Ring the Alarm: Today’s Water Crisis Isn’t a Fire Drill

Why Audubon’s work in the West is more important than ever.

News headlines in mid-June captured what Audubon’s Western Water team knows well: the Colorado River Basin and Great Salt Lake are in trouble—both facing historically unprecedented risks. Both may be headed towards ecological disasters, years in the making, the result of a pernicious combination of climate change aridifying the region and water management that does not adequately prioritize the environment. In the Colorado River Basin and at Great Salt Lake, warming temperatures and declining river flows threaten people and nature. And, we know there’s significant quality wildlife and bird habitat still worthy of attention and investments.

Birds tell us that water-dependent habitats across the arid West are essential oases and they are in decline. The water issues created by a century of law and infrastructure development are magnified by today’s climate crisis. For over 100 years, we’ve operated under a legal framework in the West where water has been “developed” without consideration for the Indigenous communities that have been on the land since time immemorial, and at the expense of the environment, sometimes draining the last drops of water that supported habitats. Across the West, water stress is evident—and people and birds will feel its effects. Audubon is working on some solutions (make sure you keep up with our ongoing posts), but for now, let me paint a picture of how dire the situation is.

The big headlines include:

With Great Salt Lake reaching its lowest ever recorded water levels, ongoing drought and increasing development pressures diverting the water flowing down rivers to the lake, a drying Great Salt Lake threatens the health of Salt Lake City residents, the future of key Utah industries, and the survival of millions of migratory shorebirds, waterfowl, and other wildlife. We are currently in uncharted territory as we test thresholds of water levels and this could have cascading effects that would ripple throughout the ecosystem. Although Auduboners tend to focus on the birds and ecology (where else in the West does one find FIVE globally Important Bird Areas at one location?), Great Salt Lake generates enormous impact for Utah and the region with $1.56 billion annually in economic contributions through mineral, aquaculture, and ski industries, and other recreation activities. The potential economic cost of the drying Great Salt Lake could reach $25.4 billion to $32.6 billion over 20 years, according to a 2019 report from the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council. Much like the Salton Sea in California – another giant salt lake—which is already experiencing severe air quality issues from the exposed dry lakebed, the public health and quality of life for communities around Great Salt Lake are at risk from increased dust from larger areas of exposed lakebed. Increased dust on snow also has the potential to compound the timing of snowmelt and thus water availability.

Even more stunning is the realization that the Colorado River’s major reservoirs—water supply for some 40 million people—are on life support. The federal U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in March took the unprecedented step of claiming a human health and safety emergency to justify reducing the water it releases from one of those reservoirs. At a U.S. Senate hearing in mid-June, Reclamation Commissioner Touton stated that net Colorado River water uses must be reduced in the next year by 2-4 million acre-feet, a staggering volume that amounts to about 30 percent of average consumptive use.

Our water supplies across the dry West are in severe crisis because of historic over-development, compounded today by climate change. Warming temperatures are creating “hot droughts” that deplete flows in rivers, the flows that people and nature depend on. Today there is no longer enough water to supply all of the demands. Colorado River flows in the first two decades of the 21st century are 20 percent lower than flows in the last century. In years when we see “average” snowpack levels in the mountains, river flows are low: last year in the Colorado River’s headwater mountains, a 91 percent snowpack yielded only a 55 percent flow. That discrepancy demonstrates an impact of climate change between the mountain tops and the valley bottoms. Snowmelt isn’t reaching the rivers in the same way; warmer temperatures drive evaporation, turning the soils into thirsty sponges.

At the recent Colorado River-focused Getches-Wilkinson Center’s Colorado Law Conference aptly named “Hard Conversations About Really Complicated Issues,” Reclamation’s Jim Prairie shared the numbers behind the problem. The volume of water flowing into the Colorado River’s largest reservoirs—Lakes Powell and Mead—has declined, while uses have not. Over the past 20 years, this imbalance has resulted in a 40 million acre-foot decline in Colorado River reservoir storage – a volume that exceeds by a factor of three the Colorado River’s annual average flow. With so little water remaining in the reservoirs, the risks – including infrastructure failure, inability to deliver water to major population centers, and even the risk of no water flowing in the Grand Canyon – are untenable. Moreover, while Reclamation’s call for additional water conservation in the coming year should prevent things from getting worse in 2023, it is not projected to address recovery of the reservoirs, and is not expected to solve the problem beyond 2023 unless those enormous volumes of water can be conserved year after year.

