October 16, 2012
If you had been raised as a member of the Upper East Side of Manhattan’s high society and made a career as a painter, what sorts of challenges would you pursue as you neared the age of 60?
How about converting a couple dry and barren ranches in the American Southwest and Mexico into thriving ecosystems?
Well that’s exactly what Valer Austin did 13 years ago. Now at the age of 72, Valer is as energetic as she has ever been, especially when it comes to talking about water on her land. You see, when Valer and her husband, Josiah, bought their first ranch, the land was parched and supported only the hardiest of plant species. Surface streams were nonexistent.
Though the Austins intended to use the ranch as a vacationing spot, they quickly realized that owning a ranch was a full-time effort, and one they were more than happy to embrace. Their methods for restoring the land, however, were largely an accident. Hoping to prevent the occasional rainstorms from pouring across a section of road on the property, Josiah built a couple small rock dams, called trincheras. He and Valer quickly noticed that silt was piling up behind the rocks along with puddles that stayed around long after the rain. What was truly amazing, though, was when grasses started growing out of the moist silt! Valer and Josiah quickly realized that a series of trincheras all around their property could slow the pace of rainfall runoff and allow it provide both nutrients and moisture to their land.
Now, 13 years and over 20,000 trincheras later (plus tree planting, some heavy engineering, and a number of other efforts), water has become a common site all over their property. Species that had fled long ago are returning and enjoying the reclaimed lushness of the land. Researchers, photographers, and government officials are regular visitors to the land, seeking to study the impact of the Valer’s efforts and to teach others how relatively primitive solutions can have such a profound effect.
We encourage you to read more about this incredible story by checking out CNN’s article “An Amateur Rancher Brings the Wastelands of the Southwest Back to Life.”
October 9, 2012
After months of waiting, the rains finally fell over West Texas. Five inches in one weekend, in fact! The reservoir supplying water for San Angelo and a number of other nearby communities swelled from 12 percent of capacity to 26 percent full in just four days. As one resident put it, though, “We’re pretty excited. But we’re not out of the drought.”
Indeed, some 66 percent of Texas remains in drought. And while communities were given a temporary reprieve from the lack of rain, public officials are still facing agonizing decisions about how best to preserve quality of life while protecting this vital resource.
In the past, communities responded by building more and bigger reservoirs to ensure larger reserves in the event of water shortages. However, it has become evident that with the hot, dry temperatures that characterize the Texan climate, more water generally evaporates from the reservoirs in a given year than people use. Indeed, according to Mayor Alvin New of San Angelo, “our biggest enemy is actually evaporation.”
This time, officials are placing their bets on new pipelines to tap vast underground aquifers. However, this approach has its own concerns. The aquifers must be protected from pollutants that could contaminate drinking supplies while also ensuring that the sources of these aquifers do not dry up. Though many approaches to address these problems have been proposed, we are particularly supportive of San Antonio’s strategy, which focuses on protecting natural processes rather than large infrastructure projects. (To read more on San Antonio’s program, read our post on Radical Conservation).
If you’ve been experiencing water shortages, let us know how your community has responded!
May 31, 2012
With all the hype surrounding the new documentary “Where the Yellowstone Goes” (presented by FSC affiliate Trout Headwaters), we got to thinking about water scarcity issues facing the American West. After all, headlines like “Arizona Counties Under Water Restrictions,” “Tomato Shortages Blamed on Drought,” and “Cattle Deaths Caused by Lack of Water” have become a fixture in the news media.
Environmental activists and many communities are attempting to address these concerns by encouraging farmers to sell their water rights, often for much more than the market value of the crops they would have grown. Rather than being used to irrigate water-intensive crops, the water is instead sent to needy cities or simply allowed to run its natural course, supporting aquatic habitats in the process. In essence, such programs serve as a windfall not only for the landowners, but also for the aquatic habitats that have long suffered from water shortages.
Seems like a no-brainer, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Though the landowners come out ahead with minimal effort on their part, the communities that live or die by agriculture see their incomes cut off when farmers let their lands lie fallow. For example, according to an illuminating New York Times article, there are only 450 farmers in California’s Imperial Valley but half the jobs held by the 174,000 residents are tied to agriculture. When farmers stop producing, the local economy withers.
Many argue, convincingly, that these communities never should have been established in the first place since the land can’t naturally support them without the use of man-made infrastructure. However, many of these communities have been there for over a century and could result in the large-scale displacement of people if the agricultural operations that supported them were shuttered.
Luckily, while these philosophical debates are had, there are many things we can do to protect the water supply without drastically changing how we use it in the meantime. For example, by daylighting streams (bringing them out of underground pipes and up to the surface), landowners can not only promote more natural flows, they can also promote the permeation of the water into underground aquifers, which protects stream flows during periods of low rainfall. By planting vegetation on the edges of streams, landowners can also reduce erosion while also increasing natural filtration of the water. Another benefit of both of these actions is the promotion of aquatic species, which can result in better fishing!
We would love to hear from you to get your ideas on how to balance protecting our valuable aquifers while also protecting the communities that rely on them.
March 26, 2012
We recently came across this article in Plateau Land & Wildlife’s most recent newsletter, “Seasons.” Written by Shane Kiefer, Plateau’s Senior Wildlife Biologist, it lays out the case for redefining the “perfect lawn” as something other than the manicured, monoculture turf expanse so popular today. We would love to hear what you think of when you imagine the perfect lawn.
Last year I wrote about the silver lining of natural disturbances with a focus on the wildfires that were so prevalent at the time. Natural disturbances are an important part of the natural world. They remind us that nature never stands still.
In particular, I mentioned the positive side effects of drought that appear when favorable conditions return, and the recent winter rains are giving us a good demonstration of those beneficial outcomes. The drought set the stage for those fires, which are a natural part of most ecosystems in Texas, but drought also reduces decadent plant growth, even without fire. That built up plant material dries up and breaks down (and blows away) or is consumed by foraging animals as a consequence of not having any fresh growth on which to feed.
By opening up bare ground, this encourages a flush of annual forbs and other weedy species when the rains return (which they have for now) that doves, deer, quail, Wild Turkeys, seed-eating songbirds, butterflies, bees, and many other species rely upon. Look at how many spring weeds you have in your yard right now after last year’s watering restrictions. While my neighbors may not appreciate it, my yard is an excellent demonstration of an early successional plant community that many types of wildlife relish.
This explosion of new growth also results in a boom in insects and arthropods that are essential to nesting birds, reptiles, amphibians, etc. The plants are the core of the food web and insects are an important part of its structural integrity.
The lesson here is that the flora and fauna, and ecosystems that they comprise in Texas are built to withstand drought and other disturbances. The healthier and better managed your land is, the better equipped they are to do just that. So this spring, tell your neighbors that your yard is an experiment in ecological succession for the benefit of wildlife, and take delight in the weeds, forbs, wildflowers, or whatever you prefer to call them. The wildlife certainly will. And if you feel like learning more about the names of all those weeds on your property, call Plateau- we will be happy to take you on a walk.