How Saving Pollinators Can Save Water and Fish
By Claudia Browne
“This is the best day ever- let’s do it again tomorrow!” exclaimed an 8-year old boy after running through fields counting butterflies on a Colorado summer day. He had discovered, like many of us that day, that few things inspire such universal delight in all ages as watching the unpredictable beauty and mystery of pollinators and plants coming together.
Imagine though, that you are one of these small insects flying over a city such as the Denver metropolitan area searching for a patch of food—it must seem like looking for a needle in a haystack at times! Urban sprawl has carved once vast native prairies into small, fragmented lots with well-watered, much-loved lawns. As any good suburbanite will tell you, it is hard to beat a lawn as a good place to lie down and look up at the sky and trees, to play ball with your kids, or to watch a puppy roll about. It is also hard, however, to top seeing the joy in a child’s eyes as they chase a butterfly and watch it land on a flower. So, how do we have both?
Pollinators are the cornerstone of nearly all terrestrial ecosystems, with more than 85% of the world’s flowering plants depending on their pollination service in order to reproduce. In Colorado, pollinators are an important part of the economy, with agriculture generating “more than $40 billion of economic activity annually, and exported nearly $1.8 billion of food and agricultural products in 2012.” (Colorado Department of Agriculture)
But 40% of invertebrate pollinators currently face global extinction, with many their vertebrate colleagues trending in the same direction. With the loss of pollinator habitat and annual declines in bees increasing, the fate of pollinators and the agricultural crops they support is truly in our hands.
Numerous factors are at play in the decline of pollinators, including insecticides, parasites, and climate change. But experts say loss of habitat is the primary cause of pollinator decline. Pollinators are the cornerstone of nearly all terrestrial ecosystems, with more than 85% of the world’s flowering plants depending on their pollination service in order to reproduce. In Colorado, pollinators are an important part of the economy, where agriculture generates more than $40 billion of economic activity annually, and exported nearly $1.8 billion of food and agricultural products in 2012.
At the same time, Colorado’s streams and rivers–and the riparian ecosystems along their banks–are also at risk from increasing pressures from population growth and the demands of multiple users. Though these ecosystems occupy less than 3% of the overall landscape, they are critical for the survival of up to 80% of the state’s bird and wildlife species. To remain functional, these ecosystems depend on the availability and timing of surface and subsurface water flows. But these flows are increasingly at risk because of inadequate protection, water resource depletion, and stresses such as water depletion, stream bank armoring, and storm water runoff. One of the largest demands from the municipal sector is outdoor watering—most of which is used on lawns. The challenge of protecting flows in rivers and riparian areas is not unique to the West. Many countries around the world are establishing policies, such as the European Union’s “Water Framework Directive,” to ensure that ecological water needs are integrated into future water management practices. For residents of Colorado and the West, however, the future is already here.
Over the last decade, Colorado’s water management framework, which was initially built around the tenet of “first come, first-served” for water rights, has expanded to begin to recognize the importance of water for the environment. Both the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative and the 2015 Colorado’s Water Plan encourage water providers and land planners to consider the pursuit of water management strategies that include benefits to riparian and aquatic environments. And the Water Plan also recognizes the need for outdoor water conservation through e.g., “Landscape transformation of some high water requirement turf to low water requirement plantings.” But building momentum to translate these recommendations into action will require broader public support.
As with water conservation, there are national and regional strategies, research plans, and potential regulations related to pollinator habitat conservation, water conservation and river restoration. But what if the answers to building public momentum to help address both water and pollinator challenges are closer than we think—in our homes and in our hearts? What if the mandates don’t come from above, but from within?
A stroll through any bookstore reveals numerous books on finding happiness and purpose. Common themes in those books center on the value of autonomy–people don’t want to be told what to do—and the importance of feeling that one is making a difference. Happy people find meaning in giving back. Stories of our failed education system and of poverty and economic inequality also appear on those same bookshelves. By continuing to examine social, environmental, and health issues separately and seeking solutions in “silos,” we are missing the chance to leverage creative problem solving. With a shift in thinking, we can imagine a different type of future where problems are viewed in relationship to one another, and we can then generate integrated solutions. Then, people participate how they can, where they can – not because they “have to” but — because they want to. We choose to be part of the solutions to the ecological and social challenges our communities face.
What if, for example, urban water providers created a Prairie Pollinator Partners program to replace half the lawn area with low-water-use prairie species for pollinators? And what if the program trained and employed young, urban, under-employed youth in horticulture, design, landscaping, and possibly beekeeping and honey-based entrepreneurial enterprises? And what if the water conserved through the prairie plant program was saved or transferred back to the stream, via a “bank” that released water (e.g., from a reservoir) for instream flows? Participating residents would enjoy four benefits from one action– saving money on their water bills, supporting career paths for underserved youth, creating habitat for bees and butterflies, and saving water for the fish— truly a “grass roots” solution!