Drought? This Is What Climate Change Looks like in the West

A personal take on Audubon’s work to make the arid West more livable for people and birds.
Great Blue Heron.

Living back East for a few years, I missed the expansive bright blue skies of the Rockies. Now that I’ve returned to the West, I’m remembering the smoky haze that fills the sky. I’m remembering how the smell of summer has turned into the smell of smoke from wildfires. How the ash from fires hundreds of miles away sometimes coats your car and porch furniture. But it’s getting worse.

I’m used to the seasonality of streams—the spring runoff that slows to a trickle with hot summer days. My kids would wait for the monsoon storms to bring back the water flowing to our arroyo. But it was shocking to see how low the rivers and streams got so early this year. Recently, some southwestern states have seen abundant monsoonal rainfall, with some intense flooding. But in Utah, Nevada, California, and parts of the Northwest, the dryness and record-setting heat waves have intensified large wildfires. The combination of drought and heatwaves are pushing birds to their limits, leading to lethal dehydration.

Welcome drought.

There's a lot to unpack in that word. Decades of drought in the West seem to be hitting a tipping point, garnering national attention. More and more, people are recognizing this isn’t just a drought. This isn’t temporary.

It’s fires, it’s decreasing water supplies, it’s air quality issues, it’s high temperatures, and unpredictable weather. It’s an era of extremes.

This summer has turned into the worst water year for many farmers and ranchers, for wildlife managers, for businesses and communities concerned about their water supplies. We urgently need to adapt and better prepare for constant drought and for extremes to become more common. As my colleague said recently, “This is climate change stealing your water.”

Climate change is increasingly impacting all of us—threatening the health of millions of birds, our food supplies and economies, our air quality, and the water security for all of us. It’s starting to affect our way of life.

And this affects birds. The future of several bird species, including some protected by the Endangered Species Act, is tied to the health of rivers and lakes. We’ve already lost too many wetlands and riparian habitats across the West and birds are pushed to congregate in high concentrations in the last places left with water. You might recall the death of 40,000 ducks from avian botulism last year due to overcrowded conditions with limited water and habitat left at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.  

How bad is this drought? 2021 is shaping up to be the driest year in the last century.

Everywhere in the West we see signs of the ongoing megadrought. Here are a few indicators that we are concerned about at Audubon:

  • Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River (and in the country), has officially reached its lowest water level in history—and it’s expected to continue dropping.
  • Great Salt Lake reached its lowest lake level ever recorded, and will continue to drop this year, maybe even by a foot more.
  • Years of reduced inflows, along with drought and a warming climate, continue to shrink the Salton Sea in California, impacting the health of surrounding communities and the available habitat and food sources for migratory birds.
  • Our last remaining wetlands in California’s Central Valley—essential Pacific Flyway habitat for waterfowl—are expected to receive only about 57% of their water supply.
  • In rural Arizona, unlimited groundwater pumping (80% of the state has no groundwater management!) is causing wells to go dry and further stressing flows in rivers and streams.
  • The Klamath River Basin’s drought is testing everything:  There's not enough water to meet all the demands from farmers, tribes, and wildlife, including endangered fish.
  • The Southwest’s other major river basin—the Rio Grande—is also historically dry.

At Great Salt Lake, the 17 named islands that usually exist on the lake, where nesting birds are protected from predators, are now peninsulas. In this “Year of the Shorebird” as designated by Utah’s Governor, the decreased water coming into the shrinking lake is affecting the whole ecosystem with potentially hemispheric implications. Great Salt Lake and its surrounding wetlands create vital habitat in the Western Hemisphere for millions of breeding and migrating shorebirds including more than 56% of the global population of American Avocets and nearly 30% of the global population of Wilson’s Phalaropes. If nothing is done to reverse course, Great Salt Lake risks suffering the fate of other large, saline lakes around the world, the loss of which invariably triggers dramatic harm to communities, local business, and human health.

In the West, we are used to competing demands for scarce water for farms, cities and rural communities, hydropower, recreation, and the environment (typically last in consideration) which can lead to conflict. Audubon’s Western Water team continues to push for all of us to face these risks and plan for water shortages with a changing climate in mind.

I keep thinking of that folk song “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More” from my childhood. My extended family lived through the Dust Bowl in Texas and Oklahoma and went into dryland ranching. This year doesn’t feel like business as usual—it feels like the cusp of another Dust Bowl.

New approaches are needed to adapt to, respond to, and mitigate the compounding and extreme risks of climate change to communities, economies, ecosystems, and the water resources that support them.

This is why Audubon is working in state capitals and in Washington, D.C. to advocate for sensible policies and funding that benefit birds and communities alike. We have worked to ensure that the needs of birds and habitat aren’t carved out of policy decisions and water management.

Audubon is also working to secure water to enhance habitats where water is most needed. Working with partners, we continue to enable and secure water flows in rivers in places like Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, California, and Arizona. And through our science, we are improving our understanding of the long-term health of priority places for birds and how we might better manage the limited water availability into the future. 

With drought conditions persisting now into a third decade and climate change increasingly impacting water supplies and habitat in the West, we urgently need inclusive and equitable long-lasting water solutions for climate resilience.

Please join us in advocating for policies, funding, and on-the-ground actions that result in sustainable change.