Recovering Essential Desert Waters

Author: Gena Goodman-Campbell  |  Published: March 18, 2024  | Category: How-To

This article originally appeared in The Source on March 13, 2024.


Working with tribes to restore the lifeblood of desert ecosystems

Oregon’s high desert is an arid landscape, defined by the scarcity of water. A mere 2% of the high desert is wetland or riparian habitat, and nearly all of the wildlife in the region depend on these oases to survive. While mighty desert rivers like the Owyhee and the John Day are critical pieces of the desert ecosystem, much of the water in the desert emerges from springs, flowing a short distance before dispersing across wet meadows rich with life. Without these humble but essential water sources, life in the desert simply could not exist.

Jefferson Jacobs, ONDA’s Restoration Manager, at one of the springs ONDA is restoring on Beatys Butte. Photo: Evy Tirosh

 

These scarce desert water sources are also important to Indigenous people across the high desert and have been since time immemorial. In 2022, I had the opportunity to accompany Wilson Wewa, a Northern Paiute elder and Traditional Ecological Knowledge holder, on a visit to Beatys Butte, which rises out of the sagebrush sea east of Lakeview, Oregon. Climbing high onto the flanks of the 7,918-foot peak, we traced the green paths of small springs and wet meadows through the expanse of sagebrush that stretched as far as we could see. Wewa observed that these springs, streams and wet areas provided paths for his ancestors to follow across the arid landscape. In this way, he says, one can see how “this whole land was inhabited.”

Desert water moves in cycles throughout the year, with many small streams and seasonal water sources naturally running dry in the summer months. But these natural cycles, and the traditional lifeways of the Northern Paiute and other Indigenous people of the high desert, have been disrupted by a century of extractive overuse. As a result, the small streams and freshwater springs that were once the lifeblood of a thriving desert ecosystem have been stripped of their lush vegetation, and these waters are drying up earlier each season.

This spring, Oregon Natural Desert Association will continue working with Wewa and others at the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to restore these critical ribbons of life. Restoration projects are taking place at a conservation property owned by the Oregon Desert Land Trust on Beatys Butte and Pine Creek Conservation Area, a 34,331-acre preserve in the John Day Basin owned by the Tribes.

An ONDA volunteer removes a small juniper at Pine Creek Conservation Area. Photo: Gena Goodman-Campbell

 

The goal of these projects is to create moister conditions throughout the year for important streamside plants to grow, ultimately improving habitat conditions for desert fish and wildlife. With the help of volunteers, ONDA will do this by hand-building small natural structures in the stream. This strategy slows water down to “aggrade”—the opposite of erode—streambanks and spread water back out across the floodplain. This is a two-step process, first consisting of removing woody vegetation, like juniper and sagebrush, that has moved into the steam corridor where it would not naturally grow and is reducing the amount of water in the stream. The second step is to use these and other natural materials to build small structures in the stream, creating natural “speed bumps.”

When I asked Jefferson Jacobs, ONDA’s restoration manager, if he had any specific inspiration for developing this restoration technique, he said “Yeah: Beavers.” ONDA aims for our projects to mimic the benefits of beaver dams: forming wetlands that soak up water like a sponge, storing it and keeping it cool into the dry summer months. Our goal is to activate the recovery of these essential water sources, increasing their resilience to drought and climate change.

ONDA completed the first of these spring restoration projects last year, and the results were evident just weeks afterward, with sediment building up in the stream and pushing the water higher up into the surrounding area. And this successful intervention is just the beginning.

Wewa is quick to point out that his people have always practiced stewardship and conservation by observing the natural cycles of the land and not disrupting them by taking too much or overusing one place. ONDA seeks to learn from these practices by paying close attention to results and modifying our actions over time. Adding missing native plants to increase ecological diversity and restore Indigenous food sources and plant medicines where water levels can support them is one such opportunity.

Wilson Wewa looks down on the source of a spring on Beatys Butte. Photo: Gena Goodman-Campbell

 

Ultimately, these projects are an important reminder that nature is our best teacher when it comes to the restoration of Oregon’s beautiful, and essential, desert lands and waters.

Opportunities to volunteer to participate in ONDA’s spring restoration projects are open to the public and no experience is required. To learn more and sign up, visit onda.org/trips.

 

—Gena Goodman-Campbell is the stewardship director at Oregon Natural Desert Association, a nonprofit organization that protects and restores Oregon’s high desert public lands and waters. Goodman-Campbell engages ONDA’s community in hands-on restoration projects that improve desert habitat in key watersheds and migration corridors.

 

fact

Bobcat

Bobcat

Found only in North America, where it is the most common wildcat, the bobcat takes its common name from its stubby, or “bobbed,” tail. The cats range in length from two to four feet and weigh 14 to 29 pounds. Bobcats mainly hunt rabbits and hares, but they will also eat rodents, birds, bats, and even adult deer.

Latin name: Lynx rufus fasciatus

 

voices

Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

“I connect with Oregon’s high desert through my feet, my eyes, my sense of smell, and all the things I hear. Getting out there is a whole body experience.” Supporting ONDA, Helen says, not only connects her with wild landscapes, but is also a good investment. “I felt like if I gave them $20, they might squeeze $23 out of it.”

fact

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

Bounded by the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Blue Mountains to the north, Oregon’s high desert covers approximately 24,000 square miles. Annual rainfall in the high desert varies from 5 to 14 inches. The average elevation is 4,000 feet; at 9,733 feet, the summit of Steens Mountain is the highest point in Oregon’s high desert. The terrain of the high desert was mostly formed by a series of lava flows that occurred between 30 and 10 million years ago.

Sources: The Oregon Encyclopedia; Wikipedia