Working Wetlands

posted in: Water | 2

“Wetlands,” by Ariel Greenwood, was originally written for Women in Ranching, a community-based nonprofit working to connect, educate, and inspire women in agriculture. 
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Photo by Ariel Greenwood

Like many of us, I grew up rambling through open meadows on horseback and splashing in freshwater ponds. Today, as a land and livestock manager, a lot of my life looks similar to when I was a kid. But these days, I appreciate water a lot more. Growing up in the southeastern US, creeks, and ponds were everywhere. But since I’ve worked on ranches in Western states like California, Montana, and New Mexico, I’ve learned that flowing water is not a given. Cycles of severe drought followed by deadly deluges are increasingly common. And while the ranching industry continuously improves its range management, expanding our skills as water managers will only reward us in the future.

One approach to water stewardship that has been rapidly catching on in recent years is called “low-tech, process-based design.” Other terms exist too—Natural Infrastructure in Dryland Streams, Induced Meandering, and Low-Tech Erosion Control. All describe an approach to erosion mitigation and wetland repair that prioritizes simple structural solutions that are built predominantly by hand with materials from the local environment and that work with natural processes to expand their own function. In contrast to large, expensive stream repair projects heavy on concrete, cross-agency cooperation, and arduous permitting, the process-based design creates biological infrastructure.

I like the term “process-based design” because it’s general enough to encompass a variety of techniques and materials, and because it so elegantly captures the purpose of these structures and interventions: to work with the inherent physical and biological dynamics on site to achieve changes that help the landscape be more resilient to flood and drought,  create better habitat, and to hold water for longer. Like good grazing management, process-based design can replace a vicious cycle with a virtuous one.

Examples of process-based design include rock structures such as “One Rock Dams” that slow and pool water, inducing deposition on the dams that grows vegetation and further slows water. Another is Beaver Dam Analogues, which can be built in places with no active beaver colonies to create pools, ponds, and kickstart wetland plant life where an intermittent stream or coulee once flowed.

These structures can look like many things. Some will resemble elegant and artistic rock installations, and others might look like a bunch of kindergarteners got together to build a fort in a muddy puddle. Regardless of their design and appearance, process-based design can kickstart restoration and repair in areas easily overlooked, even by the most ardent grazing planners.

Installing some small BDAs in a steeply graded creek fed by an irrigation ditch in south-central Montana. These caught sediment from above and held up well despite having just turned over 400 heavy yearlings into the pasture. Photo by Ariel Greenwood.

Process-based design can also have a big part to play outside of perennially flowing groundwater. Strategies like fish-scale mulch, rock run-downs, and on-contour brush dams can all effectively reverse erosion. Anticipating where water will flow in heavy precipitation events can guide where we design structures to manage fast-flowing water, turning it from a soil-stripping liability into a grass-growing boon.

The benefits of these structures to ranchers are myriad. By slowing and spreading water, we’re effectively irrigating the surrounding land and growing more forage. The structures keep water on the land longer during significant rain or snow melt events, which helps water recharge the aquifers beneath and around the stream instead of passing them by.

The benefits for our downstream neighbors are essential too. Process-based design structures can initiate a biological and structural change in streams, coulees, and arroyos, absorbing much more water than would otherwise be the case, and releasing it into the watershed more slowly and safely. This benefits fish and other aquatic species downstream, but it can also save property and lives in the process. The more a stream slows, spreads, or meanders, the more of this ultra-absorbent, carbon-rich soil it’s building.

The hangup is that these structures can be expensive to install, if only in terms of time, something that is generally in short supply on commercial ranches. Wetland health usually does not make the high priority list, and is often neglected year after year. And, while improved grazing generally corresponds with better wetland health, sometimes streams need special care, with more sensitivity to animal impact and grazing duration than the surrounding pasture.

Fortunately, funding opportunities are expanding as more agencies recognize the value of process-based design. My husband Sam and I have been able to leverage EQIP cost share funding to pay for my work installing our stream structures. Here in New Mexico, Zeedyk structures, Post Assisted Log Structures, and Beaver Dam Analogues are funded under Practice Code 643—Restoration of Rare or Declining Natural Communities.

We were the first private ranch or lease to utilize these funds, and we were pleasantly surprised by the results, as were the NRCS agents we work with. After just one season of rest from grazing, the rock structures I installed caused the stream to meander, pool, and rehydrate its immediate banks, growing new forage and flowers. This spring, we will be installing more One Rock Dams and Beaver Dam Analogues in a stretch of creek that flows year-round but is only grazed by cattle when we wean in October.

Left: Midway through installation of a one-rock dam in a creek on Greenwood’s New Mexico lease in April 2022.
Right: The same spot in the creek the following autumn. Photos by Ariel Greenwood.

In some cases, complete protection of streams may be necessary to restore their health, at least for a while. But wetlands evolved with impact. Before those who came before us fenced and privatized this land, herds of elk and bison flowed freely through what we now call riparian areas. I’m sure in some years they appeared severely denuded, and in other years weren’t impacted at all. The plant species that express in these places have a long history of severe grazing, heavy mechanical impact, deluge, drought, and periods of unfettered growth.

Very few of our flowing streams are completely excluded; instead, we prioritize growing season rest and concentrate our grazing and access into the dormant season. On our lease here in New Mexico, an extensive ranch ranging from 6400 to 9200 ft, some stretches of our streams have been enclosed in “riparian pastures” ranging from approximately 90 to 2000 acres. With the abundance of forage and cover that grows in these well-hydrated areas, they make good places to fenceline wean calves or calve out heifers. The diverse and deep forage is a good place for weaned and baby calves to knock around and bed in. And we have been establishing alternative drinking sources that cattle often prefer to stream water anyway, further mitigating over-impact on the stream while maximizing the nutrient-cycling benefits of hoof impact and herbivory.

