Be Your Own Birder

Saving Water, Saving Birds

Water is critical to all our lives – our bodies are 55-60 percent water and our planet’s surface area is 71 percent water. Water is in our air and food, is great for entertainment or relaxation, and is essential for many of life’s necessities. Much fuss is made over freshwater sources and how less than three percent of the water on our planet is fresh, with much of that locked away in groundwater sources, polar ice caps, and other unusable forms. But while we may rely on freshwater, birds don’t always, and it is the saline and saltwater resources on our planet that may be in the greatest peril and pose the greatest risks to both ourselves and the birds we love.

Many birds rely on brackish and saline water sources as critical nesting and feeding grounds around the world, and one critical area is in western North America, including the Great Salt Lake, Salton Sea, and other saline lakes. Millions of birds rely on these habitats for brine flies and shrimp to refuel during migration and feed their offspring. Yet those water sources are disappearing, and with them, the resources birds need for successful breeding.

But where is the water going? Alarmists point to rising annual temperatures, decreased rainfall, and periods of extended drought, and while they aren’t wrong about these natural causes of water loss, they aren’t entirely right, either. Those lakes rely on feeder rivers of freshwater, rivers that are diverted for agriculture, landscaping irrigation, industry, and other uses, all of which – every one – we have the power to reduce through our own personal water conservation.

I lived in Utah for 11 years, and had the privilege of visiting the Great Salt Lake regularly, both for birding and other recreation. On one memorable occasion (that involved a golden eagle hunting just 15 feet from my truck), I visited a unique work of installation art that is part of the Great Salt Lake and highlights its changing water levels – Spiral Jetty. The jetty is a basalt rock sculpture intended to be submerged in the lake, but also intended to emerge when the lake’s levels fall. Since the early 2000s, the jetty has been visible more each year due to unprecedented drought and record low water levels. While this gave me the wonderful opportunity to walk the clockwise spiral its entire length and admire the artwork in all its glory, it is also unsettling, as the drought has continued to worsen over the years. While the artwork reappears, the water disappears, and with it, the birds.

Spiral Jetty
Spiral Jetty – Photo by Melissa Mayntz

I let the politicians, environmentalists, engineers, and many others with more acumen than myself argue over plans for lake restoration, the existence or non-existence of climate change, and how regulations and restrictions should or shouldn’t be placed on industries, corporations, or even large-scale communities about water use. What I worry about – and what we can all do something about – is our own personal water conservation, in our own ways. Every drop we save is another drop available for wildlife and habitat.

I do all I can to conserve water in my home and life, including…

  • Running the dishwasher only when full, and using paper towels rather than running water to rinse dishes off that need it before loading them. While some dishes need hand-washing, I do so with minimal rinsing and generally use one sink’s worth of water or less.
  • Wearing clothing repeatedly until it is truly dirty rather than dropping it in the laundry basket after only being worn a few hours. Just how many times a piece of clothing is worn depends on the fabric, type of clothing and conditions under which it is worn.
  • Reusing towels and washcloths (both kitchen and bath) until they are truly dirty before adding them to the laundry. Different people have different tolerances for this type of use, but suffice it to say that my tolerance is quite high and I own very few towels.
  • Minimizing toilet flushes. “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” This may seem disgusting to some, but with proper care and consideration, it has never posed a problem, and it is the single best way to reduce household water use.
  • Turning off running water while shaving and brushing teeth as much as possible. This is always easy when brushing teeth, but less so with shaving due to sink positions, counter heights and my own shorter stature, but I’m working on it.
  • Short showers – as in, generally under 8 minutes. With long hair with a dry texture that demands conditioning and a personal yearning to be clean, a 4-minute shower really isn’t possible for me, but I keep showers as brief as possible.
  • Absolutely no lawn irrigation. If Mother Nature doesn’t think my lawn needs watering, neither do I. I didn’t do so well on this in Utah (for many difficult to explain reasons), but we will never irrigate our Florida lawn.
  • Heating water on the stove when required for cooking rather than running the tap for hot water for a recipe. This is easier to do now as my kitchen tap takes obscenely long to get hot, so it’s a good reminder to not waste water.
  • Reusing water whenever possible. For example, the water I use to sterilize jars for canning is great for filling my bird bath, and water that is run in the sink to warm up for washing is great for refilling personal water bottles.
  • Absolutely no leaking or dripping water sources in the house – toilets, sinks, showers, etc. If there’s a leak, it gets fixed promptly so any waste is eliminated right away. If I can’t fix it, I call someone who can right away.

Are my water conservation methods going to save the world, stop the extinction of a bird species, or be revolutionary to the powers that be? Not at all. But I hope what I do can be an example and inspiration to others. If we all did such things for water conservation, less water would be diverted from our precious freshwater rivers, and those saline lakes birds depend on so greatly would start to refill once again. While it may mean that fewer people get to see Spiral Jetty in all its glory, they’d still get to see the glorious birds that rely on those precious habitats.

Share how you conserve water in the comments – I could always use more ideas!

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