Southwestern Farmers Share Their Water with Endangered Birds
In the West, as the saying goes, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. So why on earth did New Mexicans--during a severe drought, no less--decide to give precious drops to southwestern willow flycatchers?
"Bummer. Still, you can see why this is good habitat. It has a good structure for nesting. We've got a bunch of different age classes and successional states. But this area is getting to be just past its peak." Ryan meant that the woodland was becoming just a bit old to be optimal, with too many dead stems, not enough sprouting vegetation. Under natural conditions, such a riparian woodland might get flooded out, and the successional clock would be reset.
"Flycatcher habitat by its definition is temporary," she said. "It's a dynamic system." How that habitat will evolve in the future in the artificial conditions in the reservoir basin is a big unknown. And along the river below the dam, given that floods no longer occur, it will likely be up to people to continue to establish new swaths of riparian vegetation with their sweat--and some well-applied water.
When Elephant Butte Dam was built a century ago, its discharge was designated solely for watering crops, not golf courses or lawns. The releases are managed by two farmers' cooperatives: the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, in New Mexico, and the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, in Texas. Anybody looking to irrigate farmland in the river corridor needs to work through those agencies. In 2009, when Bardwell proposed creating some restoration sites with International Boundary and Water Commission funding, she went to talk to Gary Esslinger, the treasurer manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.
Esslinger is a wry and practical manager with swept-back hair that wouldn't look out of place on a surfer. He wasn't predisposed to dwell on ecological concerns. But he knew the elaborate rules that govern irrigation. "If you want to use any water," he told her, "you have to become an e-farmer. You're going to have to become a constituent."
He was recounting the story in a wood-paneled conference room at the district headquarters in Las Cruces. Sitting next to him was Robert Faubion, an area farmer who is one of the district's board members. Faubion, who is in his upper 50s, has dark hair and was wearing a crisp tan shirt. He represents the fourth generation in his family to farm in the Rio Grande Valley.
The notion of "e-farming" (for environmental) was new to both men, as was any connection to a conservation group. But they respected the time Bardwell had put into attending meetings and building bridges; before joining Audubon, she had worked locally for the World Wildlife Fund and had frequent contact with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. They also knew that the district, like the International Boundary and Water Commission, was bound by the Endangered Species Act since the 1995 listing of the southwestern willow flycatcher. They worried that if the Rio Grande were to reenter a wet cycle, the flooding of the many nesting territories in the upper reaches of Elephant Butte Res- ervoir could potentially violate the ESA. The Fish and Wildlife Service might pro- hibit the reservoir from filling to capacity, or even near it--anathema to the farmers needing water. And so it was that district officials began considering how they could plan ahead by creating new willow flycatcher habitat along the district's stretch of the river.
"When we saw the lake receding," said Faubion, "we started looking for mitigation sites. We thought that this was pretty proactive. We felt we'd be in a much better position to defend ourselves if we developed a plan."
"But our board was reluctant at first," Esslinger pointed out, carefully couching major misgivings.
Faubion agreed. "There was quite a level of distrust. But what we didn't want to have was environmentalists suing. We wanted to create a mechanism so environmentalists would have the same rights as any farmers. And we'd rather do this proactively with individual environmental groups than deal with the government." The farmers decided they could trust Bardwell. With a government agency, they never knew when a decision by one official might be overruled by anonymous bureaucrats in some other office.
An agreement hammered out between Audubon New Mexico and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District now permits conservation groups that are district members to lease or purchase water rights from willing sellers. This past June the district passed a policy that explicitly allows irrigation water to be used to irrigate native plants for habitat restoration. Bardwell anticipates soon being able to buy water rights on a small scale, probably from landowners who are in arrears in their irrigation district payments and might welcome a sale.
With these new rights, though, come responsibilities. The district's board members wanted to be sure that their cooperation in creating new riparian habitat would not run afoul of the law--specifically, the ESA. They sought assurances that water used to create habitat for an endangered species would not take precedence over water used for crops. Both parties agreed that if drought dictates ongoing cuts in water deliveries--as was the case this year--water use at resto- ration sites would be curtailed to the same degree as that on fields.