Western Water News

Getting Water to Places Birds Need Most

Audubon’s California water policy priorities in 2022.

While December’s rains provided a bit of respite, Californians and the birds of the Pacific Flyway continue to struggle through the ongoing drought. Migratory and wetland-dependent bird species have already lost over 90 percent of California’s natural wetlands, and even in wet years they lack adequate, high-quality habitat for foraging, resting, and breeding. As this drought persists, Audubon and our partners must work with urgency to find, deliver, and protect water supplies for birds.

In 2022, Audubon California is prioritizing four water policy strategies to bolster birds’ resilience through this drought.

  • Ensuring agencies deliver the water needed to create habitat on our last remaining wildlife refuges and to post-harvest rice fields that are providing surrogate habitat, while identifying opportunities to reconnect floodplains and improve ecosystem function to benefit fish, birds, and people.
  • Protecting managed wetlands that depend on groundwater during the implementation of California’s groundwater protection law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).
  • Restoring habitat at the Salton Sea, advocating for protections for the Sea and local communities and pushing efforts for sustainability on the Colorado River, the source of water for the Salton Sea.
  • Increasing water supplies and financial resources for the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, the staging and molting ground for millions of migratory waterfowl every year.

Investing in California’s Wetlands

Audubon is focused on conserving, improving, and expanding California’s last 220,000 acres of wetlands in the Central Valley. At one time, wetlands sprawled across four million of the Valley’s 13 million acres and supported tens of millions of birds. But after agriculture and urban development drained lakes, plowed wetlands, cleared riverside forests, and disconnected floodplains, bird populations declined by the millions and continue to struggle.

Wetland-dependent birds like migratory shorebirds, ducks, and geese need every acre still available and rely on a mosaic of managed wetlands across the Valley. These areas are spread across public and private lands, and are supplemented by bird-friendly agriculture, such as rice fields that are strategically flooded after harvest. Nearly all struggle to get access to adequate water supplies to provide habitat, especially during drought.

In 2022, Audubon is calling on state and federal decision-makers to invest in wetlands on the same scale as investments in water infrastructure to benefit agriculture, industry, and large cities. These investments will improve water delivery systems to refuges, acquire long-term water rights for sensitive ecosystems, and promote natural infrastructure that support floodplain reconnection and groundwater recharge. Increased investment in water for wetlands is essential if the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful and the Newsom administration’s “30 by 30” initiatives are to be successful in California.

State and federal public lands deserve at least as much taxpayer investment as private water delivery structures. For example, last year, the State of California dedicated $100 million in public funds to repair water delivery structures damaged by subsidence caused by over pumping groundwater. It’s likely that hundreds of millions more in federal taxpayer dollars will be invested in coming years to repair water delivery systems that benefit private landowners. While Audubon recognizes the importance of these public investments, we are working to ensure that investments are matched with funding for the community drinking water and the environment.

Protection of Managed Wetlands

As California wrestles with reducing reliance on groundwater and implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), managed wetlands and ecosystems that rely on groundwater are increasingly at risk of losing an important source of water. In 2022, Audubon and our partners will be working with the California Department of Water Resources, the Department of Fish & Wildlife, private landowners, and groundwater sustainability agencies to ensure that habitats that depend on groundwater are protected in the implementation of SGMA.

Audubon studied proposed groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) in key areas in the state where implementation of the plans will have direct consequences for thousands of acres of managed wetlands. Many of these wetlands rely entirely on groundwater to provide essential habitat for migratory birds. In our review of GSPs, only a handful even acknowledged the wetlands in their basin, and only one consider wetland groundwater needs. None of the GSPs proposed adequate protections or supplies for wetlands or wildlife.

Audubon is calling on the State of California to fulfill its public trust obligations to protect birds and critical habitats like wetlands as SGMA is implemented. With a broad coalition of wetland advocates, Audubon will pursue advocacy with the relevant agencies and Legislature and consider crafting legislation and other policy solutions to ensure these last remaining wetlands receive the water birds need.

Restoring Bird Habitat at the Salton Sea

In 2021, Audubon and our partners helped secure a three-year commitment for $220 million to be invested in projects to reduce dust emissions and create habitat at the Salton Sea. It is all part of the implementation of an agreement between the State of California, the Imperial Irrigation District, and stakeholders including Audubon, which mandates that over 29,000 acres of dust suppression and habitat projects be completed by 2029.

In 2022, Audubon is prioritizing securing the second payment in the three-year commitment, this time approximately $100 million for projects. Some of this funding may support Audubon’s Bombay Beach habitat restoration project which will protect and enhance wetland habitat, as well as provide dust suppression near the town of Bombay Beach on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea.

A sustainable Salton Sea that is managed for habitat and dust control to ensure improvements to air quality is integral to Audubon’s advocacy for water supply sustainability on the Colorado River, since the Colorado River is the primary source of water sustaining the Salton Sea. Ongoing efforts to find sustainable water solutions on the Colorado River are integrally connected with the Salton Sea.  

The Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

Audubon California is working with the Klamath Basin Audubon Society, Portland Audubon, and other partners to improve conditions at the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, which are essential stop-over sites on the Pacific Flyway. For decades, the refuges have not received enough water to support the wetlands needed by migratory birds. 

In 2020, more than 60,000 birds died due to an outbreak of botulism. A similar disaster was avoided in 2021, likely because there was so little habitat available that many birds skipped past the Klamath refuges during their migration.

In addition to advocating for the $162 million in federal funding from the infrastructure bill to support water acquisition and infrastructure improvements, Audubon continues to work to raise the public profile of this important refuge. Additional state and federal funding will be essential to achieve even basic reliable water supplies for this lynchpin in the Pacific Flyway.


Stay abreast of Audubon

Get updates about our conservation work and how to help birds.