On October 6, 2021, Audubon's Colorado River Program Director gave the following testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Water and Power. This is slightly edited for length. The full testimony can be found at the bottom of this page.
Chairman Kelly, Ranking Member Hyde-Smith and members of the subcommittee, thank you for holding this important hearing on drought in the West, it is an honor to testify before you today.
My name is Jennifer Pitt, I serve as the Colorado River Program Director for the National Audubon Society (Audubon), and I have more than 20 years of experience working on water issues in the Colorado River basin. Audubon is a leading national nonprofit organization representing more than 1.8 million members. Since 1905, we have been dedicated to the conservation of birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the- ground conservation. Audubon advocates for solutions in the Colorado River basin that ensure adequate water supply for people and the environment.
As you consider options to support drought management in the West, it is important to recognize the consequences of severe drought in the Colorado River basin. The myriad rivers, wetlands, and lakes of the Colorado River basin have extraordinary value, economically, culturally, ecologically, and spiritually. While these freshwater-dependent resources cover only 2% of the landscape, they support 40% of all breeding birds. Water year 2021 is now the worst year on record for many farmers and ranchers, wildlife managers, and businesses and communities who rely on water supply from the basin, putting these irreplaceable resources at risk.
In the Colorado River basin, like other places across the arid West, climate change and drought are already worsening impacts on freshwater-dependent habitats long starved for water. While we cannot completely stop the impacts that are already occurring, with coordinated efforts and smart investments, we can avoid losing key habitats, and promote a stronger, more resilient basin for the future. In order to avoid the worst outcomes for birds and other species, Audubon has worked to ensure that water infrastructure does no additional environmental damage, worked with water managers to dedicate flows for the environment, and supports investing in habitat restoration.
Federal Investment Needed to Help Manage Drought Impacts
Federal leadership is needed to provide the resources necessary to address this challenge. Congress should use all available options to invest in immediate and long-term solutions to mitigate current disasters and enhance the climate resilience of states affected by historic drought conditions. Audubon supports immediate disaster relief for communities hit hardest by compounding issues of drought, fire, COVID-19, and historic inequalities. Funding for a suite of common-sense strategies including natural infrastructure that creates distributed storage, forest management and wildfire mitigation, ecosystem restoration, upgraded agricultural irrigation infrastructure, binational water conservation and habitat restoration, water recycling and improved science will provide the means to help enhance overall climate resilience for people, wildlife, and economies throughout the Colorado River basin. Audubon’s federal funding priorities include:
Emergency Drought Response: Emergency drought relief funding is needed to respond to the historic drought conditions affecting tens of millions of Americans. There is no funding provided for immediate emergency response in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, so additional investment is needed.
USGS Monitoring and Research: Federal investment in monitoring and science, including Open ET, will allow water managers to replace and add new stream gages, comprehensively forecast, model and track water availability throughout the basin.
Reclamation’s binational program: Minute 323 carries forward the cooperative approach originally forged in Minute 319, and includes binational agreement to invest in agricultural infrastructure improvements in the Mexicali Valley that result in water conserved in Lake Mead and improvements to riparian habitats. Binational investments have proven effective since the United States and Mexico initiated the cooperative process 15 years ago, but much more needs to be done. With conservation opportunities and ecosystem restoration projects demonstrating the wisdom of the initial pilot projects, it is time to increase the scale of our binational investments. All Colorado River water users would benefit from additional investment in binational water conservation and habitat restoration. By doing so, we would continue to see the benefits in the water levels of Lake Mead and help slow the decline of these essential reservoirs. Without this cooperative process, governments and water leaders on both sides of the border would be investing precious time and energy to try to create the system we have in place today. With Minute 323, our existing binational framework for cooperation, water conservation and environmental restoration, it is time to increase investments to meet the challenges of drought and climate change that threaten the Basin.
Salton Sea Restoration: Funding will help mitigate the environmental and public health crisis caused by the receding shoreline of California’s Salton Sea.
Indian Health Service Sanitation and Construction Support: Tribal members suffered the highest rates of covid-19 infection and mortality of any ethnic group in the United States, and the fact that thousands of homes on tribal reservations do not have water service is unconscionable.
Reclamation Water Settlement Fund: Tribal water settlements are urgently needed to address long- overdue promises, to allow tribes to benefit from their water rights, and to reduce the uncertainty that unsettled rights imposes on all Colorado River water users.
WaterSMART grants, including the Cooperative Watershed Management Program, with a set-aside for natural infrastructure projects: Community resilience to climate change can be improved with funding for nature-based solutions for restoring rivers and wetlands. Natural infrastructure, including irrigated wetlands and restored high-elevation meadows, can build adaptive capacity in ecosystems and ranching operations to cope with ongoing climate shifts. These investments could also mitigate climate change by reducing and sequestering greenhouse gas emissions and increase economic resilience by providing cost-effective mechanisms to restore degraded working lands, improving land value and profitability of operations.
Reclamation’s Water Recycling and Reuse programs: Technologies are available to help municipal water systems stretch available water supplies through investments in recycling and reuse infrastructure. Federal funding to maximize water recycling and reuse can help maintain the trend already established among municipalities that use Colorado River water whereby population growth is decoupled from water demand.
Reclamation Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program: Beyond the funding in the Infrastructure Bill, additional funding is needed to restore imperiled ecosystems, especially ecosystems facing significant negative impacts caused by historic drought conditions.
Reclamation multi-benefit projects to improve watershed health: Beyond what was included in the Infrastructure Bill, robust funding is needed to improve watershed health and resiliency, especially for watersheds facing significant negative impacts from historic drought conditions.