Stakes are high, and mitigation will be costly.  We learned that lesson at Owens Lake in California, where the costs to remediate the lake’s historic drying after Los Angeles diverted 100 percent of its water continue to grow. In order to address extreme dust pollution and loss of migratory bird habitat, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power invested hundreds of millions of dollars to “rebuild” the ecosystem with pumping and piping of water, infrastructure and many dust control methods – resulting in annual maintenance costs estimated at $17 million. And the costs of restoring a small portion of flows and habitat in the once-vast Colorado River Delta underscore how much more expensive it is to try and fix rivers and lakes once they have been decimated. 

This should be a wake-up call to everyone. This water crisis isn’t just impacting those of us who live in the West; it affects people who live in the East too. Not only did the Colorado River form beloved places like the Grand Canyon, it supports an enormous part of our American economy, and has outsized importance to wildlife and birds, with around 70 percent of all species in the region depending on the riparian corridor at some point in their life-cycle. On top of that, Great Salt Lake is essential to the world’s populations of Wilson’s Phalaropes, Eared Grebe, and American Avocet.

So what are some key takeaways that keep me up at night?

1) Today’s hydrologic cycle is vastly different than 50 years ago. Climate change is water change and climate continues to influence the hydrology in the West. And we have dry soils compounding the problem.

2) Solutions exist, but we need them to scale up. Quickly. Public funding—including the massive investments of last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—will help immensely. We must move swiftly to implement multi-benefit projects that protect our water resources. Ideas to improve the resilience of the West to declining water supplies abound. But will we respond fast enough? And don’t get me started about needed global climate change solutions to reduce carbon emissions…

3) In addition to scaling up solutions, representatives of Tribal and conservation interests need to be included in negotiations to define solutions. To leave out these voices would continue the systematic exclusion of Tribes and nature. Declining water supplies have amplified the problems created through inequitable access to water.

4) The immediacy of the situation. Although the environmental catastrophe looms large and needs immediate steps to reverse the trends—especially because nature impacts people—the risk of a catastrophic collapse of major Colorado River infrastructure is here. Soon. Federal leaders want the Colorado River Basin States to define plans in less than 60 days, noting that if the states cannot come to agreement on how to reduce water uses, the federal government will take unilateral action. Watch for Reclamation’s mid-August water forecast and announcements.

The buzz is around shared sacrifice. Politically, all sectors need to shoulder some of the burden of reducing water use. In all likelihood, despite having senior water rights, agricultural producers who rely on irrigation with Colorado River water will be required to take compensated cuts in their water use. As was pointed out at the Colorado River conference, we cannot conserve the 2-4 million acre-feet of water needed by evacuating the cities that rely on Colorado River water. Water conservation in the agricultural sector has implications for rural economies and the environment. It’s a terrible situation, and important that we are doing what we can to support rural economies and to increase investments in freshwater-dependent ecosystems.

Water management systems in the West are breaking. As decision-makers revise the rules that shape water management systems, we need to urge them to incorporate today’s 21st century values, including equitable treatment of vulnerable communities that lack access to water, and emphasis on supporting water needs in the natural world around us. With even less water, the hard conversations on water conservation efforts should include both using less water while also ensuring water supply to all households in the Colorado River region, as well as minimum water flows to protect hydrologic connections and quality habitats as crucial steps to preserving our future in this landscape. We can’t let the water crisis allow bad projects to get approvals—they would create both short-term and long-term issues for the landscape. We’ve already lost too many wetlands and riparian habitats across the West—and birds are suffering in response. And birds tell us, we have to act on climate change and reduce carbon emissions. Because as bad as this seems, it can still get worse.    

We are at a fundamental inflection point for the Colorado River and for Great Salt Lake. While this is a dire update, we need to stay focused to protect our future in the West. These immense water challenges underscore how essential Audubon’s work is to save and allocate water to these critical habitats and ecosystems. There is more to come this summer, and hopefully, we can find some breathing room to create the medium and long-term plans we need to protect water in the West.