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?
Remove invasive species, plant natives, water them a bit, watch and wait--it sounds like an easy restoration project, similar to the work Audubon is doing along other arid-lands waterways under the aegis of its new Western Rivers Action Network (see "Get Active!"), which aims to conserve and restore these vital migratory corridors. But the reality is a lot grittier than that.
Wildlife habitat has long been a low priority here. When the federal government completed Elephant Butte Dam in 1916, the giant structure's purpose wasn't flood protection; it was to provide water for irrigation. Thanks to a long growing season, sufficient water, and lots of hard work, it succeeded. The 150,000 acres of family farms along the lower Rio Grande (in New Mexico and Texas) produce nearly $200 million worth of pecans, cotton, alfalfa, vegetables, and other crops every year, including what farmers around the small town of Hatch claim are the nation's best chilies, a crop as vital to New Mexi- cans' self-image as lobsters are to Mainers.
Of course, the river and its riparian habitat picked up the tab. Like an open-air conveyor belt, the channelized river now transports precisely timed and measured parcels of water to fields in New Mexico, Texas, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua. It no longer has any surplus to renew riverside thickets--or irrigate more than a few willow seedlings.
For decades that wasn't much of a concern to most area farmers. Today, however, they're paying lots of attention to the river's health. In 2013 New Mexico was in its second severe drought in 10 years. In July, Elephant Butte Reservoir was at only about 3 percent capacity. When conditions are good, farmers downstream of the dam are allowed to irrigate their crops with three feet of water during the eight-month-long growing season (which amounts to almost a million gallons per acre). That's happened only once since 2003. This year they had to make do with about a tenth of what's permitted (most make up the difference by relying on well water, a practice that can lower the water table and cause soils in certain areas to become increasingly alkaline). The Rio Grande ran for only a few weeks in June and July before Elephant Butte engineers closed the dam's water-release valve. Looking forward, the picture seems bleak: Atmospheric modeling suggests the Southwest is likely to be hit hard by climate change, which will mean less snowmelt, higher temperatures, more drought.
As Bardwell and Cobble began planning restoration projects, it was hard to imagine where water for riparian plants would come from. And without water to support seedlings, restoration projects would go nowhere fast.
"We need to retrofit water into a legal and institutional framework that never considered environmental needs," Bardwell said. "The farmers had the position that the water had been fully appropriated for 100 years." There wasn't any left over for anyone else. So where was the water going to come from?
The answer to that question was both simple and audacious: Audubon New Mexico would become farmers, tending a crop of willows instead of vegetables.
If a diminished Elephant Butte Lake is a nightmare for farmers downstream, it is a boon for southwestern willow flycatchers. In the late 1990s, as the reservoir's water level began to fall, the moist, exposed bottom formed fertile ground for willows and other riparian plants. The reach of the Rio Grande north of the reservoir's remaining open water is thus a mecca for the endangered subspecies. Biologists estimate that some 200 pairs, or nearly a quarter of the entire population, nest here.
I went to take a look with Vicky Ryan, a cheerful, dark-haired biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. We drove along a river channel where willows, scattered tamarisks, and cottonwoods on the banks were growing into impenetrable-looking thickets 20 or more feet tall. The Broad Canyon Arroyo restoration site might look like this in another 10 years.
Ryan was here to monitor some nests that her colleagues had located earlier. Following pink flagging, we half walked, half crawled though a maze of stems. Within minutes we were bathed in sweat, dusted with cattail pollen, showered with dead tamarisk leaves, pocked with mosquito bites.
"This always happens in good WIFL habitat," Ryan said cheerily, using the standard biologists' acronym for the spe- cies. "It's really thick stuff near flowing water, with lots of bugs."
Before we reached the first nest site, we heard a perky sound: fitz-bew!, the willow flycatcher's territorial call. We looked up to see its maker, a small perched flycatcher. Willow flycatchers may be the epitome of a nondescript little gray bird--they're often hard to distinguish from related Empidonax flycatchers--but they're spirited. This one darted from branch to branch, clearly annoyed that we were close to its nest.
Ryan pointed out some strips of pink tape tied to branches. She glanced at her notes to check where the nest was in relation to the tape, and after a minute found it, about seven feet up in the crotch of a gangly willow. She tied a folding compass to a stick and used its mirror to peer in. Three chicks, she reported.
At the next nest the results weren't so good. There were no adult birds in sight. A few days earlier the nest had held an egg and a freshly hatched chick. Now, Ryan said, its delicate cup had been torn apart by some hungry raccoon or other predator.