The Threat of the West Running Dry

Working together to sustain people and birds.

Water in the West isn’t an “either or” proposition for birds. Just like us, birds rely on water and habitats fed by water for their survival. Sometimes I hear comments that if birds don’t find the habitat they need because it’s dried up, they’ll just fly somewhere else. But what if there is no “somewhere else?” All across the West, places that were once wet are drying up at an alarming rate. And this trend has been moving this direction for a long time. Over the past two centuries, California has lost as much as 91 percent of its original wetlands and Colorado: 50 percent. The availability of these riparian, wetland, and lake habitats isn’t there anymore.

We can’t divorce our fate from that of birds. Birds are bio-indicators for the health of our environment – you know, the story of the canary in a coalmine. Birds are sentinels that reveal threats to our air and water in advance of the danger to humans and other species. Birds tell us.

Rivers, lakes, and wetlands support us all: our cities and economies, irrigated agriculture, tourism and recreation, and wildlife. Water matters to all life.

In the face of over-allocation, such as in the Colorado River Basin, the persistent drought that some are calling “aridification,” and climate change, the rivers, lakes, and wetlands of the West are under threat of running dry. This matters to birds and people. Academic articles and media stories document the decreasing river flows and historically low snowpacks across the Rockies. Audubon’s Colorado River Program Director, Jennifer Pitt, recently reported that shortage on the Colorado River is imminent. Water managers and community leaders are actively discussing ways to share water in times of shortage.     

We, the collective “we,” let the delta of the Colorado River dry up for decades. It frightens me to think that a massive ecosystem like Great Salt Lake could irrevocably dry up in my lifetime much like the Aral Sea in Central Asia or Lake Poopó, once Bolivia’s second largest lake. Sadly, there are numerous examples of vanishing waters across the globe.

Let’s not watch this happen. I’m proud to work with colleagues across the West who are forging new solutions to these water challenges and this gives me hope for our future. For instance, at the Salton Sea in California, we support a viable solution for a sustainable Sea that will provide much-needed habitat for birds while protecting the health of the surrounding community. With the leadership of Frank Ruiz, Director of Audubon’s Salton Sea Program, we’ve substantially increased the engagement of local, diverse communities that have advocated for and helped pass California policies to address dust mitigation and habitat restoration, as well as the recently-passed parks and water bond measure that ensures $200 million for the Salton Sea. And in another step to provide expertise to drive solutions, we’ve recently developed a framework to estimate water demand for habitat through our team led by Andrea Jones, Director of Bird Conservation.

I’ve intentially directed Audubon’s attention to collaborative, solution-based work on Western water issues. It’s through common ground and partnerships that we’ve been able to contribute to positive results like the U.S.-Mexico agreement (Minute 323) for the Colorado River Delta, the bipartisan federal appropriations for Western water priorities, the launch of our saline lakes program focused on the network of salt lakes across the intermountain West, and working with business voices to elevate our work, as was the case with a co-branded beer in Arizona. And there’s a lot more water work in progress with partners and across Audubon’s state offices, centers, sanctuaries, and chapters.

We need to work together for our own future – the security of our water supply – while also sharing with the birds and wildlife that rely on water-dependent habitats. Active water conservation, both urban and rural, is proven to be an effective protective measure to ensure our water supply and increase nature’s resiliency. Sustainable flows for our rivers are needed. Achieving these solutions requires local, state, and federal cooperation, along with partners in the non-profit and private sectors. Let’s not be naïve in thinking water will always be plentiful and these iconic landscapes are “too big to fail.” Too big to dry up completely?

Our families and bird populations are depending on us.