Check Dams Restore Watershed Life

Stonemasons build check dams to restore water to the West Turkey Creek watershed landscape while conserving the land.



We’re experiencing unbridled divisiveness in North America today. Yes, we’ve always had cultural differences, and those differences have inevitably led to social and political countercurrents as well as periodic conflicts. But that doesn’t mean we’re fated to live on a battleground where stalemates keep our best intentions from being realized.

Of particular concern to me is the palpable anger on either side of what James Gimpel has called “a gaping canyon-sized urban-rural chasm.” This urban-rural divide has reshaped both state and national elections into “us vs. them” battles to determine who controls access to natural resources and social services. Americans appear to be at war with one another rather than at work with one another.

Left: Waterway restoration project in Arizona site 10 check dam in 2009, looking upstream. Right: Site 10 check dam in 2012.

Individuals of all classes, races, and ethnicities have felt increasingly disempowered by the prevalence of top-down decision-making about lands, wildlife, and plants they’ve known and loved. In many cases, they’ve become disenfranchised from policymaking processes that ignore their local knowledge, dismiss their cultural or faith-based values, and disregard impacts on their livelihoods. Whenever I’ve visited rural communities over the past decade, I’ve overheard seething frustration that environmental decision-making was increasingly being done by some confederation of self-appointed experts who hardly seemed to care whether their communities were engaged. I could feel a perplexing disconnect between people’s love for their home ground and their disillusionment at having no ability to shape what would happen to it.

11/5/2021 9:08:21 PM

Thanks, Gary, for showing such a successful implementation of these check dams. But if you want to experience real polarized opinions, mention that beaver can do the same process, while working for free. I have written about the benefits these rodents bring to dry prairie in a slide show called Droughtproofing. You can check it out at: (Scroll down the page.) I have documented the past presence of beaver in some very dry grasslands. Our present drylands, including Arizona, must have been a real paradise when chains of beaver ponds filled every stream bottom in North America.

11/5/2021 5:16:23 PM

I enjoyed reading this historical piece.

7/17/2020 10:42:37 AM

You mean rebuilding the dams. When working for a rancher, we had to rebuild dams that had been in place over 1,000 years but washed out. At night, we ate rabbit and roast agave, made a sweet drink from ripe mesquite (that went well with a little tequila), and listened while the old man, the straw boss, told us about the ancient people who lived here before. Once, there was a great civilization but witches (not akin to Wicca, please) who did much evil and old-Father stopped the rain for many decades. To help the people survive, He showed them how to construct trinchera in the canyons. walk in beauty

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