A.T. and Lucinda Cole retired to the 11,393-acre Pitchfork Ranch near Silver City, New Mexico in 2004. The next year they began restoring the ranch’s nine-mile stretch of the Burro Ciénaga and surrounding habitat. The pictures below tell the story of that journey and results the Coles have achieved.
Ciénaga is a Spanish term meaning “slow moving water or marsh”, and Pitchfork’s ciénaga is perennial. A.T. notes: “The ranch’s reach of the 48-mile long Burro Ciénaga bisects the ranch north to south, two-miles of historic ciénaga above ground, the seven-miles balance is riverine riparian habitat where the water is subsurface. Fed by Ciénaga Spring and three canyons in the Burro Mountains, water drains into a 58-square-mile watershed.
“The absence of fire, eradication of beaver, introduction of sheep and corporate cattle overstocking in the late 1880s, agricultural re-contouring, extreme flood and drought cycles and now the climate crisis have dramatically altered the region’s natural habitat, as well as this ranch’s deeply entrenched and damaged ciénaga.”
This passion for restoration led A.T. and Lucinda to apply for and receive 14 government grants which has allowed them to install more than 1,000 grade control structures on the ranch. Through these efforts to slow the water coming through the ranch, they have captured thousands of tons of sediment moving through that waterway. Had they not slowed the water, it would have resulted in further erosion and damage to the water cycle on their ranch by continued lowering of the water table. Moreover, they would not have been able to reap the benefits of the water remaining on the ranch which has improved and increased vegetation throughout the riparian area which improves wildlife habitat as well.
In fact, this corridor is now habitat for many plant and animal species, including Goodings Willow, Freemont Cottonwood, Emory Oak, over 40 identified grasses, several cactus, deer, peccary, coatimundi, golden eagle, great horned owl, and many more species.
The Coles have learned a lot about what grade-control structures will hold and work when the torrential monsoon rains gather in force through the water catchment that feeds the ciénaga. This grade-control structure is one of six machine-built features installed in one of the larger of 33 side-channels that drain into the reach of the Burro Ciénaga on the ranch.
The photograph below was taken in 2016 before the structure captured sediment in monsoon rains that filled in the area immediately up-channel.
In 2017 they installed “Tier-2” boulders atop the initial tier and extended the down-channel right arm shown in the second photograph. The 2017 monsoon rains then filled the structure again, making it is ready for a “Tier-3” build out. The Coles measured the soil capture at 700 tons behind the initial tier and another 360 tons after rains topped-out the second tier. In addition, the Coles have built five smaller, machine built, rock structures in this drainage. This structure having captured 1060 tons of sediment, means the six structures in this one drainage have likely captured on the order of 5,000 tons of sediment.
They also use one-seed juniper posts criss-crossed in a six-foot deep trench and then bury the bottom part of the posts to hold the upper parts of the posts in place to capture sediment. This structure is called a criss-cross perpendicular post vane and is relatively low-cost.
The Coles have also used hinge-felling of Goodings willow (a Zeedyk-developed grade-control structure that uses live willows that often line the incised channel of a damaged ciénaga. The tree is cut half way to its center close to the ground and notched four times, leaving the half stump to sprout new growth and the top portion to be laid horizontally across the watercourse, allowing new vertical branch growth to capture sediment and debris and increase in size.
As you can see from the following before and after pictures of various sites along the river, these restoration efforts work by working with nature and allowing this waterway to function as it once did.
To learn more about techniques to slow water and restore riparian areas, read Bill Zeedyk’s Let the Water Do the Work.
Thanks to the Thornburg Foundation and the NM Coalition to Enhance Working Lands for their support of this case study.
Leave a Reply