Water and Birds in the Arid West: Habitats in Decline 

A brief overview to Audubon's new report on creating a sustainable water future for birds and people in the American West

Water is the most precious resource in the West—for people, birds, and other wildlife. Riparian habitats like the forests and wetlands that line the Colorado River support some of the most abundant and diverse bird communities in the arid West, serving as home to some 400 species. The Colorado River also provides drinking water for more than 36 million people, irrigates 5.5 million acres of farms and ranches, and supports 16 million jobs throughout seven states—with an annual economic impact of $1.4 trillion. But dams, diversions, drought, and water demand are triggering declines in cottonwood-willow forests and other native river habitat. Saline lakes—landlocked saltwater lakes fringed with wetlands found throughout the Intermountain West—are beacons for millions of birds crossing an otherwise arid landscape. However, these lakes are shrinking and in some cases nearly disappearing. In short, precipitous declines in western water quantity and quality are exacting a toll on health, prosperity, and quality of life for rural and urban communities—and putting birds and wildlife at jeopardy.

Water and Birds in the Arid West: Habitats in Decline represents the first comprehensive assessment of the complex and vital relationships that exist among birds, water, and climate change in the region. Our research focused on two of the most imperiled and irreplaceable western ecosystems: 1) the Colorado River Basin; and 2) the West’s network of saline lakes—including the Great Salt Lake and Salton Sea as well as other smaller but vitally important lakes. Audubon science staff collaborated with outside experts in hydrology, water chemistry, and ecotoxicology, as well as ornithology, in an extensive review of the scientific literature on birds, water, and climate change in the region, with a particular focus on eight western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. In addition, we synthesized regional bird data from a number of sources to assess impacts on birds in the region, and convened avian experts to deepen our shared understanding of the migratory movement of shorebirds and waterbirds among western saline lakes.   

Research Objectives:

  • Increase our understanding of how the decline of riparian habitat in the Colorado River Basin and at saline lakes is impacting birds
  • Assess the status of key western bird species representative of multiple species that depend on riparian and saline lake habitat
  • Analyze impacts and threats to these species’ habitat posed by lack of available water and the anticipated effects of climate change
  • Provide recommendations for water management policy priorities and practices and future science research

Saline Lakes of the Intermountain West

Great Salt Lake is part of a system of saline lakes in the Intermountain West that provide essential habitat for migrating and breeding birds. Audubon also recognizes the importance of Great Salt Lake and is working to raise awareness. 

 For links to local media coverage, visit Audubon.org 


Phragmites is an invasive weed that is common in Great Salt Lake wetlands. The plant not only sucks up water from Great Salt Lake, but degrades important bird and wildlife habitat. In Utah, great efforts are made to control and manage the spread of this weed. Research teams at the University of Utah have been dedicated to understanding the science of controlling phragmites for the benefit of wildlife habitat on Great Salt Lake. Control options require mowing, cutting, grazing, and/or herbicide applications.

How To Restore Phragmites-Invaded Wetlands


Why We Care

  • Years ago the Great Salt Lake was a entertainment destination for the people of Salt Lake City. One of my ancestors had a vacation home near Black Rock, where he would take his family to escape the heat and cares of the city. That was a long time ago and a lot has changed since then. For many reasons the lake is not as popular as it once was. But it has been a source of peace, contemplation, and inspiration to me. I reflect on photos I have seen of the grand days of Saltair and the love of floating in the lake. I have done this myself on numerous occasions. I love the sensation of effortlessly floating. And we can escape the cares of the world.

    Clinton Whiting, Alfred Lambourne Prize Participant