The West Urgently Needs Federal Funds to Address Drought, Wildfire, and Climate Change

With big spending bills on the horizon, Congress needs to prioritize water security for people and birds.
American White Pelican. Joanne Wuori/Audubon Photography Awards

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As Congress considers several major pieces of legislation to address urgent needs in the United States, Audubon’s Western Water team is keeping a close eye on funds to address the unprecedented drought emergency in the West. Congress should use all available options to invest in immediate and long-term solutions to mitigate current disasters and enhance the climate resilience of states affected by historic drought conditions.

In the West, runoff from snowpack has been at historic lows, and the major reservoirs that supply drinking water for 40 million people along the Colorado River are now less than half-full. This summer, more than 93% of the western United States has experienced drought conditions.

2021 has brought yet another year of record-breaking climate extremes. The Colorado River’s two largest reservoirs—Lake Mead and Lake Powell—are at their lowest levels since they filled. Great Salt Lake is at its lowest level ever. The Rio Grande, Salton Sea, Klamath River Basin, and wetlands and tributaries across the West are also struggling. Because of the dire situation on the Colorado River, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that 2022 will bring unprecedented water shortages to Arizona, Nevada and the Republic of Mexico.

The ongoing drought crisis has been accelerated by climate change, which is the single biggest threat to birds, with more than 67% of bird species in the Americas at risk of extinction if we fail to meet our goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Currently, Congress is working to pass several important funding bills that will significantly improve our waterways and wetlands in the West—for people and birds.

Specifically, as Congress considers funding packages, Audubon is supporting the following priorities and projects that give federal agencies critically needed resources:

  • U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Drought response programs and projects:
    • $500M for the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan. This will address near-term risks to Lake Powell and Lake Mead in the face of significant water scarcity.
    • $300M for the implementation of Minute 323 to the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty, which includes funding for binational water conservation investments, development and maintenance of critical bird habitat in the Colorado River Delta.
    • $250 million to support the Salton Sea Projects Improvements Act to work with the State of California, local counties, tribal governments, and nonprofits to mitigate the environmental and public health crises—a result of the Sea’s receding shoreline.
    • $400 for WaterSMART, including $100M for natural infrastructure. WaterSMART programs provide a federal cost-share for the development of local watershed management programs; improve water delivery, efficiency, and reliability; support multi-benefit projects; and reduce conflicts over water-use in the West.
    • $50 million for multi-purposes watershed protection and restoration projects in the West.
    • $50 million for Colorado River Upper Basin Fish Recovery Implementation Plans and Endangered Species Act compliance in the Lower Colorado River Basin.
  • United States Geological Survey (USGS) science and monitoring:
    • $200 million for USGS science and monitoring. These additional resources could support programs like a federally coordinated assessment of the conservation needs across Saline (Salt) Lake Ecosystems, championed by Audubon and the development of OpenET, an online, satellite-driven water data platform.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)
    • $150 million for the effective and efficient implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and $40 million for Endangered Species Act interagency consultation. This funding will help ensure that infrastructure projects can advance efficiently while avoiding adverse environmental impacts.
    • $162M for Klamath River Basin and Wildlife Refuge to support infrastructure. We also encourage Congress to find additional funding to support water acquisition or invest in permanent solutions that protect fish and wildlife in Klamath. This includes a permanent bird hospital and more funding for operations and maintenance.
    • $25M for the Lahontan Valley and Pyramid Lake Fish and Wildlife Fund to ensure long-term availability of water at important habitats.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):
    • Double the amount of funding for Farm Bill voluntary, private land conservation programs (such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program), which provide critical financial and technical assistance to help landowners protect and enhance natural spaces on their property. Funding through these programs should prioritize projects that increase bird habitat, benefit underserved farmers and ranchers, and provide carbon sequestration and increased resilience co-benefits.
    • ​More than $2B in additional funding for the U.S. Forest Service for restoration, land management, and emergency response recent wildfires.

These funds will make drought, limited water supplies, and decreasing bird habitat less dire. After this year’s catastrophic wildfires and historic drought, we urge Congress—and particularly our delegations in the West—to ensure that federal investments increase community resilience to the effects of climate change by promoting nature-based solutions for restoring watersheds and ecosystems. 

In addition, Congress has several pending bills with bipartisan support that respond to the many needs of tribal communities and western states’ water supply needs that we are supporting, including access to clean water and water settlements.

We’ll keep you posted as this legislation moves forward. Be sure to sign up for our Western Water Action Network to get the most updated information.