Thursday, July 6, 2017

Canary in the Coal Mine

Sierra Club image

When prophet, seer, revelator and polygamist, Brigham Young, beheld the Great Salt Lake Valley, he proclaimed to his fellow Mormons (Latter Day Saints): "This is the place." The Mormons had treked nearly 1,300 miles from Nauvoo, Illinois to the Salt Lake to escape the persecution they had suffered at the hands of - well - some Christians. Of course, they would discover that the lake was not a fresh water lake but a salt water lake. Nevertheless, obedient to their prophet, they made do with the territory, thrived as a community, and extended their empire throughout the west and their religion throughout the world.

Today, the Great Salt Lake is drying up and it is not alone. Other saline lakes and the Colorado River Basin are doing so as well. (That Basin by the way is responsible for 15% of our food and $1.4 trillion of economic productivity.) It's not only the case of the mismanagement of water in the west, it's the result of the total contribution of principally industrial societies to global warming. 

Western yellow-billed cuckoo
Image from the Audubon Society

The drying up of these lakes is taking its toll on bird habitats. It's long but worth reading - the Audubon Society's Executive Summary—Water and Birds in the Arid West: Habitats in Decline. The online summary has great pictures, maps and charts.  The declining ecosystem and bird populations should be a warning to humans. It is, as Marshall Carter-Tripp informs us, a matter of the canary in the cage in the coal mine. An op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, Saline lakes are drying up across the West — and putting birds at serious risk, is not just an aviary problem. It forebodes human problems. The Times piece puts it this way when looking at the decline of one species in particular, the western yellow-billed cuckoo:

"Why should we care about the western yellow-billed cuckoo? Well, for one thing, the effects of water loss on birds tell us a lot about how falling water levels will affect humans. Birds are highly sensitive to ecological changes, which makes them excellent indicators of environmental health. When colonial seabirds start abandoning nesting sites en masse because of dramatic drops in water levels, as occurred in the Salton Sea in 2013, or are forced to relocate because of toxic dust kicked up by winds blowing across dry lake beds, we know that humans soon will feel the effects of those changes."

John Fleck, a journalist who lives in New Mexico, says this in his blog post for today, birds and water in a changing West:

"This is a critical point in thinking about contemporary water/environmental politics. It's not enough to simply say "But the birds!" Environmentalists' greatest chance for success requires helping ensure reliable supplies for the people, because without that the environment will always take the hit."

John Sproul teaching students

It is encouraging to see the work of the Audubon Society and other "prophets and seers" to reclaim critical water features. Here in El Paso, we have the extraordinary work of John Sproul (the John Muir of El Paso) to revive the Rio Bosque Wetlands. He is assisted by the Friends of the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park

[Remember the birding trip hosted by our local Audubon Society this Saturday. More info in yesterday's blog post.]

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