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In West Texas, A Little Water Goes a Long Way

Surveying the Sandia Springs Wetland, Reeves County, Texas, 2011. (Megan Wilde)

In Far West Texas, a little water goes a long way. Balmorhea ranchers Don and Ellen Weinacht learned that in 2001, when they turned over part of their cattle ranch to create a wetland for migrating birds. Now, three years later, their investment is paying off. For Marfa Public Radio, Megan Wilde has more.

A few miles east of Balmorhea, semi-trucks grumble along I-10 and tractors grunt across the patchwork of hay, alfalfa and cotton fields that surround this agricultural community. But on one four-acre tract, a hundred snow geese rest and gossip in a series of shallow ponds. Here, at the Sandia Springs Wetland, Reeves County rancher Ellen Weinacht is growing a different crop than her neighbors.
Well they first thought we were nuts. I mean, they don’t explain to me why they’re farming whatever they’re farming. I’m not explaining to them why we’re farming birds.
Not just any birds. Weinacht and a team of volunteers created these ponds to cultivate food and shelter for 25 often-overlooked masters of migration. In the process, they’ve restored a piece of what was once one of the state’s largest inland oases, and discovered doing nature’s work is a lot harder than they thought.
It looks pretty simple but it’s kind of like Fred Astaire. He learned to that and we’re learning to do this.
Weinacht is in the Texas Master Naturalists, so she enlisted the help of her local Master Naturalist chapter to build a wetland on her family’s cattle ranch. David Hedges is a retired telecommunications buyer and lifelong birder in Fort Davis.
And when she called me and asked me if I’d be interested in heading up the project, I said certainly. I got to thinking about a wetland and we have the Balmorhea Lake, which is a perfect spot for ducks and geese, but we really are short on mud flats for shorebirds that they can continually depend on.
According to Hedges, minimal habitat is a problem for shorebirds across the United States. "They’re not doing well. I mean their habitat is being destroyed right and left."

Shorebirds make some of the bird world’s longest migrations. Several species travel more than 15,000 miles each year. During these journeys, wetlands offer critical pit stops to rest and refuel, particularly in the desert Southwest. Says Hedges, "This has been a learning process for us, trying to determine what kind of lunch counter we need to be serving up here."

Now, to fine-tune their wetland management, the Master Naturalists have teamed up with Sul Ross University’s Borderlands Research Institute in Alpine. Ryan O’Shaughnessy is directing a research project that could help the Sandia Springs Wetland grow even more shorebird food.
There’s a big misconception that a wetland is simply a matter of putting water out there and letting it be. These wetlands what makes it so attractive to these water birds, the flooding and drying cycle.
Ryan Anthony is the graduate student who’s collecting data for the Sul Ross research project, "Controlling the water is one of the biggest tools we have."

Most water in the wetland comes from East Sandia Springs, and some occasionally comes from Balmorhea Lake. All of this water flows into the wetland through a canal, which is controlled by the Reeves County irrigation district and shared by other farmers.

Hedges says that gives the Master Naturalists little control over when and how much water is delivered. "After you call for water, you kind of have to stand in line. The farmers have called for water also.  I’d love to be able to turn on spigot, but it’s not quite that easy."

And Hedges is thrilled that all 25 shorebird species known to pass over West Texas have already been spotted here.
In that very first year, I drove out and glanced down one of these dykes it wasn’t even in the water .. and here’s a whimbrel, which is a very large shorebird with a very long bill..and I looked at that and thought I can’t believe this is really happening!
And Weinacht has been delighted to discover how many different animals use the Sandia Springs Wetland. She says, "And gosh I’d love for everybody to take a look at it."

The Sandia Springs Wetland is open to visitors year-round and can be found about a mile south of the I-10 service road on county road 313, just east of Balmorhea.

- Megan Wilde