On most ranches in the American West, wetlands and areas with an ephemeral flow generally comprise a very small percent of the total land area. Yet they pack a huge punch in terms of biodiversity and forage growth. As climate patterns continue to become erratic and opportunities emerge on the horizon for ranches to be financially rewarded for biodiversity gains, wetlands are worth paying attention to more now than ever.

These photos were taken 5 months apart (left: April 2021; right: September 2021). No changes were made in the stream besides the exclusion of cattle for the growing season, perhaps for the first time in years. Elk and antelope grazing pressure remained unchanged.
Photos by Ariel Greenwood.

Wetlands on working lands are my deep passion, and I’m committed to helping anyone eager to make a change on land they manage. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if I can support you. In the meantime, check out my Instagram: to see other producers up to similar stuff.

Here are some lessons learned I’d share with anyone interested in process-based design approaches on their ranch:

  • Whenever possible, work with a crew. Consider that “neighboring” doesn’t just have to mean trading work done on horseback.
  • Do a little research, but don’t hesitate to get started. There are principles to inform what a well-built structure looks and acts like, but each one will have to fit its place and context. There are a few books, workshops, and online courses available to help you get started, but consider that manipulating the flow of water is part of how humans have gotten this far as a species—it’s in our DNA!
  • Record your time relative to your output. Start your timer when you leave your house or another work site to drive to where you’re working for the day. Capture the full investment of time, and divide that across your output in terms of number of structures, cubic feet of rock, length of BDA, etc.—it’s important for understanding if outside funding is really paying for your time, and for accounting for the value of what these structures accomplish relative to your investment.
  • Structures will need a little maintenance. A few minutes with a shovel can mean the difference between a well-built structure functioning for years or failing early.
  • Take good before and after photos—starting from before you lay the first rock or drive in the first post! These will come in handy in ways you probably can’t imagine right now. Develop permanent photo points spray painting nearby rocks or marking wooden stakes or T-posts. Use apps like Solocator to take photos in the same place.

Ariel Greenwood and her husband Sam Ryerson manage ranches in New Mexico and Montana as Grass Nomads LLC. These days they are running a large cow-calf operation in northeastern New Mexico that they lease with their partners in Triangle P Cattle Company.

Instagram: @grasslandgreenwood 

2 Responses

  1. melanie deason

    Your initial photo spooked me at first, as cattle can really tear up a stream. Upon reading your article and realizing the photo was taken in the fall, I can give you a little leeway. I appreciate your article, especially for mentioning methods such as Induced Meandering, developed by Bill Zeedyk – whom I collaborated with during my state career as NM’s Wetlands Coordinator (93-2001) and as co-members on the NM Riparian Council. Bill was an amazing FS engineer (originally for roads), whom upon retirement used that same ‘curve’ science for restoring streams. (Healthy flow of water follows an ‘S’ curve pattern = sinuosity or meander. In contrast, damaged streams flow straight, dig down and scour the landscape.) One of Bill’s books: An Introduction to Induced Meandering: A Method for Restoring Stability to Incised Stream Channels Paperback – January 1, 2003 – is $35 on Amazon. Yet, for free are many videos on Youtube, where Bill explains his principles: is a start. Ranchers, like you, have a front-line opportunity to demonstrate what’s possible in land restoration. Thank you for being willing to learn from him and others who came before you, and for applying it first-hand to your ranches – especially spreading the word online through initiatives such as NM Healthy Soil. Thirty years ago, it was considered heresy to consider these new ideas for repairing of our precious ecosystems. And often, rancher cooperation only occurred in desperation – because they’d totally wrecked the land and were going broke. Other groups, like Quivera Coalition (started by a former Sierra Club activist), worked tirelessly to bring ranchers and environmentalists together, to bridge the chasm of non-cooperation. Not always easy, however, decades later there’s now ample proof that the land can recover. Thank you for being ‘out front’ as the next generation, and bringing civility and cooperation to land restoration!

  2. Alfred Pomerleau

    I commend both of you, Ariel Greenwood and Melanie Deason, for sharing your knowledge/information on how to capture, soak up water by implementing different systems/techniques. Such sharing and discussions deepen/expand our understanding of how we all must take on a role of stewardship of our world. Posting this provides a base for others to engage. This is how real change can and often does happen, primarily through grassroots-the collectivity of individuals.

    Both oxygen and water are critical to life on this planet. Life on this planet originated in the deep vast oceans. Oxygen was not always a key to this planet’s ecosystems. Thanks to cyanobacterium and its evolution of related species (ultimately including much of land vegetation) developing chloroplasts that, through photosynthesis, convert photons (sunlight) and CO2 into sugars, and release O2 in the process we have this ecosystem in place. These sugars form the basis of energy for much of the Earth’s living beings. Cyanobacterium and the many microorganisms are the true sustainers of this ecosystem.

    Bare soils that capture the sun’s infrared rays create very hot surfaces-high temperatures, bake any life within, and reflect these high temperatures back into the atmosphere. This phenomenon contributes as much, if not the primary actor, of climate change, as much as any of the so-called greenhouse gases… And as we know healthy soils with living plants growing on the surfaces mitigates temperatures significantly, increases soil health, biology… This process requires water…

    If we want to mitigate climate change, regenerate soils and have any hope of a sustainable agriculture we must integrate these principles to capture/hold on to the water that falls from the heavens or melts from mountains with soil sponges, meanderings of water flows, subtle damming systems…, along with other ‘regenerative’ agricultural practices.

    Again, thank You for sharing your knowledge, your experiences, observations, your information. Thanks for posting, discussing… may it flow throughout and may it soak into our consciousness.

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