Bye Bye Birdie

Eben Paxton's job was getting routine. Year after year his crew of bird banders with the U.S. Geological Survey were hiking to the same breeding spots mapped out on the dry bottom of Roosevelt Lake logging them on their yearly survey. It was downright boring.

Fortunately, the 1998 summer nesting season for the flycatcher was almost over, so Paxton and his granola gang had only a few more weeks of crawling slowly on their hands and knees through the gnarled thickets of salt cedar. On this day, the sweat dripped into their ears as they listened desperately for the "fitz-bew" call of the flycatcher.

Then someone heard a shout. Members of a nearby survey crew were walking between the usual breeding patches when a misplaced "fitz-bew" stopped them in their tracks. The flycatcher was calling from a spot they had never surveyed, a spot that wasn't even marked on the map.

They dove in, burrowing through the dense shrubs, until suddenly they were surrounded by a symphony of fitz-bews -- all from flycatchers they had never seen or heard before.

"Our mouths just dropped," says Paxton, whose Army green camouflage pants and light blue tee shirt emblazoned with a drawing of a flycatcher make him look like a tree hugger in boot camp.

Somehow, they would have to catch and band all of these migratory birds before they flew south for the winter. "It was like a zoo," he says. "It was really crazy."

And it was exciting. Paxton and his crew had discovered a whole new population of Southwestern willow flycatchers, one of the most endangered birds in North America.

Banders named the new area Shangri-La, one of several new flycatcher havens discovered in the last three years at Roosevelt Lake. The lush lake bottom is now home to more than 200 of the endangered birds, second only to Cliff Gila Valley in New Mexico for the largest population of Southwestern willow flycatchers in the world.

But the bird paradise is sure to be short-lived. The flycatchers chose to breed in the granddaddy of all reservoirs controlled by Salt River Project. Roosevelt is the linchpin of SRP's water supply, holding more acre-feet of water than the rest of its five reservoirs combined. The first to receive water and the first to release it, Roosevelt is run like a water-storing monster, gobbling up and holding every inflow to sell to thirsty farmers and cities.

Five years of low rainfall, including two years of drought with record low amounts of precipitation, have quieted the monster. As the water has receded, leaving sediment-rich soil behind, a green swath of lush vegetation has sprung up, a magnet for habitat-starved flycatchers.

The bumper crop of endangered birds is a bonanza for biologists, who chirp with enthusiasm as they study the rare enclave of flycatchers. But the bird boom is a nightmare for SRP water managers, who could be in violation of the Endangered Species Act if they fill up the lake. SRP is racing to gain permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to destroy flycatcher habitat.

"It's not a question of literally drowning the birds," says John Keane, SRP's executive environmental analyst. Instead, the water will drown the trees the flycatcher nests in.

If SRP doesn't finish the yearlong permitting process before runoff from rainfall and melting snow start flooding flycatcher habitat, the utility would technically be in violation of the Endangered Species Act, say Fish and Wildlife officials. Fines for corporations run as high as $200,000 for each pair of birds. But the agency would have to prove that the birds' ability to occupy habitat was harmed -- a tough proposition because the vegetation preferred by flycatchers can survive flooding for months at a time. SRP officials say they will store the water and wait to see who raises a stink about it.

"You could be talking about enough water to supply cities for a year or more," says Keane. "It's not one of those things you say, 'Heck, let's release the water.'"

If SRP were prohibited long-term from filling Roosevelt Lake, or if the current drought continues, SRP officials say Phoenix would face water shortages within three years. Already, the public utility, the Valley's largest provider of power and water, is pumping the maximum amount of groundwater allowed. If SRP could fill the lake only to the edge of the bird habitat, it would have dangerously low storage capacity during low-water years and be forced to pump more from limited groundwater, says Charlie Ester, SRP's manager of water resource operations.

"It would be like being in a perpetual drought," he says.

SRP's effort to secure storage of water for the Valley is almost certain to face litigation from environmentalists with the Center for Biological Diversity, who shudder at the vision of water washing over one of the largest remaining habitats for the Southwestern willow flycatcher.