Straight From the Source: A Deep Dive Into Audubon's Water Conservation Work

Audubon's vice president of water conservation answered members' questions in an online event.

In August, Audubon hosted an informal online get-together for some of our most engaged members with Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon's vice president for water conservation. Hill-Gabriel coordinates National Audubon’s water strategy, covering aquatic birds and the habitats they need to survive. Julie leads a team of science and policy staff across the U.S., focusing on water issues and restoration in the Colorado River and the network of Saline Lakes in the arid west, the Everglades, the Great Lakes, the Delaware River, and other key geographies.

Prior to this role, Julie served as Audubon Florida’s Deputy Director and Policy Director, where she coordinated science, advocacy and education around Everglades restoration.

Julie opened the Q&A with an inspiring story:

"One of my most amazing experiences in the Everglades was around seeing the resiliency of birds and nature. A few months after Hurricane Irma, I was able to witness a breeding frenzy of Wood Storks and other wading birds at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Because of the storm, the wetlands had been inundated with water for weeks at the peak of South Florida’s wet season, and water levels slowly dried down during the dry season. This pattern replicated the natural Everglades before so much of the ecosystem was drained to accommodate development.

Visiting Corkscrew at this time to see such an abundance of life at the same time that the human communities were in rebuilding mode really brought home why we are so invested in this work. It conjured images describing conditions in pre-drainage South Florida where birds 'blackened the sky.' And most of all, it demonstrated that even in the face of incredible challenges, when we provide the right conditions for birds, they will respond."

Here are a few questions asked by Audubon members throughout the online event, as answered by Julie Hill-Gabriel:

Tricolored Blackbirds

Question: Being in California, water is at the top of the list for concerns about birds and the environment. I personally am extremely pleased about the efforts Audubon has taken to involve ranchers and farmers in the conservation and restoration of wetlands and agricultural lands for the Tricolored Blackbirds. With serious population declines in recent decades, most likely due to loss of habitat and pressures from multiple water users, has there been any further developments towards endangered status for the birds? Also, in your opinion, do you see continued movement toward incentives for farmers who enact better agricultural practices that work with the nesting cycles? The birds' habit of nesting in dense colonies probably makes it more vulnerable, especially since harvest time has historically been devastating for the large Tricolored colonies, as well as other marshland and migratory birds.

Answer: In 2018, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to list the Tricolored Blackbird as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act. These state protections became even more important when just a few weeks ago the federal government declined a pending petition to list the species under the federal Endangered Species Act. These regulatory protections are important because the species has plummeted from a historically common bird with estimated populations in the millions to the 2017 California statewide survey estimating 178,000 birds.

However, Audubon has come to recognize that regulations alone are not enough to promote the recovery of this species. Creating more habitat in protected wetlands in spring and summer is important, as is protecting the colonies that nest on farms and are at-risk of destruction through harvest. Over the past five years, Audubon has partnered with the dairy industry, Farm Bureau, Sustainable Conservation and Natural Resources Conservation Service to help landowners delay harvest and allow colonies of Tricolored Blackbirds to finish their nesting cycle. An estimated 32 colonies and 503,500 birds have been saved through this work of the last five years. This work helps offset the cost to farmers to delay their harvest and allow the birds to finish nesting. This is important because an estimate 40% of the remaining population of birds are nesting on farms.

Here is a brief video from the dairy industry that describes Audubon’s work with landowners from the landowner perspective.

Great Lakes

Question: Can you describe what Audubon is doing in the Great Lakes region?

Answer: Of any place where we focus our water strategy work, I am very proud of the work the science, conservation and policy staff in the Great Lakes have accomplished in the last few years. After building up staff, expertise and partnerships, we decided to expand what was once known as the Chicago Region Audubon office to the Great Lakes office. The Great Lakes office now works in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The key to our Great Lakes strategy is to directly take part in the restoration of 20% of the remaining coastal wetlands sites along the Great Lakes. One great example has been at the Calumet wetlands in Illinois and Indiana. Restoration coupled with bird monitoring in this area has allowed Audubon to determine and promote the habitat improvements that birds respond to most. This is now a model for our restoration sites throughout the Great Lakes region. And we are also using what we've learned on our restoration sites to support policy changes.

