Using Water Cleverly


Hydrologists Zach Freed (The Nature Conservancy) and Hank Johnson (U.S. Geologic Survey) measure water chemistry of the spring from the inflow pipe to the old trough, which is filled with emergent aquatic vegetation. Photo © Allison Aldous / The Nature Conservancy

Thanks to Lisa Feldcamp at the Nature Conservancy for this story:

Sharing Water: How I Met the MacGyvers of Water Use


Down the stream at Sand Spring you can see an elk wallow. Photo © Lisa Feldkamp / The Nature Conservancy

“It’s like leaving the kitchen faucet on all year for one glass of water,” says Zach Freed, a hydrologist for the Nature Conservancy in Oregon. That’s how people in Oregon and throughout the US West have traditionally used spring water.

When European homesteaders first came west, spring water must have seemed like an endless resource. Homesteaders could find a potable spring and turn on the tap to provide water for their families and livestock. As the generations came and went, old ranches failed, and new ones sprang up. Springs came in and out of use, but it often happened that nobody ever turned off the tap.

A survey of 180 springs in Oregon found that 95% of the discrete springs, those that have a higher discharge over a smaller area, and 80% of the diffuse springs, those that have a lower discharge over a greater area, were in some way disturbed by human activity or livestock grazing. An article sharing the full results this survey is in review at Ecohydrology. Many had been developed as spring boxes – literally boxes dug into the ground just above the spring. The oldest spring developments are likely a century old, dating back to the Basque sheep farmers who grazed their livestock on the slopes of the Ochoco Mountains.

Many of these spring developments are no longer in use and others were constantly sending water to a trough that was only used by livestock a couple of times a day for a small fraction of the year. Beyond being a senseless waste of water, that’s bad news for the wildlife that rely on the springs for water and for the people who enjoy watching or hunting them.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Researchers at The Nature Conservancy and the U. S. Forest Service are improving spring boxes so that ranchers can easily “turn off the faucet” when they’re not using it. That’s crucial because in arid and semi-arid environments, a steady source of water is disproportionally important ecologically and economically.

The MacGyvers of Water Use

The first rule of retrofitting an obsolete trough is to do it in a way that maintains the historic channel or water table level, even while cows are drinking. The second rule of retrofitting is to create something cheap and easy to work with. This calls for the spirit and ingenuity of MacGyver, the 80s (and recently rebooted) television hero who saved the day by creating heroic contraptions from everyday items. MacGyver doesn’t need high-tech gizmos; he assembles elaborate tools from duct tape and whatever else is at hand. The Oregon water “MacGyvers” took a very similar approach…

Read the whole story here.


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