Ducks Out of Water

As demands on our freshwater supplies continue to increase, certain water users and interest groups may find themselves becoming increasingly disregarded and dehydrated

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Photo © Charles Connelly

by Scott Yaich, Ph.D.

As demands on our freshwater supplies continue to increase, certain water users and interest groups may find themselves becoming increasingly disregarded and dehydrated.

Without question, water is the single most important habitat requirement for waterfowl and many other wildlife species. Continental duck populations rise and fall in direct response to wet-and-dry cycles on their breeding areas, which influences the number of wetlands available to support breeding pairs in the spring.

Unfortunately, the growth and complexity of society are exerting ever-increasing pressure on North America 's finite water resources. The United States has already lost 115 million acres of wetlands—more than half the original total—and continues to lose more than 100,000 acres of wetlands every year. If wetland losses continue at that pace, waterfowl are destined to face the equivalent of permanent drought conditions on many of their most important breeding, migration, and wintering areas.

Wetlands and water are equally important to people. Our bodies are mostly (65 percent) water. Water makes up most of the volume of the foods we eat (beef, 74 percent; potatoes, 80 percent, etc.). Only 3 percent of the earth's entire water supply is made up of freshwater, however, and only a tiny fraction of that is contained within lakes, rivers, wetlands, and reservoirs. (The majority of the planet's freshwater is locked as icecap in Antarctica and Greenland .) With the global human population projected to increase by 4 billion during this century, water quality and conservation are clearly among the most important issues facing people and wildlife in North America and beyond.

Their resourcefulness in managing water has enabled humans to advance from primitive hunter-gatherers to modern agriculturalists and industrialists. The earliest known water development in North America dates back about 1,300 years to the Hohokam Indians of southern Arizona , who dug irrigation canals to water their cornfields. Water development on the continent began in earnest much later, however, when the arid West was settled, and in 1847 the first modern irrigation project was constructed in Utah . The first municipal water reservoir in the nation was completed in 1916, and today there are 75,000 dams and more than 2 million small impoundments and farm ponds in the United States. By 1988, more than 90 percent of the river reaches in the lower 48 states were dammed, channeled, or otherwise developed. In 2000, water use in the United States was estimated to be 408 billion gallons per day, or 1,427 gallons for every person in the country. About 48 percent of that water is used to generate electricity; 34 percent is directed to irrigating cropland; 11 percent is maintained as public water supplies; 6 percent is utilized by mining and industry; and less than 1 percent is directed for domestic uses such as livestock and aquaculture production.

Experts predict that a 100-million person increase in the U.S. population by 2040 will increase nationwide demand for freshwater by as much as 37 percent. The biggest problem is that no one knows where that much more water would come from. Most significant water sources have already been identified or developed. Some western water sources are already over-allocated. Not only is competition for water intensifying, it is expanding from the arid West into previously water-rich areas such as the southeastern United States.

Increasing demands have generated unrealistically hopeful discussions of finding and developing new water sources. However, there are really no new sources of water. It's all out there already, either directly supporting society's basic needs (e.g., drinking water and power generation), or sustaining critical natural resources that maintain significant components of our nation's economy and quality of life (including waterfowl hunting).

Water projects don't create any new water, they simply redistribute it from one place to another, a situation that inevitably benefits one water use at the expense of another. It is up to society to collectively determine which values associated with various water uses are most important, and what balance of water use best conforms to the vision we collectively have for our future quality of life.

There are important water allocation lessons to be learned from examples such as the Colorado , Klamath, and White rivers. These three rivers illustrate three stages of water projects in North America and the tremendous impacts that competition for water can have on critical waterfowl habitats.

Colorado River Delta: "A River Used to Run Through It"

The Colorado River is one of the most alarming examples of what can happen to waterfowl when competing interests divvy up water resources without considering that the water was sustaining critical wetlands and associated natural resources. In this case, the consequences were devastating.

The Colorado River, draining portions of six western states and Mexico , once annually carried about 13.5 million acre-feet of water into the Gulf of California . Over millennia, the river's heavy silt load created an 80-mile-long, 2-million-acre delta covered with shallow, braided river channels, wetlands, and riverside forests. Aldo Leopold visited the area in 1922 and described it as a "jaguar-infested jungle," in admiration of the region's wildlife productivity and diversity. It was one of the Pacific Flyway's greatest waterfowl wintering areas.

Change began when the Colorado was first tapped to irrigate southern California 's Imperial Valley croplands in 1901, and accelerated dramatically in 1922 when the Colorado River Compact allocated the river's entire flow to users in seven states. Later, rights were reallocated to allow 10 percent of the flow to Mexico . President Herbert Hoover conveyed the attitude of the time when he said: "The waters of this great river, instead of being wasted in the sea, will now be brought into use by man." President Hoover clearly did not share Aldo Leopold's appreciation of the Colorado River Delta's 2-million-acre wetland or the waterfowl and other wildlife that lived there.

