The Mutual Conservation of Birds, Herds, and Water

Livestock and birds depend on the flood-irrigated pastures in places like the Silvies River Floodplain, Harney County, Oregon.

The bird conservation community in the Intermountain West has recognized the continental importance of flood-irrigated land practices to a variety of wetland-dependent birds across multiple life cycle stages. Most of these flood-irrigated habitats occur in our historical floodplains and nearly 70% of all emergent wetlands occur on private lands that comprise only 30% of land ownership in the region (IWJV 2013). Consequently, sustaining priority bird populations is inextricably linked to maintaining this irrigation practice on working lands where the availability of water is essential.

Shifting Irrigation Practices Impact Wildlife and Water Supply
Since the alteration of historical floodplains in the Intermountain West to agriculture, flood-irrigated wet meadows used for livestock forage production (irrigated pastures and hay meadows) serve as important wetland habitats and are hydrologically dependent on this agricultural application of water. However, conversion to sprinkler-irrigation is widely promoted and incentivized to support water conservation. Alarmingly, as much as 123,000 acres of flood-irrigated agricultural habitat was lost annually over the past two decades in the Intermountain West (USGS 2014). The reasons for this trend vary across the region, but lessons are emerging regarding the imbalance these shifts in irrigation practices can impart on aquifer stability. Additionally, evolving demographics and growing water demand (55% increase by 2050 (Global Water Forum)) are intensifying the competition for increasingly limited water resources. Population growth and food demands will have a significant influence on future water resource decision-making to the favor of sustaining agricultural production, and with good reason: in 2012, more than $16 billion in market sales (21% of national sales) were generated in the livestock industry alone across the Intermountain West (USDA AgCensus 2012).

Solutions to Conservation Challenges
Conservation practitioners respond to bird habitat threats by strategically directing conservation investments toward on-the-ground habitat conservation projects. Conservation partnerships in the Intermountain West have begun to accumulate science, identify priority landscapes, and develop strategies for conserving flood-irrigated habitats in working landscapes. Proactive, voluntary conservation efforts are already refurbishing irrigation infrastructure and restoring wet meadow hydrology in some of our highest priority landscapes where appropriate. This approach appears to be a promising solution, particularly when we can determine the biological value per acre for a priority species and establish an effective incentive for stakeholders.

Quantifying the Value of Flood Irrigation
However, times are changing and our wetlands conservation approaches need to adapt and expand to address complementary resource concerns such as groundwater recharge. Undeniably, debate remains on the full socioeconomic and ecological values of flood-irrigation. Its contribution to aquifer balance lacks full appreciation and endorsement from water resource stakeholders in part because that contribution has been quantified in only a few watersheds. Visualize a floating iceberg where 90% of its mass resides underwater. Relate this to a floodplain and the underlying aquifer. As rain and snowmelt cascades into our lower valleys it infiltrates into this underground bathtub. The predominant surface water expression of alluvial floodplains, and the flood-irrigated wet meadows utilized by birds and agricultural producers alike, is only secure and maximized when the bathtub is full. Quantification of headwater-to-aquifer correlations will be critical to managing water resources in the Intermountain West. Investments into refining our understanding of these relationships in our bird priority landscapes, likely in conjunction with flood-irrigation, need to be considered. Where information exists, strategic efforts to conserve flood-irrigation have been recognized as beneficial by water resource stakeholders. Conversely, from a water resource perspective, areas unsuitable for sustaining flood-irrigation have also been justly identified.

The flood-irrigated wet meadows of the Thomas Fork of the Bear River floodplain in Bear Lake County, Idaho supply crucial water resources for wildlife, livestock and people throughout the area as well as downstream.

Water shortages across the West pose an array of socio-economic and ecological challenges, as evidenced in Idaho by the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer Stabilization and state groundwater pumping moratoriums. The stakes are high and there are no easy answers. Consequently, the bird conservation community is actively interested in addressing water availability and its value to other resources to help realize sustainable outcomes for birds.

Bird Conservation is Water Conservation
Ultimately, to be effective, bird conservationists will essentially have to embrace water resource conservation. Engaging water resource planners and understanding the socioeconomic factors of agricultural water use is paramount. As water becomes increasingly limited and demand continues to grow, conservationists are at the precipice of perhaps the most widely affecting natural resource issue in recent history. In the coming decades, state and federal water regulators will be forced to make very difficult water-use decisions. For the sake of the birds and rural communities, conservationists will need to align with water resource stakeholders and offer solutions where benefits to multiple water resource values and stakeholders are realized. 

Find other articles in the Winter 2017 issue of IWJV’s newsletter here: