SANTA FE — This month marks a milestone for river conservation in the state of New Mexico and for Audubon.
In a first-of-its-kind water transfer initiative, Audubon New Mexico, a non-profit conservation organization, has begun to release 260 million gallons of water to the Middle Rio Grande to increase vital streamflow needed by fish and wildlife in stretches of the river vulnerable to drying out during the late summer months.
Audubon New Mexico and four Middle Rio Grande Pueblos – Sandia, Isleta, Santa Ana, and Cochiti – have joined together in an unprecedented partnership, whereby each Pueblo supplied 100 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama water to Audubon. After hearing of this partnership, the Club at Las Campanas, located in Santa Fe, donated an additional 399 acre-feet of water leased from the Jicarilla Apache Nation, effectively doubling for a total of 799 acre-feet of water.
This initiative marks the first time in New Mexico that a conservation organization has stored water in the Abiquiú Reservoir’s Environmental Pool for delivery to the Middle Rio Grande when the river – and its birds and wildlife – need it most.
“Combined with surplus water donated by the Club at Las Campanas, the water stored for release swelled to more than 260 million gallons. In collaboration with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, we will increase flow in the river channel for a 35-mile stretch for nearly 24 days,” says Julie Weinstein, executive director of Audubon New Mexico. By mid-September, the water will have reached some of the Middle Rio Grande’s thirstiest habitats.
Audubon New Mexico, a leader in the state on innovative water transactions, has developed a state-wide effort to improve and increase streamflow for the benefit of rivers, securing a greater share of water for birds, other wildlife, and the communities that depend on them. Dedicating water to the state’s beleaguered rivers is one goal of Audubon New Mexico’s statewide Freshwater Conservation Program, which also includes advocating to save the Gila River from a proposed diversion.
The Rio Grande Corridor in New Mexico (RGCNM) is an important migratory, wintering and nesting corridor within the arid intermountain west that supports over 200,000 waterfowl, 18,000 greater Sandhill Cranes and tens of thousands of other waterbirds and shorebirds.
The Rio Grande delta above Elephant Butte Reservoir is home to the largest number of contiguous breeding territories for both the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the threatened Yellow-billed Cuckoo in their entire range (with the Gila River in New Mexico a close second). Yet over 80 percent of the historic wetland and riparian habitats of the RGCNM have been lost and more than one-third of the Rio Grande’s 465-mile length in New Mexico is subject to river drying annually, including reaches within the Middle Rio Grande.
“Water is the source of all life here in New Mexico and our rivers are especially critical for bird habitat and biodiversity,” Weinstein said. “Central to Audubon’s conservation work is the belief that where birds thrive, people prosper. “Our work is centered on birds because they are a crucial link in the chain of life. The vast distances birds travel and their exposure to diverse ecosystems make them unique barometers of the Earth’s health and specifically, here in New Mexico, the health of our rivers.”
Weinstein explained further, “Many birds depend on healthy rivers, streams and springs, such as the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Bell’s Vireo, which are all in decline because of a changing climate and over allocation of water resources. To that end, Audubon New Mexico remains committed to protecting our sacred natural resources. We are extremely grateful to work in partnership with all communities and institutions that advocate for the importance of healthy rivers.”
River flows have cultural importance to the Pueblos, and the need for adequate flows to provide for environmental uses is an area of concern for the Pueblos and for Audubon.
“The Rio Grande is sacred to the people of Sandia Pueblo, as is the environment it provides,” Gov. Isaac Lujan said. “With ever increasing demands put on the river, Sandia offers this water as a dedication to the inherent value the river has to all people and the habitat it supports. Sandia hopes this donation can be used as an example of what can be done for the health of the river and the community when stakeholders work together.”
This collaboration also supports river restoration and conservation projects – specifically, and as a result of this initiative, the Pueblo of Santa Ana’s Department of Natural Resources is able to augment its habitat planting along the Middle Rio Grande itself.
“The Pueblo of Santa Ana is very happy to partner with Audubon to support each other’s conservation efforts,” Lt. Gov. Ulysses Leon said. “For the past decade and a half, the Pueblo has led conservation and restoration efforts along the reach of the river that runs through the Pueblo. The relationship formed between the Pueblo and Audubon furthers the Pueblo’s existing efforts by allowing the Pueblo to restore more riparian habitat and plant more trees along the river. Such conservation and restoration efforts will have a direct benefit to both the river and the Pueblo and we are glad to have this work supported by Audubon.”
Audubon believes that people are at the heart of conservation solutions. It is because of this unprecedented partnership that Audubon can further enhance its freshwater conservations efforts, which will ultimately benefit the fragile and sacred natural resources in the Land of Enchantment for years to come.
“When we realized we had the opportunity to donate excess water to Audubon to support water conservation efforts and birds in our state, we immediately agreed to partner in this important initiative,” said Tom Egelhoff, director of agronomy for the Club at Las Campanas. “At the Club at Las Campanas, we provide habitat for 200 species of migrating and breeding birds, and the only golf course in New Mexico to be certified as a cooperative sanctuary by Audubon International (an independent organization not affiliated with National Audubon Society). Additionally, we have focused on responsible water conservation practices, including a 20 percent reduction in irrigation water use by removing 30 acres of golf course turf and the installation of three on-site weather stations to provide weather data for our evapotranspiration-based computerized irrigation program, to name a few.”
Audubon is grateful for this collaboration with the Pueblos and the Club at Las Campanas, and the generous investments from the Turner Foundation, Thornburg Foundation, McCune Foundation, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and individual donors. “Without these partnerships our work would not be possible,” Weinstein said.
Audubon looks forward to continuing collaboration with the Middle Rio Grande Pueblos, water rights holders such as the Club at Las Campanas, private land owners, and the various federal, state, and local agencies involved in water operations in New Mexico.
To learn more about Audubon New Mexico’s water conservation efforts, click here.