Check Dams Restore Watershed Life

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

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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.

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.

And yet, failure, despair, and a sense of being disenfranchised don’t provide the entire picture. Americans’ level of concern about the environment and its relation to our food security are approaching an all-time high. Most Americans still want to see conservation and restoration advance, but through a completely different paradigm, one rooted in true community engagement. Americans aren’t divided about whether the environment deserves restoration. What divides us is who gets to decide how this work is done, who does it, and how much it should cost.

There’s a hurdle that keeps many of us from fully participating in this paradigm shift: We’re hanging onto extreme judgmental views of others whose ideas — and voting records — don’t exactly match up with our own. We must be willing to take a step toward the fertile middle ground, what Arizona rancher Bill McDonald began to refer to in the mid-1990s as the “radical center.”

A stance in the radical center isn’t some wishy-washy com­promise by those who are unable to choose a side on which to stand. It’s not ambivalent; its strength is that it’s multivalent. This is a disciplined position of listening intently and taking into account voices other than your own.

One of the best ways to heal the divisions that’ve been plaguing us is to work hand in hand to heal the land. As with most things, action to restore our continent’s food-producing capacity speaks louder than words. So let’s see what collaborative conservation looks like on the ground.

Returning Water to the Landscape

Valer Clark co-founded the Cuenca de los Ojos Foundation, building collaborations that’ve restored more than 100,000 acres of land along the United States-Mexico border. She knew of conservationist and philosopher Aldo Leopold’s descriptions of ancient trincheras, or check dams, structures built along mountain ridges in Mexico to slow floodwaters, capturing moisture and soil in land that would otherwise erode. Trincheras return water to the landscape rather than diverting it. In the 1940s, Leopold and his family watched deer browsing on the grassy benches held in place by check dams built centuries before on the Rio Gavilan, not far from Valer’s own ranches near the Sonora-Chihuahua border.

Valer was also aware of the exceptional stonemasonry tradition in Guanajuato, Mexico, where cantero artisans (stone­cutters) have built roadways, walls, and homes out of hand-cut caliche stone for decades. And so, in the 1990s, Valer began to recruit world-class stonemasons from Guanajuato to build check dams in the West Turkey Creek watershed near the Arizona-New Mexico border.

I’d stayed at El Coronado Ranch for two days in the 1980s before Valer purchased it, when the land was virtually grassless because of years of neglect and overuse. Not long afterward, Valer and her partner at the time took over its management. Their vision for the ranch had an ecological precision, right down to the kinds of grasses, trees, and wildlife they wished to restore, including the then-endangered Gould’s wild turkey.

On a hot summer evening in 2017, Juan Olmedo, a Mexican agave farmer, and I visited Valer on El Coronado Ranch. She led us down a trail to where some of the oldest dams still stood. We veered off the beaten path toward a canyon mouth. A side drainage ran down through oaks and pines from a ridge high above us. Valer headed down into the bottom of the watercourse and stood before a 30-yard-long rock structure called a “gabion,” a special form of dry-stonemasonry check dam. She disappeared around a curve, and then reappeared beneath another giant stone check dam. Little more than 5 feet tall, Valer and her floppy hat barely rose above the top of the stone structure, built from hay-bale-sized boulders, some of them easily 10 times her weight.

Valer pointed to soil that rose 5 feet high at the base of the wall. It stretched out for another 50 feet before her. She explained that when her team began to restore the gully, the land was little more than rocks and barren ground. But 20 years later, the soil had built up, along with moisture and grass.

“You know, when you want to make a difference, sometimes you have to begin with something big, something bold,” Valer said. She told us that the Guanajuato stonemasons built dozens of check dams all the way up each of the side drainages, running to the top of the ridge. “Dozens?” I asked, in awe of the work it took to make just the one gabion immediately before me. “The canteros constructed two or three dozen of these dams per drainage?”

“More,” she said emphatically.  “Maybe 8 to 10 dozen in each of the drainages.”

The structures didn’t initially work as planned. A fire had left much of the ridge barren. Every time a big rain came in summer or fall, water and soil were flushed down the drainage, blowing out check dam after check dam.

I asked Valer how she’d kept her faith up. Her answer was simple: “Well, we just kept on repairing them, fortifying them.” A few kept blowing out, but more and more of them held. Then, in one big rain, char, blackened bark, and mud slowly filled in behind the check dams and stayed in place. It was like a big slicker slowly sinking in and locking things in place. The dirt started to build up and stay behind each dam, raising the level of soil by several feet each year. Pretty soon, the waters spread out across the entire canyon bottom. Gradually, a quarter-mile-long marsh developed where there used to be barren rock.

Juan and I walked around as we listened to Valer, nudging our boot heels into the dirt, looking at its color and texture. Charcoal and microbe-rich soil weren’t the only things the floods brought in. She pointed to water-loving sedges and a half-dozen kinds of grasses. A few hundred sycamore tree seedlings stood before us. Valer and her team didn’t plant them; the slowed-down floodwaters brought sycamore seeds, which stayed and germinated. “Oh, and now frogs and toads arrive after big rains. I just saw a heron catch one,” she said.

Juan asked how many of these structures the Guanajuato stonemasons had built on the entire ranch. Valer said, “We stopped counting at 20,000.” Valer may have stopped counting, but she hasn’t stopped investing in restoring rich soil and fresh water. As she spoke, I realized that she regarded these resources as every person’s birthright, and the care of the land our collective responsibility.