Things went from bad to worse when it was realized that the compact allocated 33 percent more water than the river actually contained. As a consequence, the Colorado now carries only 10 percent of its flow into Mexico , which also uses virtually all of its allocation for irrigation and municipal water.

So, the mighty Colorado River, carver of the Grand Canyon , no longer flows to the rich delta it once created and sustained. In average years, the last trickle of the Colorado River now disappears into the Mexican desert, and the original 2 million acres of the river's former delta wetlands have shriveled to about 150,000 acres of riverbank wetlands. The millions of waterfowl that once wintered in the fertile deltaic wetlands were forced to search for food and water elsewhere among other dwindling wetland habitats. In perspective, the loss of more than 1.7 million acres of Colorado River delta wetlands was one of the greatest losses within a single wetland system in the world, happening before anyone was aware of the consequences.

The Colorado River and its delta represent almost a worst-case scenario for waterfowl and wetland wildlife. Although Ducks Unlimited has studied wetland restoration potential in the region, the lack of reliable water and water-quality problems make restoration there imprudent, at least for now.

The Klamath River Basin: Unending Litigation

In the case of the Klamath River basin of southern Oregon and northern California , all water uses, including those to sustain natural resources, have been recognized and acknowledged, an incremental improvement over the Colorado River situation. However, for various reasons, the equivalent of no-holds-barred competition for the basin's water has led to unending legal battles.

More than 30 percent of the Pacific Flyway's waterfowl (about 6 million ducks and geese) use the Klamath Basin 's habitats. Average peak populations exceed 1.1 million birds during the migratory and wintering periods each year. Also, 50 percent of the female mallards nesting in California 's Central Valley use the Klamath's marshes as summer molting habitat, and almost all Pacific Flyway pintails depend on the region for spring staging habitat.

About a century ago, however, settlers discovered that the waters of the basin could bring agricultural productivity to surrounding arid lands, and since 1905 the Klamath Basin has been steadily re-plumbed. Depending on one's perspective, the result is something between a miracle of modern agriculture that brought unimagined productivity to some of the arid West, or an ecological disaster that destroyed the river's wetlands, fish, and wildlife productivity.

The waters of the Klamath Basin long have been at the center of a clash of values and cultures. The four primary water interests in the basin, in order of current court-ordered priorities are: (1) federally endangered species threatened with extinction; (2) Native American tribes with a strong cultural link to the river's salmon fishery and other resources; (3) agricultural interests dependent upon irrigation water; and, (4) National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) that require water to sustain wetland habitats for waterfowl and other trust responsibilities. The one thing everyone agrees upon is that the Klamath's waters have been over-allocated. Legal rights exist to more water than there is actual water. This unsustainable situation resulted from an almost incomprehensibly complex interplay of factors including U.S. government-Native American tribe relations dating to the 19th century, congressional mandates, agricultural development of an arid landscape, water developments that drove some salmon and other fish toward extinction, and the establishment of NWRs to protect significant waterfowl habitats.

Chronic water shortages in the basin have had and will continue to have serious consequences for waterfowl. Recent decisions made by the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation on water allocations may leave up to 70 percent of all wetland habitat in the Lower Klamath Refuge dry in 7 of 10 years, and, consequently, waterfowl food production in the basin's wetland habitats will decline dramatically. Furthermore, water shortages that typically occur between June and November will unfortunately coincide with the period of greatest waterfowl need.

The geographically broad interconnectedness of water issues is evident in the example of the Klamath. Less water and habitat will force waterfowl to accelerate their migration south into the Central Valley . But, the problem with that is that the Central Valley has already lost 96 percent of its wetlands. With the large human population of the valley expected to more than double in the next 35 years, pressure on water supplies there will only continue to increase. Thus, the margin of safety for the whole flyway, woven together by its water and migratory waterfowl resources, grows thinner as its collective wetland habitats dwindle.

In the Klamath Basin , DU has emphasized wetland restoration to maximize the waterfowl benefits of limited water, while increasing the effectiveness of water use. Current analyses focus on type of wetland, water availability, food resources provided, and energetic needs of waterfowl. This science-based approach can maximize waterfowl use with minimal water in drought conditions.

