Momentum Gaining on Important Water Work to Benefit Birds and People in the West

Great Salt Lake, Colorado River, Salton Sea, and other lakes, rivers, and wetlands need lasting solutions.
American White Pelican. Photo: Elizabeth Yicheng Shen/Audubon Photography Awards

This year was marked by incredible progress in terms of Audubon’s priorities for water conservation in the West, and yet, we have so much more to do for the birds and people who rely on clean and reliable water. In my lifetime, North America has lost more than 3 billion birds—a catastrophe reaching a tipping point. If we act now, we can reverse this trend and protect people and birds in the arid West. And while daunting, we are making an impact.

Sometimes we hesitate to celebrate or call an achievement a “big win” because the work is so massive and ongoing, with climate change and drought still present, and the threats facing the rivers, lakes, and wetlands—and the essential habitats they provide to birds—are growing. Adding more water into the Colorado River, Rio Grande or Great Salt Lake can feel tiny compared to what they need, or what they once were, or could be. But we are seeing birds respond. These victories add up and show decision-makers that new solutions can work, especially when scaled up. Thanks to our supporters and partners, we’ve directed and secured more conservation funding from federal and state governments to these iconic watersheds, we’ve changed public policies and water management where it was outdated and no longer serving today’s needs, and we continue to push for better outcomes for precious water resources in the West.

Much of the work we do is often behind the scenes because of complex technical and legal requirements (such as water transactions to benefit Great Salt Lake or modeling to determine optimal timing for bird surveys). Because of this, it can be challenging to capture the impact we’re making. On top of that, this work can be politically messy—even while we maintain great relationships with many legislators, government officials, and partners.

Despite the challenges, the momentum continues to build in our work around the West and in Washington, D.C.

In 2023 alone, we:

The range of Audubon’s work is vast: from implementing innovation and market-based solutions, to mobilizing science partners that address knowledge gaps for priority birds, and to thought leadership in water policies and management decisions. Here’s a high-level view of that work:

Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust in its first year  

At Great Salt Lake, Audubon, along with The Nature Conservancy, has been co-leading the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust (aka the Trust)—a key effort among many solutions needed in protecting and enhancing the water quantity and water quality for the lake and its wetlands. These are some of the most critical habitats for birds in North America. The Trust, working with the State of Utah’s Divisions of Forestry, Fire and State Lands and Wildlife Resources, have facilitated, provided transaction costs, and contributed funding to water transactions for more than 50,000 acre-feet of water for Great Salt Lake. The bulk of this water was donated or partially donated, including what is believed to be the largest-ever permanent water donation of water to Great Salt Lake from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The wetlands surrounding Great Salt Lake provide crucial habitat for millions of migratory birds, recreational opportunities, and many other public benefits including protecting water quality. 

The Trust also awarded $8.5 million in grants for the restoration and protection of approximately 13,000 acres of wetlands surrounding the Great Salt Lake ecosystem to benefit the lake’s hydrology, with the projects bringing more than $6.5 million in matching contributions.

This year is just the beginning, as we’ll secure more water for Great Salt Lake in 2024 and beyond. In the face of climate change, unpredictable drought, and increasing water demands, the Trust, and many other interested parties will need to work collaboratively to bring more water to the lake.

Intermountain West Shorebird Surveys after a 30-year hiatus

Understanding how migrating shorebirds are responding to habitat changes as saline lakes face the threat of desiccation due to climate change and water diversions has been an essential driver for our work with partners in the regional Intermountain West Shorebird Surveys. Now with three seasons under our belt (Fall 2022, Spring 2023, and Fall 2023), Audubon and Point Blue Conservation Science aim to fill data gaps for at least 30 species of shorebirds and their vulnerable habitats in an area bounded on the West by the Sierra Nevada Mountains and on the East by the Rocky Mountains. Conditions have dramatically changed since the last major effort like this was undertaken over 30 years ago, and the need for updated information is more important than ever. We teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, several Tribes, 11 state wildlife agencies, 35 Audubon chapters, hundreds of volunteers, private landowners, and many other non-profit organizations to count shorebirds in their peak migration windows at 200 sites across the West—and we will do so through 2025—to inform shorebird conservation.

In the time since we’ve kicked off this enormous survey effort, extremes of “weather whiplash” have made for interesting results. For instance, August 2022 was the peak of this mega-drought; Spring 2023 had record-breaking runoff; August 2023 had the West Coast’s Tropical Storm Hilary. We’ve also seen surprising statistics so far, including a record-breaking max count of shorebirds at the Salton Sea. The previous max count was 105,000 and the most recent survey counted over 250,000 shorebirds.

We aim to fill more data gaps, but more resources and collaborations are needed to ensure a robust understanding of these species needs. From American Avocet to Wilson’s Phalarope to Snowy Plovers, many species that rely on saline lakes throughout their lifecycle are benefitting from capable partnerships like this, increasing our shared knowledge and allowing for more focused management and protection of their unique habitat needs. 

Colorado River at a pivotal moment to reduce water use while including the needs of birds

The lifeblood of the American West received a lifeline this year with an above average winter—but the decades-long overuse problems remain. We know that it may take a decade or more of above average winters to restore the main Colorado River reservoirs to pre-2000 levels. The overall trend is that the available water in the Colorado River is declining, even while the United States and Mexico, Tribes, state governments, cities within the basin, and farmers are doing more than ever to ensure available water supply for subsequent years.

We know that to save the Colorado River, we need to use less water. And as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation continues long-term and short-term planning on the Colorado River, it’s important to remember that while the Colorado River is unpredictable, planning for that future can help all of us in the long run. These plans need to also consider the enormous third-party impacts of reducing water uses in the Colorado River.

Wrapping up 2023 and looking ahead to next year

We remind ourselves that birds are not only essential components to a healthy ecosystem, birds are daily reminders of our interconnections. This year, a tagged Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a federally threatened bird, taught us a little bit of humility and awe when it passed through at least six protected areas on its international journey south. For these riparian-dependent birds, overuse and over-allocation of water in a drought and climate stressed region has led to a precipitous decline in their population. This one migrating bird had the power to remind us that the water work we’ve prioritized and progress we are making matters.

As we move in to 2024, Audubon will continue to advocate for a more secure future for water in the West. Our livelihoods, our environment, and the well-being of future generations require that we continue this hard work now in hopes of preventing catastrophes later. And for migrating birds, keeping the water needed for the network of conserved, restored, and undeveloped habitat across the Southwest adds up today and towards long-lasting solutions. While the work is important, vast, and sometimes uncertain, we remain dedicated and even hopeful that our work and the work of our partners will result in better outcomes for people and birds.