Ecosystem restoration funding for the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior: Well- managed forests provide numerous benefits, including preventing soil erosion; supporting water filtration and increasing runoff yields; regulating snow melt and water supply; improving water quality; lowering water treatment costs; capturing carbon; and benefiting wildlife habitat and fisheries. Implementing best practices in forest management and forest restoration can help maintain these benefits and mitigate against watershed degradation, severe wildfire, and other climate change impacts. Forest management and restoration can also help in adapting to climate shifts as conditions in the basin change, such as regulating snowmelt runoff and increasing economic resilience through job creation and reduced emergency costs, among other benefits.
Reclamation funding for Aging Agricultural Infrastructure: Ensuring that agricultural infrastructure and operations are up to the challenges of higher temperatures and reduced flows will sustain the economic resilience of rural communities. Improving agricultural infrastructure and operations can reduce pressure on existing water supplies by making operations more efficient, reducing the potential for over-diversion from streams and rivers, and potentially reducing consumptive use.
Improvements can also help the basin’s agriculture become more resilient to the effects of climate change such as reduced stream flows and higher temperatures.
Collaborative solutions are possible in the Colorado River basin
- Freshwater-dependent habitats can be restored with effort and investment, and in some cases, restoration may be the key to reaching consensus in binational Colorado River shortage-sharing agreements.
- Water conservation can be implemented with sensitivity to the species that depend on irrigated habitats.
- Sensible water policies and state-level investments can help improve western watersheds and water supplies, and leverage federal funding.
- We are all in this together, and cooperation and collaboration are critical.
Why Action is needed now: drought has launched the Colorado River into crisis, and climate change means this is not a temporary condition
Climate change has come barging through the front doors of the Colorado River basin. The Colorado River has lost 20% of its historic flows in the past 20 years. Fifteen years ago, water managers pointed to drought, which has recurred periodically over the past century. Today it is clear – and Colorado River water managers understand – that the shrinking water supply is largely due to climate change, with increased temperatures accounting for 33% of the 21st century decline. In 2021, the Colorado River basin snowmelt measured 90% of average, but runoff – the snowmelt that filled the rivers – was only 30% of average. That discrepancy demonstrates an impact of climate change between the ridgetops and the valley bottoms: warm temperatures that drive evaporation, soil desiccation, and increased water use by every living thing.
What we do know is stark: Climate change and aridification are permanently changing our landscapes, threatening our way of life, jeopardizing our ability to produce hydropower and placing further strain on our communities. The possibility of severe declines at Lakes Mead and Powell should be a wake-up call to anyone who wants their children or grandchildren to be able to survive and thrive in the West.
Drought is devastating Colorado River habitats and the wildlife that depends on them
Because freshwater-dependent resources in the Colorado River basin support 40% of all breeding birds, these birds, like the proverbial canary in the coalmine, are telling us that the basin is in trouble. Birds like the Yellow Warbler and Summer Tanager, once familiar sights along the Colorado River, have experienced significant regional declines. The outlook for Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, all listed as federally endangered, is especially bleak if current trends continue.
Today, rivers in the basin suffer from reduced flow and changed seasonality of flows, resulting in a diminished river, and in loss of much of the native forest that flourished on the river’s banks. The loss of aquatic and riparian habitats has had devastating impacts on wildlife, particularly fish and birds.
The combination of drought and heatwaves – as witnessed this summer – can push birds to their physiological limits, leading to lethal dehydration. In drought times, birds may also congregate at remaining, dwindling water spots, causing conditions ripe for the spread of disease.
At the Salton Sea, declining inflows in the wake of the 2003 Imperial Valley to San Diego transfer is resulting in exposed playa, which creates significant air quality problems for communities that already suffer high asthma rates. The shrinking lake impacts wildlife too: colonial seabirds began abandoning nesting sites en masse in 2013, and shallow, marshy habitat areas at the sea’s edge have begun to rapidly vanish. As less water flows into the Sea, it is becoming more saline and inhospitable to birds, fish, and insects. In the Colorado River Delta, the near complete elimination of flows resulted in an 80% reduction of what had been an expansive, 1.5 million acre ecosystem of wetlands and riparian forests.
In the past couple of years, we have gotten a glimpse of how climate change impacts will compound with shattering consequences for the environment. With the increase in hot, windy, and dry days, fire season has more than doubled since 1973 in many parts of the West. Forests devastated by 20 years of beetle kill, drought stress, and low soil moisture have burned at record rates. In 2020, Colorado’s Grizzly Creek Fire burned more than 32,000 acres on the Colorado River above Glenwood Springs, and in 2021 rainstorms over the burn area triggered mudslides, repeatedly closing Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, interrupting travel and trade, and choking the Colorado River, clogging fish breeding grounds and dumping untold volumes of ash and sediment into the water supply.
2021 river temperatures up to 80º F impacted numerous recreational fisheries leading to voluntary and mandatory closures. Warm rivers also boost populations of non-native bass and pike, which prey on protected Colorado River native fishes including the razorback sucker and humpback chub. 2021 also saw rivers like the Dolores go completely dry, which is not friendly habitat for any kind of fish.
This is a sobering and scary time for everyone and everything that depends on the Colorado River.
As Congress considers priorities and funding opportunities, Audubon supports increasing federal investments and leadership for the Colorado River Basin and natural resources across the West. After this year’s historic drought and catastrophic wildfires, we urge Congress to ensure that federal agencies receive critically needed resources to prepare now for the effects of climate change by promoting nature-based solutions for restoring watersheds and ecosystems. In addition, Congress has several pending bills with bipartisan support that respond to the many needs of tribal communities and western states’ water supply needs that we are supporting, including access to clean water and water settlements. It is imperative that our communities have the resources they need to prepare for and respond to the drought crisis that touches every living thing.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify and I would be happy to answers your questions.