I once read somewhere that New Mexico has less surface water area per capita than any other state in the Union. Much of that is stored artificially behind huge concrete dams, some built prior to statehood. This happened at the expense of extensive wetland and riparian areas, as well as towns, croplands and even cemeteries. According to the National Wetlands Inventory, New Mexico has lost about half of its natural wetland resources. That’s about the same as Arizona. Half is bad enough, but it is, luckily, far, far less than California, which has lost 92 per cent of its wetlands.
What portion of New Mexico’s remaining wetlands are salvageable, and how could we do that? Why bother anyway? What good are wetlands? Can I use my bare hands to restore an ailing wetland, or is heavy equipment essential? Might anybody want to help me? Why would they want to do that?
As with children, it takes a village to raise a wetland. This blog is all about raising wetlands.
I have always loved streams and wetlands, swamps, meadows, marshes and streamside areas, and the wildlife that lives there. Small streams, creeks, brooks, springs, spring seeps, spring runs, vernal pools, tarns, beaver ponds and more. Larger rivers? Not so much love. I can know, understand and relate to the smaller streams, fens, bogs and marshes. I’ll leave the care and keeping of larger streams and rivers to braver hearts and bigger egos, non-profit groups…..and political entities.
This blog is all about the streams and streamside areas that I love so much.
As a child, only five years old, I remember fishing for sunfish at a mill pond, lined with cattails and water lilies. It was on the Rockaway River, in the town of Milton, in northern New Jersey, before the onset of World War II. I fished for catfish there with my dad when food was scarce during the War.
After the War, I learned to cast a fly for trout with my uncle Dan. I listened to blackbirds singing, watched ducks fly by and slapped mosquitos. Later, I watched in horror as bulldozers leveled the land, filled the pond and buried the cattails I had loved. Why? “It’s progress,” I was told. “It is just a swamp, you know.”
In high school, I trapped muskrats from a nearby marsh, as a way of saving money for college. (Today, that would be a no-no.) One day during my “Current Events” class, I told of watching a bald eagle fishing in the marsh. Everyone laughed at me. “There are no eagles here,” my classmates chided. But my teacher, Miss Freeman, believed me. She asked me to write a paper on what I had seen. I got an A+ for my effort.
While studying wildlife biology, at the University of New Hampshire, in the ‘50s, I paddled my canoe through the tidal marshes of Oyster Bay, watching brant, ospreys, heron and other birds. Later, in Wildlife Summer Camp, I walked sixty miles of tributaries of the Swift River to locate, describe and inventory beaver ponds and marshes in the watershed. I noted elevation, size, complexity, vegetation, apparent age and maturity of the wetland. Where were the beavers thriving; where were they not? More importantly, why?
More recently, I have wondered how beavers decide, on a nightly basis, where and how to allocate their energies. Where do they decide to build a dam, when to do it, where to add mud and in what order to do it? But of course, being mere animals, this is all done by instinct, right? Or is it? Can beavers reason, and, if so, how might you test that? When I was young I was taught that only humans could reason; animals acted solely by instinct. Is that really true? If that isn’t true, why would we want to believe it? Could it be that believing them to be incapable of reasoning makes human harassment, mistreatment, and neglect of them more excusable?
Mary, my wife of kindred spirits, and I purchased a small property on a creek in Northern New Mexico a few years ago. At the time of purchase, the creek was bordered by pasture and grazed year round by horses. This had been the case for many years. The stream was downcut and had been straightened in the past to render the meadow more suitable for irrigation and raising crops. With the aid of a Partners in Wildlife Grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the local Soil and Water Conservation District, she and I fenced the riparian area and limited grazing to dormant season only.
Willows responded, cattails moved in, and so did beavers. We soon had five acres of wetlands and a huge increase in the diversity of vegetation and wildlife. We built our new home overlooking the beaver ponds, where we could watch the ducks and the geese, the beaver, deer, elk, coyotes, herons, swallows and more. That has included even an eagle or two!
Then the ‘exceptional’ drought of 2012-2013 struck, a product of climate change, drying the creek, the beaver ponds, the adjacent wetlands and the pasture. Many species of wildlife which first moved in have disappeared or are greatly diminished in numbers. Now our willows are dying. For the last 20 years I have devoted my life and energy to the stabilization and restoration of wetlands. And so I wonder: how can this be? Its just not fair. But life’s not fair, they say.
Since founding my new career in stream and wetland restoration, beginning in 1994, I have completed more than 280 small stream and wetland restoration projects. Mary and I now have our own small business dedicated to that end. Our mission statement reads: “to motivate and empower others”.
Water, sediment, and plants are all needed to restore a wetland. But once restored, water seeping from the wetland can sustain the creek itself – a synergistic, upward spiral of rejuvenation. A wide variety of structures, treatments, concepts, motivations and discipline are needed when designing and implementing a restoration project; some tried and true, others yet to be learned and tested.
In establishing this blog, it is my wish to share what I have learned about stream restoration across the Desert Southwest. I would like to talk about what has worked and what hasn’t. I want to share the origin of various treatments and explain their performance under different conditions and situations. I would like to describe some of the projects I have worked on, both successful and not, telling you about the ways in which many volunteer groups, organizations, and landowners have been involved. If acceptable to landowners, I would like to invite you to visit these sites and see for yourself.
Finally, I would like to answer, time permitting, any questions, comments or observations you might have regarding the protection, stabilization and restoration of small streams and wetlands here in the American Southwest or elsewhere, both here and abroad. Maybe, by working together, we can increase our fair share of surface water, both here in New Mexico and beyond.