We have toured wetland sites with Members of Congress and other decision-makers who can see firsthand the benefits of investing in conservation. We are now supporting a new bill in Congress to increase funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative from $300 million per year to $475 million per year. But Audubon also recognizes that increasing funding levels only makes a difference if we can ensure the money is invested in key projects and programs that improve water quality and water management in ways that benefit conservation goals. So for the next Great Lakes Action Plan, Audubon advocates were at every EPA session across the Great Lakes, telling EPA that it's important to consider what is important for marsh birds as part of their project criteria. We expect to see that Action Plan released in the next few months.

At the state level, we are also using our science and on the ground conservation to guide our policy efforts. One example can be seen in the H2Ohio fund that recently received funding to alleviate impacts on Lake Erie. Audubon supported the funding before the state legislature and is now working closely with staff from the Ohio DNR who are responsible for allocating the dollars. DNR staff are looking to Audubon for guidance on what projects will have water quality and bird benefits and want to partner with Audubon on developing those projects.

Audubon is also hosting the first ever Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Symposium where many of these issues will be discussed. More information on our work can also be found on the Audubon Great Lakes website.

Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill. Photo: Hung Do/Audubon Photography Awards

Everglades

Question: I just read an article in the Fort Myers News-Press that a scientist expressed deep concern about the current plan for reservoir-ing water from Lake Okeechobee and sending it down to the Glades; his fear is that the water will not be sufficiently treated and will carry toxins south. Have you and/or Audubon looked into his claims is there any validity to them? Just getting the powers-that-be to do anything to remedy the Lake O situation seemed great. But now, should we be pressing for further amendments to the program, or just be grateful it exists at all?

Answer: Before agreeing to support the current plan for the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir, we had an in depth review by Audubon science experts on Lake Okeechobee (which will benefit from a new outflow for water when water levels get too high and harm the Lake's habitat) and experts at our Tavernier Science Center, where Audubon has monitored Roseate Spoonbills, prey fish and salinity levels in Florida Bay for more than 80 years. Our analysis determined that there are enough protections built into the plan to ensure that water quality standards will be met. We have been part of the Everglades water quality litigation that sets the standards for phosphorus in Everglades National Park and would not support a plan without technical support and legal securities that our hard-fought water quality standards will be met.

Ultimately, restoration projects are planned according to modeling efforts that seek to predict the future. This means that experts can disagree about how real-life impacts will play out. In this instance, Audubon feels confident that the plan should be executed as quickly as possible, and that the principles of "adaptive management" should be used to make adjustments or additions to the project if the anticipated results do not come to fruition. One thing most can agree on is that delaying restoration is the worst enemy of the Everglades  especially when climate change and sea level rise increase the urgency of action.

Market-based Solutions

Question: I'm curious about the market-based solutions and the overlap between restoration, climate change, and renewable resources. There's always a tug of war between people desires and nature. Thinking about plastics everywhere, fossil fuel pollution and tar on the beaches, over fishing, and all the people who want to live at the water's edge. Are we thinking big enough?

Answer: I think that addressing conservation issues in a way that doesn't seem insurmountable is one of the greatest challenges we face. Market-based solutions are one way Audubon is looking to accommodate future needs for birds and the environment while being pragmatic about the needs of people. In almost every scenario we can find that solutions are not mutually exclusive! One recent example in the water strategy focuses on the complex issues that arise in the arid west where there is ownership over water rights. For example, in New Mexico, Audubon is leading an effort to lease water from those that own the water right, or to ensure that some water can be reserved for the natural system, while the owner receives an economic benefit.

Great Lakes - Plan 2014

Question: In western New York, we have heard a lot about the property damage caused by high water levels in Lake Ontario, and a lot of people blame Plan 2014 for the high water. Plan 2014 was supposed to change the way water levels are controlled to take into account shoreline wildlife habitat in addition to commercial and private property interests. What I have not heard much about is how that aspect of the lake water levels are faring how are the recent water levels affecting the shoreline wetlands and other habitat that it was supposed to help?

