Southwestern Farmers Share Their Water with Endangered Birds
In the West, as the saying goes, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. So why on earth did New Mexicans--during a severe drought, no less--decide to give precious drops to southwestern willow flycatchers?
One blazing hot day last June, I stood on the banks of the Rio Grande at New Mexico's Broad Canyon Arroyo, about 20 miles north of the sprawling city of Las Cruces, to witness an act of creative destruction. The agent this day was not the river, though its floods once wiped out local houses and irrigation canals. Instead, a team of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees was unleashing chainsaws and excavators on the riverside shrubs.
Scrubby trees were uprooted and piled into heaps, waiting to be burned. The soil was churned up. Here and there, windrows of garbage gave mute evidence of the kinds of activities--wild-cat dumping, teenage parties--that plagued the site before the workers started their job. Above the flat, narrow floodplain, sere desert hills were a stark reminder that the river is what makes any kind of plant abundance possible at all in this place.
The Rio Grande is an exceedingly tapped watercourse, one engineered so thoroughly that it hardly merits the label "river" anymore, and certainly not grande. "Growing up here, this stretch of the river was always neglected," said Kevin Cobble, a tall, gray-mustachioed biologist wearing the agency's regulation brown uniform. "It's always been a little disheartening to me how the river is treated. It's like that trash pile over there--that's how people have seen the river. It's just been an irrigation ditch."
Cobble, then manager of the nearby San Andres National Wildlife Refuge (he has since moved on to manage Bosque del Apache, about 100 miles upstream), was inspecting his team's habitat renovation. A wolfberry shrub, 18 inches high, stood on the berm just above the river; higher up, screwbean mesquite trees bloomed, their yellow flowers attracting bees and butterflies. Those native plant species, Cobble said, make much better wildlife habitat than saltcedar or tamarisk, pink-flowered invasive trees and shrubs from Eurasia that have colonized numerous river systems in the Southwest. A few years ago this was mostly saltcedar, he said. "Now that the competition's been removed, the natives are starting to come back."
The new plants signal the beginning of a new era of cooperation. This stretch of the Rio Grande is managed by the International Boundary and Water Commission, a federal agency that oversees water supplies on the country's two large rivers that flow through both the United States and Mexico: the Rio Grande and the Colorado.
As a result of the southwestern willow flycatcher's 1995 listing as an endangered species and other environmental concerns, the commission consented to provide funding--$11 million over a period of about 10 years--for a pilot project aimed at restoring some 550 acres of riparian habitat at scattered sites along the lower Rio Grande. Motivated in part by the heavy hammer of the Endangered Species Act, the farmers are now sharing a scarce and contested resource, providing enough water for irrigation and habitat restoration for the willow flycatcher, a small gray bird that builds its nests only in dense riverside thickets. Audubon New Mexico would coordinate the project, and the Fish and Wildlife Service would provide the workers. The new deal meant everybody would have to work together, no matter where they stood on the issue.
Cobble and I were touring restoration sites with Beth Bardwell, an energetic activist who worked as a Native American rights lawyer and assistant city attorney before returning to school for a master's in biology at New Mexico State University, where she studied the bill shapes of scrub jays. She is now in charge of freshwater conservation projects for Audubon New Mexico.
For a fast-forward glimpse of what the Broad Canyon Arroyo site might look like in the not-too-distant future, she steered our silver Scion toward a place where the tamarisk had been removed three years earlier. It was the height of the irrigation season, which meant that an engineer upstream at Elephant Butte Dam had opened a valve to release water. The river, pinched between rocky highlands, ran fast--flush for now with mountain snowmelt. In a couple of weeks the valve would be shut, and the Rio Grande would revert to being a string of shrinking pools.
This site certainly looked lush. After the tamarisk was removed, members of the local Mesilla Valley Audubon Society planted native trees and shrubs: cottonwood, Goodding's willow, coyote willow, New Mexico olive. Volunteers returned weekly to water the plants, which were now head-high. Dense, sprawling thickets were beginning to form--just the kinds of places willow flycatchers need. Cobble pointed out that some of the plants had grown roots deep enough to intercept the water table, which, in a few years, would make supplemental watering unneeded.
We didn't see or hear any willow flycatchers that day. But we heard the chattering calls of mockingbirds, the wichity-wichity songs of common yellowthroats. And Bardwell was confident that the fast-growing plants would soon provide even better habitat. "As we restore the structure of the native riparian woodland," she said, "we expect to see an increase in the bird population until it's higher than you'd see in a tamarisk-dominated woodland."