Building a Positive Water Future: Western Water Highlights in 2019

By protecting water resources, Audubon worked to protect people and birds in the arid West.

From contributions in policy agreements to thought leadership and science—which protect birds and the places they need—Audubon’s Western Water team accomplished a great deal in 2019. Our work with decision-makers to pass the groundbreaking Drought Contingency Plan for the Colorado River was a key milestone, and the recognition of our Colorado River Director was timely, as we reflect on a year that was our most productive year yet.

Strong collaboration and science-based conservation drives Audubon’s work on solutions for water management and water policies that align habitat protection and restoration with improved water supplies for communities along the Colorado River and Delta, across western saline lakes, in California’s Central Valley, and along the Rio Grande. To be most effective, we need an engaged and informed grassroots network of members, local chapters and state offices throughout the West. While solving these water challenges is not done, here is a look back at our 2019 highlights and wins.

Drought Contingency Plan Will Help Protect 40 Million People and 400 Species of Birds
In April, Congress passed the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), landmark legislation that addresses impending water shortages on the Colorado River. As temperatures continue to rise and the West becomes increasingly arid, water in the Colorado River Basin will become an even more important resource for economies and cities in the basin, as well as the millions of acres of farmland and birds like the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Yellow Warbler. Officially adopted by the states in May, the DCP imposes new operating rules for reduced water use in times of shortage and authorizes storage of conserved water in the main reservoirs. The DCP and Minute 323, the companion drought agreement between the U.S. and Mexico signed in 2017, are both agreements that represent a bridge strategy between the old ways of doing business on the Colorado River and the new ways that water users must adopt as the drought continues and the climate warms. Audubon worked strategically throughout the basin to build coalitions, engage bird-friendly businesses and create beer collaborations, and forge and rely on relationships with local, state and federal leaders. As the new plans are implemented, Audubon will continue to work with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the basin states, partners in Mexico, tribal leaders, municipalities, agricultural partners, and more.

With the new drought plan in place, Lake Mead will enter ‘Tier Zero’ operations in 2020. For more, see New York Times or USA TODAY coverage of the DCP which include Audubon’s perspective.

Utah Recognizes Importance of Ensuring Adequate Water Flows to Great Salt Lake and Wetlands
A resolution adopted unanimously by the Utah Legislature and signed by Governor Gary Herbert recognizes the critical importance of ensuring adequate water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands. Drying lake systems in the West and around the globe have produced devastating effects, leaving many communities with limited and costly options for mitigating the negative impacts from dust, harm to birds and other wildlife habitats, and loss of livelihoods. The resolution sets the stage for a collaborative process among a wide-range of stakeholders to avoid serious impacts in Utah by developing policy recommendations and other solutions for maintaining a healthy and sustainable ecosystem at the Western Hemisphere’s most important salt lake threatened by water diversions. Audubon was actively engaged in supporting this resolution and other forward-looking policies such as water banking, along with the brine shrimp industry, mineral industry, publicly owned wastewater treatment operations, hunting and recreation, and conservation groups. Additionally, Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary gained management of key shorebird habitat adding to our 3,000 acre sanctuary on the shoreline of Great Salt Lake.

Audubon New Mexico Secures Important Water Right That Supports Birds and People
New Mexicans finally have a tool for protecting water in rivers. This is a big deal because many rivers in New Mexico are over-allocated—there are more water rights on paper than wet water in the rivers. As of November, the State Engineer approved Audubon New Mexico’s application: In-Stream-Flow on the Rio Gallinas. This permit represents a historic step forward for New Mexican rivers and now allows private water right holders the option to lease or sell their water for environmental purposes. Audubon’s permit allows for a 5-year lease of an agricultural water right that will benefit the ecology of the Rio Gallinas, a tributary of the Chama River in northern New Mexico.

Arizona Legislature Strikes Deal that Is a Win for Birds, Water, and Public Lands
After the heavy lift for Arizona to adopt the DCP and then months of budget negotiations, Arizona lawmakers struck a deal giving the state’s budget a win for birds, water, and public lands by including funding for invasive plant removal and replacement, wastewater infrastructure, and water department staff. Audubon and partners also had repeat opportunities to defend against short-sighted proposals that weaken existing protections of groundwater.

As in past legislative sessions – and anticipated again in 2020, Audubon Arizona advocated for (or in some cases, against) several bills directly by testifying in committees, talking directly with lawmakers, and engaging partner organizations. Audubon’s multi-state grassroots effort to protect rivers like the Colorado River and its tributaries, the Western Rivers Action Network, sent more than 3,000 letters and e-mails to state and federal lawmakers to let them know we support actions that protect precious water resources and the habitat birds need.

