Desert lifelines: a new initiative aims to restore West Texas streams
There's nothing more wondrous in a desert country than flowing water. But modern human impacts have had stark effects on these natural oases. Across West Texas, creeks and streams that once flowed perennially amidst cottonwoods and willows are now steep-banked arroyos that run only in flash floods.
Now, there's a new initiative to restore these streams. It's a long-term undertaking, that could have far-reaching effects.
How did this land appear to early white settlers? We find glimpses in historic accounts and photographs. And then, our maps tell the tale. Place names across our region invoke willows, reeds, cottonwoods and cienegas, or wetlands, where none exist today.
Jeff Bennett is a habitat restoration hydrologist with the Rio Grande Joint Venture, a binational partnership to conserve birds and bird habitat.
“Why did they call them these things?” Bennett said. “I don't think they were being aspirational. I think those things existed. So we're trying to push it back.”
With $2 million in federal funds, the Rio Grande Joint Venture, and Alpine's Borderlands Research Institute, are partnering in Trans-Pecos stream restoration.
How were streams here degraded? Some causes are plain. Creeks were dammed or diverted. Springs were depleted through groundwater use. But there were broader factors – including timber harvesting, and the denuding of grasslands through intensive livestock grazing.
With fewer trees and less grass to intercept rainfall, water came harder and faster down stream beds.
Downcutting occurred. The goal is to reverse that process.
“We're trying to lift the bottom of the stream,” Bennett said. “If we can do that, we can lift the level of the flood flows an equal amount. Eventually they'll get on to the floodplains more often, and you can store that water on the floodplain and release it slowly to downstream users.”
The central tools are “filter dams” or “brush weirs.” Crews drive posts into stream beds, and pile up mesquite or other brush to create “leaky dams.” Floodwaters are slowed, and absorbed in stream banks to flow out over time.
The technique has restored creeks elsewhere in the West. But good planning can only go so far. In April, Bennett's team built a dozen brush weirs on a Presidio County stream. In May, a massive flood undid their work.
“We were joking yesterday,” Bennett said, “that if you want water in a stream, just do a restoration project, and the mother of all storms will come and wash your work away. You've got to be persistent, and I think that's an attitude that many of our working land managers, our ranchers and farmers, understand.”
One focus is Alamito Creek, which runs 80 miles from the Davis Mountains foothills to the Rio Grande. Even in 1930, a railroad contractor could write of the “crystal clearness” of “this unfailing, life giving Alamito.” While stretches still run year-round, once-perennial reaches of Alamito Creek are now dry.
Bennett and his colleagues will partner with private landowners. But the benefits would be broadly shared. Rebounding streams would be a boon for fish, migratory birds and other wildlife. Healthy streams can recharge aquifers on which communities depend. Flood impacts would be mitigated.
And healthy streams could mean more reliable flows in the Rio Grande. For communities on both side of the Great River, that's increasingly a life-and-death matter.
“Part of the reason we're having trouble with water is that we haven't treated our waterways well,” Bennett said. “We've ignored them.”
The loss of streams occurred over decades, and restoration will take time. But the desert's most precious, and most fragile, resource is at stake.