Thursday, May 08, 2008

Rio Puerco: the Poster Child of Eroded Watersheds

[NOTICE - This Road Not Maintained by New Mexico State Highway Department]

* Frederick Jacson Turner, father of modern American history, wrote persuasively that the frontier (where less than 3 people lived per square mile) defined American life, but that it closed in the 1890's as the country filled up with emigrants and settlers. But the land is emptying out again, as chronicled in Richard Manning's Grassland. The old world ecology and thinking brought by the Anglo settlers is failing in the drylands of the American West and the people are leaving, the roads abandoned. Despite massive government subsidies, the remaining ranchers and farmers have less and less to stand on every year. Populations in most rural counties peaked in the early 1900's and have declined ever since. The exodus that started with the dust bowl has continued unabated, as has the soil erosion and ecological damage.
[Could this be restored to its original ecology of cottonwood/willow bosque and gallery forest?]

Now, The Good News: "This is a search for the unknown...Now the sun is here, and he simply watches the land year by year to see what happens, waiting for the next clues as to what the nature of this place might be...It's like a ratchet in that we take the first turn, then back off and let nature take a turn, as we listen and watch as closely as possible, knowing that we are not so much rebuilding nature in these places as nature is rebuilding us. With each turn of this ratchet, nature reveals a bit more of itself to our science."

"In some real ways, the effort to re-find the landscape, which is the same as the effort to re-attach our lives to the land, is a religious quest, and it makes sense to consider it that way.

[Erosion (so bad it took 2 photos to fit): The bridge on the left used to span the river chanel. This is why the road is closed. Nature fights back. ]

" is difficult to imagine what we have learned. Annual topsoil loss to erosion here in some years totals one hundred tons per acre, or an inch of topsoil removed every 1.6 years...the topsoil the grass had built was thought to be so deep as to be inexhaustible..." p.165 from Grassland, Richard Manning.
[Dead willow, killed incidentally with herbicide "friendly fire"]

Mutilated and mutated willows, the taste of heavy metals on the tongue: this place has been sprayed. "Many in federal agencies ignore the connection between livestock grazing and weed invasions. Since they deny the role of livestock grazing, they seldom reduce the number of livestock allowed to graze public lands, even in areas where weeds are a major problem. Agency personnel prefer using herbicides and biocontrol agents to eradicate the weeds rather than trying to prevent the invasion of weeds in the first place." From "Comrades in Harm: Livestock and Exotic Weeds in the Intermountain West", Joy Belsky and Jonathan L Gelbard. in Welfare Ranching, Earth Island Press
[Rio Puerco Watershed: this area could be a State]
John Wesley Powell recommended that states and counties' boundaries in the American West be demarcated based on watersheds, since water is the natural form that power takes on the, as witnesses of the modern West's "Water Wars" can attest, more and more political boundaries are being created or determined by water rights.

The Rio Puerco is oft mentioned as an example par excelance of some of the worst erosion in the United States. Once the "Breadbasket of New Mexico", the Rio Puerco watershed is now given as a common example of the degradation that can befall such formerly productive areas through mismanagement and ecological ignorance. Enhanced rates of erosion on the "dirty river" are the cause and effect of downcutting in the soft alluvium that formerly supported such bountiful harvests. Unstoppable headcuts and devegetated banks, combined with a climate shift that creates more "flashy" events (which, of course, are also caused by devegated uplands that lack competence and capacity to absorb rainfall, leading to sheetflow and immediate runoff that feed back to cause even more erosion...
The Rio Puerco Management Committee lists several causes of erosion, such as (over) grazing and the placement of the new highway. As you can see from this photo essay, the war between the road and the river is not over yet. However, much of the battle has already been lost, and the country abandoned without roads. The downstream is reachable only by unimproved dirt roads and crosses some of the remotest parts of the state.
[Fenceline showing effects of grazing, on the right, where thickets of sagebrush dominate]

1 comment:

Ben said...

A vivid portrayal of the problem, certainly. But considering your quote from Manning, you might take a moment to document some of the ongoing restoration efforts happening in the Rio Puerco watershed, especially up around Cuba. I work with youth from the area helping them learn how to stop erosion in their community. Many other organizations are working hard to help this particularly fragile and degraded landscape heal itself. Slowly but surely...