Tucked away in the giant omnibus spending legislation passed this week was a small package of bills focused on western water. Western rivers provide important benefits to rural communities, the recreation economy, and bird and wildlife habitat, in addition to providing critical water supplies for cities, irrigated farmland, and tribes.

More than 40 million people rely on the Colorado River or its tributaries for water, and the Colorado also irrigates over five million acres of ranch and farmland, providing food for the entire nation. Reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin, filled to the brim at the end of the 20th Century, are at historic lows due to a 19-year drought and growing demands. Diminished stream flows now pose serious challenges for cities, farms, wildlife, and recreation. Western birds like the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, Ridgway’s Rail, and Wilson’s Phalarope depend on ecosystems and habitat throughout the west.

This package of bills expands and improves grant programs within the Bureau of Reclamation that address water conservation and efficiency, drought response, and ecological resiliency. These bills will reauthorize and expand participation in the Cooperative Watershed Management program, an important, collaborative conservation program. In addition, the WaterSMART program is expanded to make non-governmental entities eligible in some circumstances and to fund natural and nature-based projects.

It also establishes a new program to fund fish passage and other improvements to fish and wildlife habitat. The package also includes two sections which provide important funding for scientific advances and improved technology for water desalination and snow supply forecasting.

Finally, the package supports the Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement Act and the Aamodt Litigation Settlement Completion Act. Audubon supports the recognition of Tribal water rights and providing funding for water infrastructure in these communities. Read more about the Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement Act from my colleague, Jennifer Pitt.

This western water package which will help Tribes, states, communities, and ecosystems throughout the West move towards a more resilient water future for birds and people.

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