Water, Ducks and People

As demand for water intensifies, DU is working to ensure that waterfowl receive a fair share of this limited resource

© MichaelFurtman.com

All living things need water, which is becoming an increasingly precious commodity in our crowded world. The fact is, water has always been a limited resource. There is nothing we can do to increase the earth's water supply. All we can do is move water around and store it for relatively short periods of time. 

In the United States, we are now reaching and exceeding the limits of our fresh water supplies in many places, with serious consequences for people, agriculture, industry, and wildlife. Following are a few examples of how water shortages are now impacting waterfowl, and how Ducks Unlimited is working collaboratively with others to find constructive solutions. 

Tapped Out in Texas

Texas has become ground zero in what intensifying competition for limited water can mean for waterfowl and their habitats. Texas's population is growing rapidly, and is predicted to reach 46 million people by 2060. A large portion of the state is suffering through a five-year drought, the worst in decades, further increasing the pressure that growing human populations are placing on already limited water supplies. 

The Texas Gulf Coast is one of the most important waterfowl wintering areas in North America. Each year, approximately 2 million ducks and 750,000 geese spend the winter in the Texas Mid-Coast region. In addition, about 163,000 mottled ducks—25 percent of the continental population—live here year-round.

This region is also part of one of three major rice-producing areas in the United States: the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and California's Central Valley. Not coincidentally, these areas are all critically important to wintering waterfowl. With most natural wetlands long gone in these areas, well-managed rice lands provide essential alternative habitats for waterfowl. In the Texas Mid-Coast region, rice fields provide two-thirds of the food energy needed by wintering waterfowl.

Rice production requires water, however, and the ongoing drought has depleted agricultural water supplies along the Texas Gulf Coast. Water authorities throughout the state have struggled to juggle the water needs of cities, industry, farming, and conservation and recreational interests. For rice producers and waterfowl managers (often one and the same), it all hit home in 2011, when the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) withheld water for flooding harvested rice fields in winter, an agricultural practice that provides vital habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl and other migratory birds. 

The situation grew even more serious in 2012, when the LCRA shut off the water to 50,000 acres of rice fields—about one-third of the state's total rice acreage. Conditions did not improve significantly in 2013, and water was once again withheld from these rice lands. The reduction of 50,000 acres of rice meant that the region's carrying capacity for wintering waterfowl was reduced by 600,000 birds, almost a third of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan goal. These decisions also weaken the region's rice-based economy, and at some point farmers here may abandon rice production altogether due to the loss of needed infrastructure. That would be a tremendous blow to a way of life in a region with almost a 100-year history of rice farming as well as a rich waterfowl hunting tradition.

The LCRA also provides water to more than 1 million people, including residents of Austin as well as industries and other municipal users. If the drought does not end soon, farmers and waterfowl could end up on the losing end of the tug of war over water between cities and rural areas. In response, DU and the USA Rice Federation formed the USA Rice–DU Stewardship Partnership in 2013 to work together to benefit rice agriculture, waterfowl, and water. DU is also partnering with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and others in the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project to address waterfowl habitat needs in this region. 

Working closely with farmers and other willing landowners, this partnership is restoring about 3,000 acres of waterfowl habitat annually. But given the loss of 50,000 acres of waterfowl habitat on rice lands during the past two years, it is clear that the future of waterfowl conservation in this region will depend on finding ways to ensure adequate supplies of water to sustain a healthy rice industry.  

Innovative Solutions in the West

Most of the western United States is arid, and the region has faced limited water supplies since settlement. But continued population growth (Colorado's population could exceed 8 million by 2050) is challenging a system already struggling to meet water demands for human consumption, irrigation, industry, and outdoor recreation such as hunting and fishing. 

Although Colorado recently suffered catastrophic flooding, the state averages only seven to 16 inches of precipitation annually, and water diversions cause some of its rivers to run dry at times. The South Platte River, for example, a tributary of Nebraska's legendary Platte River, goes dry in several locations every year. Looking ahead, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has projected that population growth in the South Platte Basin (including Denver) would result in an annual shortage of 29 to 55 billion gallons of water. Faced with this stark reality, the CWCB is exploring and pursuing measures to more efficiently allocate the region's limited water supplies. 