Answer: One of the reasons we decided to focus our Great Lakes conservation efforts on coastal wetlands was because we know that climate change is going to make the extremes more common and mean we have to face water levels with higher highs and lower lows. By restoring as many coastal wetlands as possible, our goal is to make the habitat more resilient to these changes in order to provide birds with a chance to adapt. The Coastal Wetlands Symposium that Audubon is hosting in September will focus on this issue and bring experts together to discuss the best efforts to continue protection and restoration efforts under the additional stress of prolonged high water levels.

Sea Level Rise

Question: Please elaborate on what the forward thinking and planning is relative to sea level rise. Here on California's dynamic and ever changing coast, the challenges are huge.

Answer: As someone has spent the last 15 years in Miami, this issue is always front of mind. Audubon's Birds and Climate Change report demonstrated the impact of climate change on 314 species of birds. This has helped inform our work focused on improving habitat that birds will need as conditions change. Audubon is promoting the use of natural infrastructure as a tool to address the challenges of sea level rise and salt water intrusion impacting the build environment in a way that doesn't cause more harm to birds and the environment. Our natural infrastructure report is a tool that has been used by state and federal agencies to identify these alternatives. I was also lucky enough to testify about this report and these options before Congress!

Red Knots. Photo: Gail Deterra/Audubon Photography Awards

Delaware River Watershed

Question: As someone who lives not too far from the Delaware River, what actions could I take to help birds that depend on it?

Answer: Audubon has spent a lot of time this past year analyzing the most important places for birds along the Delaware River Watershed. We have found that the complexity and differences in habitats that make this such an ecological wonder also mean that we need different solutions in different places. For the forested headwaters, protecting these often pristine landscapes is critically important. In the Central part of the watershed, we are focused on supporting the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program, which was first funded in 2018. Our goal is to double funding for that program in Congress and to advance projects that restore the places that birds need most. In Delaware Bay, the focus is on finding cooperative partnerships to protect and restore coastal habitat and protecting the horseshoe crab population that is so important for Red Knots.

As Audubon becomes more engaged in this watershed, your voice is always important! You can take action to show support for the watershed at this link. And for people who live near the River, planting native plants is always important to help provide habitat for birds, filter nutrients and prevent the spread of invasive exotic species.

Partnerships

Question: I would love to learn how Audubon partners with other organizations that engage in restoration of water ways such as The Nature Conservancy. Is this work going to be run at the state level, the local level? I have not heard of my local Audubon chapter being involved yet on specific projects related to the measurable goals, yet I would venture that they are already doing restoration work. There are a lot of wetlands, estuaries, streams, rivers, and the Puget Sound all used by water birds.

Answer: Partnerships are crucial to achieving restoration and water conservation goals. The issues are too immense for any one group to address. Audubon's nearly 500 chapters across the U.S. are the key to ensuring that our goals, reach, influence and creative energy are authentic and community-based. While the level of coordination differs depending on the issue and the region, it is a top priority for Audubon to learn from our chapters and help support their capacity. Partnerships with other organization are similarly important. In some instances there are only a handful of groups involved in an issue, like The Nature Conservancy and Audubon as the only conservation stakeholders within the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program.

In other places, like the Everglades Coalition, there are nearly 65 organizations who seek to coordinate around restoration efforts and Audubon leads coalitions established to coordinate around many aspects of Colorado River conservation. Partnerships with local, state and federal agencies are also critical to achieving our goals. Audubon can complement ongoing restoration and protection efforts with an emphasis on improving conditions in the places birds need most using knowledge gained from our own work and that of our Chapters and partners.

Audubon is also dedicating increased focus on working with non-traditional partners. One example is working with brewers in different regions. Our Western Rivers Brewers Council and Brewers for the Delaware River have helped advance key policy objectives by conveying the importance of clean freshwater for brewers who are increasingly an economic engine for local communities. Ultimately, we are all in this together and partnerships can compound our impact!

If you are interested in more information on any of the topics discussed during our online discussion event, please email Great Egret Society Manager Lindsay McNamara at greategretsociety@audubon.org for more information.

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”