Federal Priorities for a Secure Water Future in the West

How Audubon will work with a new Congress and Administration to advocate for people and birds.

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Climate change will continue to impact the West, and particularly its water supply—the many impacts include longer and more damaging wildfire seasons as well as prolonged drought. Federal leadership and action are needed to address the climate crisis. With the 117th Congress now in session, Audubon is advocating at the federal level for funding and policy priorities that restore habitat, protect communities, and support birds through proactive water management and conservation.

The federal budget provides many opportunities to invest in drought response and resilience. We know that droughts and their impacts will become even more common and severe, especially in an over-allocated system like the Colorado River. Investments that make our water systems more resilient while meeting the needs of birds and people are critical.

There are several avenues in which Audubon is looking to secure funding for birds and the places they need.

Western Water Federal Funding Recommendations

We support multi-benefit projects that support rivers, wetlands, communities, and water users, like the WaterSMART Drought Response Program and the Cooperative Watershed Management Program.

Here are a few of our specific funding recommendations for the Department of Interior:

  • WaterSMART Drought Response: $14 million
  • Cooperative Watershed Management Program: $20 million
  • Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration program: $15 million
  • Land and Water Conservation Fund for the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, and others: $100 million

Robust implementation and funding of these programs will prioritize climate resilience and a healthier watershed with support from many stakeholders in the West. These programs support critical partnerships working on a variety of issues, such as endangered fish recovery, important bird habitat creation, water quality protection, U.S. treaty obligation fulfilment with Mexico, and collaborative partnerships development.

Here are a few of our specific funding recommendations for the Department of Agriculture:

Conservation programs authorized through the Farm Bill offer some of the best opportunities to help producers harmonize agricultural uses with other important demands in the Colorado River Basin. We recommend full mandatory funding for critical conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), and the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations program (PL-566 Small Watershed Program). For the PL-566 Small Watershed Program, we also recommend $175 million in discretionary funding.

After multiple years of incredibly destructive wildfire seasons due to historic drought and increasing climate change threats, wildfire management and mitigation activities led by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), in coordination with other federal, state, and local agencies, will continue to need appropriations and attention from Congress. In the arid West, forests are the watersheds for our water supplies. The effects of wildfires on river health, specifically major western rivers such as the Colorado River, are significant. They include post-fire flooding, debris flows, erosion, and the threat of potentially toxic debris getting into our rivers and water supply. In addition to supporting level or increased appropriations for USFS wildfire appropriations, Audubon supports measures that ensure that USFS fills staffing vacancies across national forest districts.

Audubon will be tracking these—and other—budget items throughout 2021 as the budget and appropriations process unfolds.

Western Water Federal Policy Recommendations

In addition to funding, the Federal government, particularly the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), play important leadership roles in water in the west. USGS leads much of the science that guides western water use and planning and Reclamation manages water resources, including the Colorado River, Central Valley Project (CVP), the Klamath Project, and the San Joaquin River Restoration Program. Audubon is prioritizing the following legislation and policy recommendations for these agencies:

United States Geological Survey

  • Pass Saline Lakes Research Program Legislation - Last year, Audubon worked hard to support legislation (S. 4190, Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act of 2020) that would authorize funding for the USGS to study the network of landlocked saltwater lakes fringed with wetlands that dot the Intermountain West. These unique ecosystems are critical for migratory birds, but drought, water diversions, and climate change threaten the viability of these lakes for birds and surrounding communities. Audubon encourages the reintroduction and passage of legislation to study and provide recommendations to protect saline lakes across the Great Basin.

Bureau of Reclamation

  • Engage diverse stakeholders in Colorado River 2007 Interim Operating Guidelines – Audubon would like to see a wide array of stakeholders (including Tribal nations, farmers, and environmental groups) included for the renegotiation of the Colorado River 2007 Interim Operating Guidelines, which are set to expire in 2026. These agreements are fundamental to Colorado River operations and setting cooperative commitments for water conservation. Reclamation’s leadership in these efforts is critical.
  • Support the Water and Tribes Initiative – Reclamation should help Tribal nations to secure universal access to clean water in the Colorado River Basin and allow Tribes to maximize benefits from their water rights. Too many Tribes with legal rights to Colorado River water have either not found ways to realize the full benefits of their rights or not settled the terms of their rights with the federal government.
  • Increase engagement in the Salton Sea – Audubon urges the federal government to reengage with the state of California to lead inter-agency coordination efforts, ensure available funds are directed to shovel-ready projects, fully staff federal agency positions at the Sea, and prioritize federal permit processes at the Sea. Since 2003, over 8,000 acres of federally owned land has been exposed at the Salton Sea, exposing tens of thousands of acres of playa, increasing dust pollution that deteriorates regional air quality, reducing habitat for birds and other wildlife at the Sea, and affecting public health. Audubon is supportive of legislation (H.R. 8775, Salton Sea Public Health and Environmental Protection Act of 2020) introduced last year to streamline authority and coordination of federal programs in the Salton Sea.
  • Fully implement the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) - Reclamation should protect existing funding, secure additional funding sources, and facilitate supportive policy decisions. Enacted in 1992, the CVPIA mandated changes in how Reclamation operates the CVP to support protection, restoration, and enhancement of fish and wildlife. This Act has never been fully achieved and recent policy decisions by Reclamation will further delay and limit Reclamation’s ability to achieve this law. Reclamation should use all tools at its disposal to deliver full, reliable water supplies to wildlife refuges through supporting voluntary water transfers and agreements with the State of California. Last year, Reclamation made haphazard changes in accounting guidelines that will reduce collections from CVP water and power contractors that are necessary to support the CVP Restoration Fund. The Restoration Fund currently receives annual appropriations of approximately $54 million for refuge water supply, fish restoration, and compliance with the Endangered Species Act and other laws. We encourage Reclamation to reverse its rushed accounting guidelines decision to provide adequate public process and to ensure that the Restoration Fund remains stable and fully funded.
  • Across the West, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wildlife refuge system has faced multiple years of challenges with a lack of operational funding and staffing, and some also lack sufficient water. Existing refuges would benefit from focused attention and planning around water management, with potentially new water acquisitions, and leveraged conservation through tools like conservation easements adjacent to or near existing refuges (expanding the suitable habitat for priority waterbirds and shorebirds).  
  • Prevent Shasta Dam Raise – Reclamation should deny attempts to raise the Shasta Dam, which would waste time and money and result in protracted litigation. Raising Shasta Dam would also flood local tribal land and portions of the river currently designated as protected under California’s Wild and Scenic River Act (this would undermine state jurisdiction over protecting resources for biological and cultural importance). The proposals to raise the dam rely on questionable science and overstate the water supply benefits. The same amount of funding spent on water conservation or groundwater recharge would likely result in more water and ecological benefits. Reclamation should use existing authorities to deny attempts to raise Shasta Dam.

Given the new Congress and the new Administration, Audubon and our large network of advocates have a great opportunity to advocate for birds and the places they need. Attention to these water issues is important to millions of people and birds in the West. Federal dollars and thoughtful planning will help address the increasing effects of climate change and drought that risk the economic and environmental health and vitality of the American West. Ultimately, federal investments and attention will help all of our communities and improve the health of rivers and lakes —we’re glad you’re ready to speak up for these priorities with us.