoo Surveys Inspire New Chapter Leadership

It’s a conundrum we all face. How do we engage the next cohort of conservationists and how do we ensure it is more diverse than today’s crew? Arizona’s Sonoran Audubon Society found the winning formula: engage students with meaningful conservation efforts and earn them some career-boosting credentials along the way. Funded by Audubon in Action and Western Water Network grants, they completed the second year of surveying for the federally threatened Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a team of young scientists recruited from Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Audubon campus chapter. Upon completing the field season, students have the credentials they need to be added to state and federal survey permits (a big gain for students soon to be seeking careers in the field).

Incredible Member Support for Colorado Water Plan

And finally, Audubon rallied more than 3,400 petition signatures and 440 free responses supporting protection of Colorado’s rivers in the Colorado Water Plan update. Great Blue Heron, Yellow Warbler, and American Dipper depend on healthy rivers, wetlands, and watersheds. Through Audubon’s expertise and advocacy, we are an effective force for bird and freshwater habitat conservation.

The looming water crises in rivers and lakes across the West—including the Colorado River Basin and Great Salt Lake—require urgent water management adjustments and adaptations to meet the challenges of today. Audubon will continue to advocate for water management, funding, and improved policies that provide improved reliability of water for people and sustainable habitat for the millions of birds and wildlife that rely on these water resources. Onward to more successes for people and birds in 2023.