The western half of the United States is facing multiple, connected crises: long-term megadrought, dangerous heat waves, and the onset of a disastrous fire season. Water levels are at historic lows, threatening communities, farmers, birds and wildlife, and habitat. Unfortunately, with most of summer still ahead of us, these challenging conditions show no sign of dissipating and could threaten water supplies, communities, public health, and birds as well as critical ecosystems for months, if not longer.
News of the compounding drought, temperature, and fire threats is rightfully making national headlines—drawing much-needed federal attention to these climate impacts. In April, the Biden Administration created an Interagency Working Group to focus on drought relief, chaired by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. In addition, multiple Congressional hearings focused on the need for addressing western water challenges, ranging from federal appropriations to legislative solutions to proposals from agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. And Audubon is actively engaged in supporting drought response and water conservation to protect birds and people. In the short-term, we’re supporting immediate disaster relief for communities hit hardest by compounding issues of drought, fire, COVID-19, and historic inequalities. Over the long-term, we’re advocating for stronger science, more federal engagement and coordination, increased funding, and more protections for natural resources to promote solutions that benefit birds and build resilient communities and ecosystems.
Here’s what we’re working on at the federal level:
Federal FY22 Appropriations
The federal government’s budget priorities are in discussion, including strong support for investments for tackling the climate crisis, rebuilding communities, and protecting birds, wildlife, and ecosystems. The House of Representatives is now moving appropriations bills forward and Audubon is monitoring and advocating a variety of projects and programs for western water funding, including:
- WaterSMART Drought Response: the budget includes $16.5 million for this critical program that funds projects to increase water supply reliability and resilience. Audubon supports this increased funding level.
- Cooperative Watershed Management Program: the budget only included $2.25 million for this program, which supports the development and implementation of community-led water planning projects. Audubon urges Congress to fully fund this program at $20 million to move forward with these multi-benefit watershed projects.
- Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration program: the budget included only $1 million for this newly authorized program. Audubon is encouraging Congress to fully fund this program at $15 million to jump start ecosystem restoration projects in the West.
There is momentum for passing infrastructure legislation in 2021. Audubon is tracking when, how, and what this process will entail, to ensure our infrastructure priorities are included in any potential legislation. These priorities include, among others, additional funding for:
- The WaterSMART and Bureau of Reclamation programs listed above;
- Ecosystem restoration and endangered species recovery programs;
- Expanding water recycling and reuse projects, where appropriate;
- Increasing municipal water conservation, desalination, and salinity control measures;
- Upgrading irrigation water delivery infrastructure in ways that also deliver ecosystem benefits;
- Improved infrastructure for Navajo Nation water supply projects;
- Projects that prevent, control, and manage invasive species ultimately improving ecosystem and watershed health;
- Projects to upgrade aging agricultural infrastructure;
- Conservation programs included in the Farm Bill; and
- Wildland fire management and forest landscape restoration programs.
Audubon is also working to ensure that natural infrastructure is included as a priority in an infrastructure package. Building with nature can help address climate change while supporting resilient communities, restoring habitat, and providing long-term economic benefits. In the West, natural infrastructure projects can include wetlands restoration, natural groundwater storage, or forest management systems.
Other Policy Recommendations
Audubon supports a variety of federal legislation aimed at promoting water conservation, improving science and monitoring, supporting Tribal and community water rights, and increasing federal engagement in water and drought management issues. In particular, in the 117th Congress, we support and urge swift passage of the following pieces of legislation:
- The Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act of 2021. Recognizing the ecological and economic benefits of saline (salt) lakes in the American West, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) introduced this bill. Building upon scientific findings that saline lakes across the West provide interconnected bird habitats—as documented in Audubon’s 2017 Water and Birds in the Arid West report—this legislation will establish 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. This would be the U.S. government’s first coordinated regional assessment of Great Basin saline lakes—and a huge win for birds.
- Representative Ruiz (D-CA) recently introduced a new bill (H.R. 3877) to promote additional federal engagement at the Salton Sea. This bill would authorize Reclamation to partner on projects to improve air and water quality, restore habitat, and address public health issues. The bill would also increase the amount Reclamation is able to spend at the Salton Sea from $10 million to $250 million. Audubon’s Frank Ruiz (no relation to the Congressman), testified before Congress in support of this funding and coordination.
- The Water for Conservation and Farming Act, reintroduced by Senators Merkley and Wyden (D-OR) would reauthorize the Cooperative Watershed Management Program and the increase in authorized appropriations to $40 million. The bill would also expand eligible applicants and establish a competitive grant program focusing on ecosystem benefits, native species restoration, climate mitigation, invasive species protection, ecosystem restoration, fishing opportunities, and river-based recreation.
We’ll keep you posted as this legislation moves forward. Be sure to sign up for our Western Water Action Network to get the most updated information.