Audubon Report Shows Outdoor Recreation along Arizona’s Waterways Is a $13.5 Billion Industry, Ranked Higher than Golf and Mining
Arizona’s waterways, enjoyed by more than 1.5 million residents each year, contribute $13.5 billion to the state’s economy annually and support 114,000 jobs. This is according to Audubon Arizona’s 2019 report: The Economic Impact of Arizona’s Rivers, Lakes, and Streams: How water-based outdoor recreation contributes to statewide and local economies. The study was completed with guidance from business, civic, governmental, outdoor recreation, conservation, and tourism representatives and conducted by economics research firm Southwick Associates. The study received statewide press—see Audubon experts on Arizona PBS and KJZZ’s The Show—and continues to be an important resource for business leaders and decision-makers around the state.

While Salton Sea Is in Crisis, Still an Oasis for Birds
The rapidly changing Salton Sea in California holds on as a migratory bird oasis despite dramatic drying and years of delays in funded restoration projects. With new state leadership from Governor Gavin Newsom and Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot (and others) publicly committing to solving the issues plaguing the Salton Sea, and an engaged State Water Resources Control Board and local leadership, Audubon and partners see good opportunities for these officials to break through the remaining obstacles to progress and find a productive way forward. With this energy, October saw a successful Salton Sea Summit that brought together nearly 250 attendees from local, state, federal, and tribal agencies, academic, business, and conservation representatives, scientists and advocates.

Amid decreasing water levels and exposed playas, Audubon scientists created an innovative calculator to find out how much water birds and people need at the Salton Sea and continue to share scientific findings with our agency partners and the public. Still, the Salton Sea’s iconic pelicans and cormorants are quickly becoming a thing of the past—each year that passes ratchets up concern around the Sea’s collapse.

Reactivating Floodplains in Central California
Audubon and partners work to reactivate the natural floodplain in the Central Valley caught the attention of California’s new administration this year because of the multiple benefits to people and wildlife. Too often characterized as conflict – fish versus farm, urban versus rural, north versus south – California’s water policy may now be looking towards long-term solutions. This broader effort builds upon Audubon California’s success in collaborative projects with agricultural irrigators and this year’s protection of 90 percent of threatened Tricolored Blackbirds colonies.  

A Growing Colorado Works to Balance Water Legacy
The four-year-old Colorado Water Plan—the Centennial State’s proactive response to drought, flood, unpredictable water supplies, climate change, and a booming population that is likely to rise from 5.7 million today to nearly 9 million Coloradans in the next 30 years—is one priority for Audubon and partners to address river health and water sustainability issues. In addition to efforts to secure annual state funding, Audubon is pleased to see the plan is now guaranteed some of the annual $100 million needed to implement the plan. In November, Colorado voters approved Proposition DD to legalize sports betting which will result in an estimated $12 million to $29 million annually, the majority of which will go toward the Water Plan. With your help, we will focus on directing these funds towards the conservation elements of the plan.

With a seat on the environmental work group to investigate Demand Management as a tool to reduce water use (part of the DCP), Audubon is working closely with leaders such as Becky Mitchell—director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and on the Upper Colorado River Commission—to learn how she’s leading Colorado through water milestones.

Our collaborative Ranching in the New Normal film project with American Rivers takes a peek into the water story of three Colorado ranches who irrigate and work to adapt to increasingly drier conditions while keeping hope for their land and water legacy.  

Audubon’s Network Makes the Difference in the Field
Thanks to chapter-led efforts, birds were front of mind for decision-makers through restoration projects, bird surveys, bird festivals, and through submission of comments about the impacts to birds and their habitats—Audubon’s network sent nearly 25,000 comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking them not to delist the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo from the Endangered Species Act. Audubon members also engage directly with state legislators to talk about our water future through advocacy days such as Western Rivers Day in Arizona too.

In Yuma, Arizona, we declared six new IBA’s as part of the Yuma Bird, Nature and History Festival. From western Colorado, Grand Valley Audubon Society is making a huge difference by restoring bird habitat along the Colorado River. In northern Nevada, local members collaborated to put on the Spring Wings Bird Festival and celebrate the Lahontan Valley Wetlands WHSRN designation. And with years of birding knowledge from members in Utah, Audubon was able to provide meaningful management suggestions to Utah’s Department of Wildlife Resources in developing the Willard Spur Waterfowl Management Area. Meanwhile, California communities around the Salton Sea are working together to protect human health and conserve critical bird habitats through the Eyes on the Sea program.  

Audubon Western Water Leaders Honored
Jennifer Pitt, Audubon’s Colorado River Program Director, was honored with a leadership award for her visionary Colorado River work. Water Education Colorado bestows the award to a Coloradan who has a body of work in the field of water resources benefiting the Colorado public. And last month, during the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Group’s biennial meeting in Panama, Audubon’s Stanley Senner received the Allan Baker Lifetime Achievement Award for Shorebird Conservation, an honor given to an individual who has made impactful contributions to preserve migratory shorebirds and the places they need. During his career, Senner has been integral to many Audubon efforts including the preservation of saline lakes in the Intermountain West.

Expanding Audubon’s impact in Western Water took a leap forward in 2019 with leadership from areas all over the West. Thank you for your contribution – of time, expertise, and donations – to our work!