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To restore streams, conservationists look to their grassland headwaters

Differences in range management can be vividly apparent at a fenceline dividing properties. Robust grasslands not only sustain livestock and wildlife, but also sustain aquifers and streams.
Courtesy Price Rumbelow
Differences in range management can be vividly apparent at a fenceline dividing properties. Robust grasslands not only sustain livestock and wildlife, but also sustain aquifers and streams.

The land west of the Pecos is Texas at its wildest. But this rugged terrain has also been profoundly altered by human actions, and the starkest impact may be the loss of flowing water. Across our region, once-perennial streams are now steep-banked arroyos, bone-dry except during flash floods.

Reviving streams will require a broad vision, one that takes in the root causes of their decline. A new initiative aims to do just that, by restoring the high grasslands where these desert lifelines begin.

How did declining grasslands lead to the loss of streams?

Jeff Bennett is a habitat restoration hydrologist with the Rio Grande Joint Venture, a binational partnership to conserve birds and bird habitat.

“There was nothing to slow the water down,” Bennett said. “You've got more water. It's moving faster. It cuts a channel. It's a fairly simple model.”

With $2 million in federal funds, his organization, and Alpine's Borderlands Research Institute, are spearheading stream restoration. And grasslands are central.

The Marfa Grasslands, the Alpine and Marathon grasslands, the vast prairie north of Sierra Blanca — these lush highlands are stunning. But, historically, they've also been denuded by intensive livestock grazing.

That's fueled erosion — nothing holds soil in place like grass. It's also disrupted the key processes of “interception” and “throughfall.” Grass intercepts rain, and slows its descent, allowing it to soak into the earth. With more bare ground, water flows faster and harder into creeks, causing them to become deeply incised.

To reverse that process, the initiative is partnering with landowners, to fight back encroaching brushy plants – like creosote and mesquite – and help grasses return.

Michael Janis is the BRI's conservation initiative coordinator.

“Having landowners to work with who are already doing good management,” Janis said, “but now they need the financal help now to do the chemical treatment – that's the best situation.”

That chemical treatment is an herbicide called Spike. Often applied from the air, it kills creosote and other brush, but not grass. Deep-rooted mesquite is another story, and may require heavy equipment to remove.

A BRI seeds project means there are native grass seeds available for planting. And there's a technique called branch mulching that can facilitate the process.

In areas where there's been major soil loss, grass seeds are planted and covered with brush. The brushy mulch buffers germinating grasses from heat, and helps retain moisture. It's shown success here.

The team will focus on places with favorable soils. Project costs are split with landowners — but landowners can donate labor or equipment to meet that match. Landowners agree to allow ongoing monitoring of project sites, and to exclude livestock as grasses take hold.

“There's the intervention,” Janis said. “But you don't want to get back into the situation that led us to need this intervention, or you're wasting your money and resources.”

The initiative won't only benefit streams. Grasslands sustain West Texas ranching. But they also sustain West Texas wildlife, from pronghorn to wintering grassland birds, which travel from as far north as Canada. Those birds have declined by some 70 percent in the last 50 years.

It makes restoration a win-win, Joint Venture staffer Price Rumbelow said.

“What's good for the bird is good for the herd,” he said. “Oftentimes there are real benefits to grazing operations, and to wildlife on the landscape.”

Grasslands projects aren't new here, but the initiative will expand them by an order of magnitude. And that could be a boon for this entire desert-mountain country – from the high plateaus to the Rio Grande.

Interested landowners can contact Bennett at jbennett@abcbirds.org, Janis at Michael.Janis@sulross.edu or Rumbalow at PRumbelow@abcbirds.org.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.