The heart of much of the controversy is Upper Klamath Lake —home to two species of endangered fish, the major source of water for irrigation, the site of two NWRs, and the source of river water for migratory salmon. Excessive runoff of nutrients into the lake has reduced its water quality, and this increases the risk of endangered fish die-offs. If water quality in the lake were improved, less water may be needed to maintain the endangered fish, which in turn would provide more flexibility in managing lake levels. This could ultimately mean more water for wetland habitats and waterfowl on the NWRs and elsewhere. Thus, DU has focused on working with landowners and farmers in the region to identify and restore wetlands that would not only produce habitat to directly benefit waterfowl, but also provide incremental water-quality benefits to Upper Klamath Lake.

Water Issues Spread Eastward

Although most major water conflicts have been in the arid West, where average annual precipitation is 10-20 inches or less, competition for water is spreading eastward into areas formerly considered water rich. In light of the lessons of our western experiences, can we avoid the contentiousness that inevitably results from the win-lose mindset that has framed outright competition for water resources? Can we choose a better path for the future use and conservation of this essential, but limited, natural resource?

Eastern Arkansas is an example of a water-rich region (receiving approximately 50 inches of rain per year) where competition for water is beginning to drive a wedge of discord between its citizens. The White River basin , at the heart of this largely agricultural region, has historically been the single most important wintering area for mallards in North America , famous for its bottomland hardwood forests and other wetland habitats. Much of the basin was designated as a Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, an international agreement that identifies and recognizes the world's most important wetland ecosystems, particularly for waterfowl.

The leading rice-producing state in the nation, Arkansas ' growing thirst for irrigation water is the principal factor driving the issue. Although the Alluvial Aquifer (which underlies Arkansas 's Grand Prairie rice-production area) has long been a primary source of irrigation water, pumping is far outpacing the aquifer's ability to recharge itself, and its waters are projected to be exhausted in some areas in just 10 years. Eyes are now looking toward diversions from the White River for additional irrigation water.

The Grand Prairie Area Demonstra- tion Project, the first of several proposed to divert significant amounts of water from the White River , has been approved by Congress to be constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the project is highly controversial. Project proponents and opponents occupy nontraditional lines, and in fact, even the farmers in the project area are nearly evenly divided in their opinions of this irrigation scheme. Lawsuits were filed in March 2004 to halt construction of the river-water-withdrawal components of the project.

Does this mean that western water history is doomed to repeat itself as demands begin to exceed water supplies elsewhere? We don't know the ultimate answer to that question, but a good answer for now is that it doesn't have to. Although conflicts are brewing in emerging problem areas such as east Arkansas , water in these areas is typically not yet irrevocably over-allocated. Thus, options remain available for willing parties to work together and recognize all the values provided by the water, and proactively deal with the issues by cooperating to find sustainable solutions.

Conservation and maximizing efficiency are the first rules in wisely using any finite resource. DU has long been dedicated to finding win-win solutions to problems, and has worked in partnership with hundreds of farmers to improve the efficiency of their on-farm water-management capabilities for both agricultural production and waterfowl habitat. For example, DU, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and other members of the Arkansas Partners Project provide water-control structures to farmers to capture abundant and less costly winter precipitation to flood agricultural fields. These flooded fields are used by waterfowl as foraging and roosting areas. Flooding the fields also helps reduce farmers' use of irrigation water and restores some of the hydrologic functions once provided by the more than 7 million acres of natural wetlands that Arkansas has lost.

Is A Sustainable Future Possible?

Demands on water, our most valuable natural resource, continue to increase across the country. In areas as widely spread as the White River basin, as well as portions of south Texas, Nebraska, and Georgia, the key element to dealing successfully with emerging water supply issues will be agreement by all parties to strive for the long-term sustainability of water resources. Ultimately, all interests must acknowledge that water is a limited resource that must meet all of society's expectations and desires, from agricultural food production to waterfowl habitat and duck hunting opportunities. Compatible long-term goals will have to be agreed upon by leaders among dissimilar interest groups. To achieve that critical step, all parties will need to engage in the process early, well before unrealistic beliefs about what limited water supplies can support become expectations. Waterfowl enthusiasts and other people who care about wetlands and wildlife need to engage in these discussions from the beginning to speak on behalf of waterfowl and the habitats that they require.

A mark of an intelligent, healthy society is the ability to learn from the past. Future waterfowlers may look back at our generation and judge our legacy by how well we learned lessons from past experiences with limited natural resources, and how we applied those lessens to conserve and sustainably use water, wetlands, natural grasslands, and other resources. Everyone who cares about waterfowl and waterfowl hunting will have to participate in developing solutions to challenges presented by future water uses in the United States . As competition for water intensifies, waterfowl will lose if we don't all give voice to our interests as the debates continue to grow. The future of wetland and waterfowl conservation, and the hunting opportunities and other enjoyment they provide, depend upon it.