How We Might Address the Water Crisis for the Colorado River and Birds in the West

Solutions exist but need to be scaled up for the next year and beyond.

The water crisis in the West is well documented—we focused on this in a recent post—but we’re now in unchartered territory.

Some have said the West is now in the bullseye of climate change impacts. What we need now are realistic, scalable solutions, some of which Audubon and partners have pursued or implemented. These approaches to addressing water resilience and river health need to be grown and used basinwide so that they can have a meaningful impact for key rivers, including the Colorado River and the Rio Grande, and the birds that rely on them.

And while we need immediate actions to “stop the bleeding” of this emergency room crisis for rivers and our water supplies, we also need to plan for 5 years from now, 20 years from now, and beyond.

One effort that could be expanded upon and replicated is found in the Colorado Water Plan, the State of Colorado’s plan that will guide state investments and water priorities for years to come. Resiliency is a core pillar in the updated draft of the Plan, which is now open for public comment in the process of its first update since 2015. The new draft Plan acknowledges the need for and inclusion of river health assessment frameworks, stream construction guidance, nature-based solutions, green infrastructure strategies and techniques, and water-dependent native species data coordination and access. Resilience requires a baseline understanding of our watershed and river systems to support sustainable and positive management. Rivers and river health are a crucial part of how we meet our water challenges in Colorado. We need to understand river health conditions more and easily access data to manage and restore this invaluable resource nimbly. Kingfishers, American Dipper, Snowy Egret, and Colorado's water-resilient future depend on public engagement in the update of the Colorado Water Plan.

In central New Mexico, along the “Isleta Reach” of the Rio Grande that extends 34 miles south of Albuquerque, Audubon and partners are demonstrating how ecologic and agricultural interests can work collaboratively towards a more resilient river. The Isleta Reach has remarkable geography that includes complex, multi-aged cottonwood-willow forests, vibrant farms, small cities, historic villages and fantastic views. Old-growth cottonwood-dominated forests provide food and shelter for migratory and resident bird species, including Summer Tanagers, Cooper’s Hawk, and the threatened Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Dense stands of Coyote Willow along the bankline support some of the last remaining populations of the endangered Southwestern Willow-flycatcher, as well as other declining riparian species such as Bell’s Vireo. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and Audubon Southwest are collaborating on conservation and resiliency actions for this agro-ecosystem including both environmental water leases and on-the-ground habitat improvements. Audubon also manages the Isleta Reach Stewardship Association, a citizens group focused on the long term health of the Isleta Reach’s beautiful river corridor.

As climate change continues to aridify the Colorado River basin, and water availability continues to decline, the provisions in Minute 323 to share water shortages proportionally—equitably—stands as a model of good management. It might even be a helpful model for the seven U.S. states on the Colorado River (Ariz., Calif., Colo., N.M., Nev., Utah, and Wyo.) that must develop shortage-sharing agreements among themselves sufficient to adapt to the river’s declining water supply. Minute 323’s impact goes further: under its provisions, the United States committed millions of dollars to help upgrade agricultural water supply infrastructure in the Mexicali Valley, and Mexico has conserved and stored more than 150,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead in the United States, helping to prop up water storage in a reservoir that is dwindling too quickly.

Under Minute 323, the United States and Mexico successfully began to manage the declining Colorado River water supply, helping to improve conditions for water users in both countries, while also making environmental water commitments. The Colorado River Delta is known to support some 380 bird species including Tree Swallow, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Colorado River water users, river lovers, and birdwatchers alike owe a debt of gratitude to the leaders who negotiated Minute 323, and should ask for nothing less from future Colorado River management agreements.

Investments by state and federal governments to incentivize conservation and multi-benefit projects are also essential. This year, with Audubon’s support, the Arizona legislature made a critical down payment on improving Arizona’s water outlook. Nearly $440 million is now dedicated to conservation and water reliability projects throughout the state, including unprecedented funding for improving surface water flows, groundwater recharge and aquifer health, and landscape watershed protection. This funding—if leveraged wisely—can help jump-start the long-term transformation needed to adapt and thrive in our new reality of drought and water scarcity supercharged by climate change. Of course, we know there is more the state can and should do—as the legislature missed a tremendous opportunity to address the groundwater challenges we face throughout Arizona.

Continuing on the same path will only lead to less water certainty and significant risks to our way of life in the West. This affects our communities, economies, livelihoods, and the cultural and recreational connections we have to the outdoor places we cherish. 

What’s needed now, urgently, is for federal and state water managers to work in partnership with Tribes and other stakeholders to build confidence in the enduring management of the Colorado River (and to build something similar for the Rio Grande). This requires focus and dedicated resources to develop and implement plans that put water demands into balance with supplies—moving beyond year-to-year reactions to imminent risks to engage in planning that promotes water conservation. Water conservation means using less water, preferably managed in a way that both respects our system of water rights and supports society’s 21st century values, including economic stability for urban and rural communities, the ability for Native American Tribes to realize benefit from their water rights, and reliable water supplies for nature.

People and birds rely on the rivers of the West, and Audubon will continue to work with partners to advocate for and implement solutions. We know solutions that work. Water conservation pilots implemented throughout the Colorado River basin and across municipal and agricultural sectors have been successful. Birds tell us that investments in infrastructure upgrades have durably made water uses more efficient, and investments in habitat restoration have benefited ecosystems. Flexible water sharing mechanisms have modernized water uses while protecting legal water rights and helped Tribes secure benefits. It is high time to begin implementing these solutions at scale—for the rivers and all who depend on them.