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Migrating Birds Are Running Out of Water

David O’Neill and Karyn Stockdale of the National Audubon Society talk about a recent report that highlights the threats to two major habitats used by migrating birds in the West: saline lakes and riparian habitat along the Colorado River.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The American avocet is one of many species threatened by disappearing saline lakes in the West.Don McCullough/Flickr

Water management in the West can often seem to pit people against wildlife, but it doesn’t have to, according to a recent report by the National Audubon Society. The report highlights how drying saline lakes in the West and changing riparian habitat along the Colorado River are impacting migrating birds. But the two habitats also share a vulnerability to climate change and water management. The demand for water from growing metropolitan areas, like Salt Lake City, is often at the expense of these habitats and wildlife.

But David O’Neill, Audubon’s chief conservation officer, says that doesn’t have to be the case. In the report, Audubon highlights areas where environmentalists are working with policymakers, water managers and farmers to supply both birds and people in the West with enough water.

Saline lakes and riparian habitat on the Colorado both provide invaluable habitat for birds flying from Canada to Latin America and back every year.

Saline lakes, like the Great Salt Lake or the Salton Sea, provide valuable food and resting spots for shore birds, such as American avocets, while riparian shrubs and willows on the Colorado River provide food and shelter for vireos, warblers, flycatchers and more.

Water Deeply spoke with O’Neill and Karyn Stockdale, director of Audubon’s Western Water Initiative, about the report, the relationship between birds and water in the West and how Audubon hopes to help meet the water needs of people and the environment.

Water Deeply: What are the specific threats to riparian habitat along the Colorado River and saline lakes in the West?

Karyn Stockdale: What we find is that in both of these systems, it’s a function of water. It’s [water management’s] relationship with the habitat that impacts the bird species. So, in the Colorado system, you have these native riparian trees and shrubs – sedge, cottonwood, willow – that provide this productive habitat for birds and wildlife. That’s been diminishing over the last century, and it continues to disappear because of water development and flow regulations, surface water diversion, groundwater pumping. All that hydrologic change also has increased the spread of non-native plants, particularly saltpeter, and that continues to reduce the biodiversity of birds.

All that is overlaid with climate change, which is projected to reduce water supply, raise temperatures and continue to disrupt the timing of spring floods, the flowering of plants.

Then on saline lakes there are some similarities because in those systems the lake is the end of the line – it doesn’t flow to any other water systems. The [decreased] flow of the water into those lakes, as well as continued drought and the impact of climate, have caused a drying effect. Essentially, those lakes are starting to decrease in size and, in some places, completely dry up. Those lakes, though, are incredibly valuable habitats for birds. For saline lakes, at times, up to 90 percent of the global population of Wilson’s phalarope congregates at these lakes. Or 50 percent of the global population of American avocet. Or in the case of eared grebes, it’s almost 99 percent of the [North American] population.

So, these millions of birds are relying on these really significant habitats. These declining lake levels of the last 100 years, due to diversions, banned flows, ground water extractions, continue to increase the salinity in the lakes. That can alter the food webs, it can reduce the food resources and also really continue to decrease some of the size of those lakes.

Karyn Stockdale is director of Audubon’s Western Water Initiative. (National Audubon Society)

Water Deeply: A lot of your recommendations for solving these issues are about communication, science and dialogue among many parties, but there’s not so much on actual infrastructure or particular actions.

Stockdale: I think that opening the dialogue and working with the stakeholders is crucial to being able to have any success in this space. We’re not the land manager or water rights holder in most of these situations. If we’re not working with partners, with those policymakers, with those water users, then we’re really not going to be successful.

David O’Neill: And I think in large part because those are principles that apply to the solutions that we need to adopt in a variety of different landscapes and cultural contexts. But the specifics include working on drought contingency plans in Arizona, California, driving resources to the Salton Sea management plan, trying to get a new [agreement] passed on the Colorado Delta between the United States and Mexico, protecting existing federal resources for water efficiency in irrigation projects and riparian-corridor restoration work. There is a suite of very specific things that we are working on that are guided in large part by a set of principles about how we do our work, which is embedded in these recommendations.

David O’Neill is chief conservation officer at the National Audubon Society. (National Audubon Society)

Water Deeply: Have you had success in solving the issues that you lay out in terms of the saline lakes and riparian systems along the Colorado River?

Stockdale: In the Grand Valley in Colorado, the Grand Valley Irrigation District has been implementing a few pilot projects, essentially doing more water conservation, upgrading old irrigation infrastructure, improving some of the flows on the Colorado. And while the volume of water is small, what’s really happening is that it’s demonstrating to water users and the decision-makers in the area, this kind of project’s possible, that it actually has mutual benefits. So there are a lot of small examples like that. Sort of, laying out the path and proving that this really works, being able to then talk in kind of the larger scale.

Changes in three western saline lakes from 1985 to 2015. (National Audubon Society)

Water Deeply: The report mentions eight species of birds that are particularly threatened. Is there a bird that particularly stands out to one of you, and how is that bird threatened?

Stockdale: Eared grebes were in high abundance at the Salton Sea in the recent past. In the last several seasons, the numbers have dramatically declined. They rely on both the deeper water and on the shallower water on the edges of these saline lakes. And I mentioned 99 percent of the North American population relies on these saline lakes as part of their life cycle. The movement of these grebes appears to be predominantly at about five or six of these larger salt lakes across the West.

Even if you have drought or a decreased water supply at one lake one year, they may have other places they can go. But if systematically across all the lakes, they’re all drying, then you’re really threatening this population.

O’Neill: I think that one of the interesting bird species that is already listed as federally endangered is the Southwest willow flycatcher. The loss of riparian habitat, the change in the actual habitat itself and the decline in the bird populations are inextricably linked. Absent the right type of water, the amount of water that we need along these riparian corridors and the habitat that sustains them, that bird could go extinct. For Audubon, that’s something that we just can’t stand to see, and we need to take whatever actions we can to prevent it.

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