One option is to simply transfer water from agriculture to municipal and industrial users. While the agricultural community owns nearly 85 percent of all water rights in Colorado, it contributes only about 1 percent of the state's gross domestic product, and urban users have long coveted that water. According to CWCB projections, agricultural water transfers to municipal users would result in a loss of 22 to 32 percent (180,000 to 267,000 acres) of the state's irrigated agricultural land by 2050. 

Transfers of agricultural water to cities could also detrimentally affect waterfowl, fish, and other wildlife. Although water diversions for irrigation during the growing season reduces peak flows in the summer months, flows of many western rivers are enhanced during waterfowl migration and wintering periods by "return flows" from irrigation. This surplus irrigation water returns either directly through runoff or by seeping into groundwater, which feeds many floodplain wetlands and warm-water sloughs, providing important wintering habitat for ducks and other water birds. 

In collaboration with many partners, DU has devised an innovative "river augmentation approach" to improve the management of irrigation water for a variety of interests, including waterfowl conservation

This approach involves diverting water owned by water conservancy districts (which represent municipal, industrial, or agricultural partners) to wetland complexes that DU has restored or created. The water in these "recharge wetlands" gradually filters into the underlying aquifer, where the groundwater flows back to the river and is once again available for other uses. Landowners receive valuable "water credits" based on the quantity of water that is returned to the river through this process. 

DU's flagship recharge wetland project, on the South Platte River Ranch, demonstrates how diverse interests can all win through collaboration. The ranch's owner sought to improve his farming and ranching operation, while also enhancing wildlife habitat. DU staff developed a plan that entailed pumping water over 1.5 miles from the South Platte River through a series of moist-soil wetlands. The Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District (LSPWCD), which is responsible for supplying irrigation water in this area, was recruited as a key partner along with the South Platte Water Related Activities Program (SPWRAP), CWCB, and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act

The LSPWCD receives all of the project's marketable water credits to help support its members' irrigation needs. In return for investing capital and paying long-term operation and maintenance costs, the SPWRAP receives water credits from the LSPWCD to address its members' endangered species recovery responsibilities. And finally, DU fulfills its mission by working with the landowner to provide important migration and wintering habitat for waterfowl. 

One of the greatest rewards of this project was saving a family farm. During construction, DU was alerted that eight irrigation wells on a nearby farm were shut down for lack of an approved river augmentation plan. DU was able to work with the LSPWCD to incorporate the farm into the South Platte River Ranch Project and rescue their operation. This system allows the farmer to use the water when it's available and then return it to the river when it's needed by others. The success of DU and its partners along the South Platte River can serve as a model for conservation interests in other regions where water supplies are limited. 

Adjusting to the New Normal

Concerns about water have spread even to the Prairie Pothole Region, North America's most important waterfowl breeding ground, due to the continued drainage of wetlands and the expansion of "fracking." A water-intensive process, fracking is a new method of extracting oil and natural gas. Fracking is now occuring in many areas of the United States, including semiarid North Dakota. Production from the state's Bakken field is projected to require a staggering 5.5 billion gallons of water annually. Where will this water come from? Pumping groundwater can deplete the underlying aquifer, threatening water supplies used by rural communities and agriculture, and lower the water table, draining wetlands and other surface waters from below. Rising demand for water has already led to the illegal sale of water and proposals to drain lakes to supply nearby fracking operations. With the Prairie Pothole Region already suffering severe wetland loss, waterfowl can ill afford an acceleration of wetland drainage.  

The relatively water-rich East, with annual rainfall of 30 to 70 inches, is also not immune to the effects of increasing demand for water. Irrigated cropland, for example, is expected to increase from 15.2 million acres in 2005 to 20.3 million acres in 2060, dramatically increasing agricultural water use in many areas. In addition, population growth in major cities is inevitably accompanied by greater water demand and conflicts over the allocation of regional water supplies. 

The old adage "whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over" rings true as disputes over water allocation intensify. Unfortunately, the battles will only escalate unless the limits of water are recognized, and plans for its management, allocation, and conservation are developed and implemented. 

Dr. Scott Yaich is director of conservation planning and policy at DU national headquarters in Memphis. Greg Kernohan is DU's manager of conservation programs−ecosystem services, based in Colorado.