Juan and I later learned that Valer was being rather modest in her estimate of how many check dams she’s supported. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey inventoried more than 40,000 check dams put in place by the Guanajuato canteros. The scientists also found that the dams captured 630 tons of moisture-holding soil in just three years.

One creek with a check dam had its flows during the rainy season reduced by half, so they were steadier, less flashy, and less capable of doing erosive damage. The restored creek was able to sustain at least 28 percent greater flow volume than a comparable unrestored creek bed. These stabilized flows ended up replenishing groundwater below the check dams. Downstream, mile-long stretches are running year-round where they were once seasonally dry.

The check dams sooner or later brought back water striders, turtles, toads, frogs, fish, dippers, quail, coatimundis, and even large predatory cats. In fact, the quail on El Coronado help pay for the Cuenca de los Ojos restoration work. Seasoned game bird hunters pay thousands of dollars for a week in the restored watershed, hunting three different species: Mearns, Gambel’s, and scaled quail.

Today, the descendants of the first stonemasons continue to build and repair check dams on lands managed by Valer. It’s become one of the most remarkable multigenerational, transborder collaborations ever accomplished in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands.

I’ve seldom heard a discouraging word from Valer’s neighbors about the work accomplished by the Guanajuato canteros over the past few decades. If nearby ranchers have any reservation, it’s that they don’t always have the money to similarly restore their own land’s natural capital. Now that she’s put livestock back on some of her restored lands, local ranchers have even more empathy for her efforts. Her healed land is yielding food again.

Built with Boulders and Cobbles

While Valer has invested serious capital in restoration, enormous sums of money aren’t necessarily required to thoroughly change a landscape. Ranchers and range managers of lesser means are doing similar work, albeit on a different scale.

My favorite low-capital, high-impact builder of water wealth and soil fertility is Joe Quiroga. He’s been foreman on the Diamond C Ranch for most of the time I’ve known him. Around the time Joe turned 60, he began an endeavor that’s done more for land conservation than most of us will ever achieve. Having been temporarily relieved of managing the ranch’s cattle, he began to devote 100 percent of his time to managing the land itself.

One day, Joe looked out over the storm-scoured but dry watercourses of the Canelo Hills in Arizona’s Santa Cruz County and decided he’d try to heal their wounds. He began to build a kind of stone check dam that looks slightly different from the Guanajuato trincheras. Wherever Joe saw shallow waterways eroding into deep gullies, he constructed check dams. Every week, year after year, Joe rearranged the erratic boulders exposed in gullies or on the sides of ridges, moving dozens of them to span drainages.

Years later, Joe can now look out over the land and see the healing power of more than 1,200 rock-solid check dams he designed and built with boulders and cobbles. The dams have brought back steady stream flows and they hold tons of soil and roots in place on the Diamond C, creating a little miracle of greenery in the otherwise cinnamon-colored Canelo Hills. Joe single-handedly returned running water and fertility to the flood plain where it was formerly scoured clean. Streams gently flow for the first time in decades, and a dozen native grass species provide perennial cover.

When I asked Joe why he’d mounted such a herculean effort, his simple, no-nonsense answer was, “Because the land needed it.”

When men a half-century younger than Joe ask this muscular 75-year-old if he had any help moving boulders as big as whiskey barrels, he says, “Sure, I had a little help.” To their surprise, Joe mentions that he used a digging bar, a pulley and ratchet hooked to the back of his pickup, and a bumper. Otherwise, this massive effort has been accomplished entirely by Joe’s two hands and observant eyes, bright mind, and big heart.

“All that’s keeping any of us from doing our part in taking care of the land is some kind of tunnel vision,” Joe said. “It blocks us from seeing that what we ourselves want for the land is more or less the same as what our neighbors want. That tunnel vision can paralyze us from taking action to do what virtually all of us would agree needs to be done.”

Joe simply wants the land to be productive enough for his descendants to make a living. The Quiroga family has lived in Santa Cruz County for at least six generations, but some of the best and brightest kin have recently left in search of decent jobs. This lack of opportunity concerns Joe, who’s been known to plaster bumper stickers on his pickup expressing support for beef production and mining. This may irk environmentalists who pass Joe on the road, but he has a certain pragmatism that rings true to me. If land restoration and soil conservation can create enough jobs to keep his kids in the county, I’m sure he’d welcome those activities with open arms. But if it takes extractive industries to keep the 21st-century equivalent of brain drain from socially impoverishing his community, Joe won’t disparage those pursuits either.

On Earth Day 2012, more than 70 of Joe’s neighbors and a half-dozen organizations — including farmers, ranchers, scientists, permaculturists, and community activists — came together to honor him at the Santa Cruz County Earth Fest. Republicans, Democrats, Sagebrush Rebellion libertarians, and former Earth Firsters all paid homage to a homegrown hero who didn’t fit any single label because he transcended them all. It was clear to everyone present that Joe’s patient day-by-day work has left a legacy that’ll live on for decades, if not centuries.

Despite their cultural, political, and even economic differences, Joe Quiroga and Valer Clark share something special. They each take the long view of land health and have striven to make the world a greener, wetter place for all.

Gary Paul Nabhan is a father of the local food movement. He’s written and edited more than 30 books, including Food from the Radical Center (Island Press), from which this article is excerpted.

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