EC Bar Ranch Conservation Projects

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by Alan Carpenter

The EC Bar Ranch includes 400 acres along 2.5 miles of Nutrioso Creek in the White Mountains in eastern Arizona’s Apache County. Comprising less than 1% of the land in Arizona, riparian ecosystems are diverse communities of plants and animals established along the edges of waterways like Nutrioso Creek. Because of their structure and proximity to water, riparian habitats are very susceptible to invasion by alien species, stress by humans, and animal activity. These invasions, particularly by plants, can then permanently alter riparian ecological processes.

 Nutrioso Creek before
Nutrioso Creek before

The ranch was homesteaded in 1880’s and has operated as a cattle ranch during its existence. When Jim Crosswhite acquired the ranch in 1996, he became the principal steward of the Little Colorado River spinedace, a threatened fish species, which lived in Nutrioso Creek. The creek’s riparian zone was rated as nonfunctional and in a downward trend due to exposed streambanks; it was designated an “impaired water” by the state.

For most land owners, taking care of a threatened species and having a stream polluted with sediment would not be very appealing. However, Jim Crosswhite saw things differently. Rather than complain about his fate, he decided to do something constructive. He saw the potential to improve the profitability of his livestock operation, improve the habitat for the spinedace, and to improve the water quality of Nutrioso Creek. He believed that private initiative, backed by governmental assistance, would improve water quality and property values for all land owners in the Nutrioso basin. Everybody would win. This would also help keep farming and ranching operations in business and would therefore help forestall subdivision and residential development. Jim found that state and federal agencies were interested in providing expert advice and cost-share funds to help private landowners meet conservation goals for the spinedace and to improve the condition of Nutrioso Creek. He wrote numerous proposals for funding and, as the proposals were approved, began to implement them.

In July 2000, the AZ Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) completed the Nutrioso Creek Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study for turbidity. The report concluded that exposed stream banks along 7 miles of the 27-mile creek were aggravated by historically heavy activity from livestock and elk, resulting in an excessive amount of turbidity. The report recommended a number of improvements on the EC Bar Ranch and on 4 miles of Apache National Forest land. While many water quality improvement practices were already underway on the ranch, they needed to be expanded to other sections of the creek to meet turbidity standards in order to change Nutrioso Creek from an impaired water source. Improvements in Nutrioso Creek wetland habitat would also help in delisting of the spinedace.

 

The TMDL report made a number of recommendations, including a variety of Best Management Practices (BMPs), to be utilized as part of the implementation strategy to help reduce sediment loading to Nutrioso Creek, which Jim is now in the process of implementing. For example, the areas where historic overgrazing occurred could be fenced to keep out cattle and elk during critical growing periods (see photo at right). Cattle grazing in the riparian corridor could be confined to only the dormant winter months, which would allow for the emergent plants in the spring to grow and protect the streambank. So, Jim fenced the riparian areas along the creek. Though many ranchers don’t like the idea of fencing riparian zones, Jim notes that “It’s not like, ‘fencing will take away my land,'”. “You fence it to grow more grass, which livestock can graze in the wintertime.”

The TMDL report also recommended installation of stream grade stabilization structures to help protect the creek banks during high critical flow events. The structures could also be used to help dissipate stream velocities and thus dissipate stream energy and erosional forces during high flows. The report recommended off-channel water wells and wildlife guzzlers to allow for more water to remain in the stream itself and allow the riparian corridor to be fenced without the need to include water gaps for wildlife and cattle to drink from the stream. This would allow for irrigation of the revegetation projects along the stream corridor. So, Jim drilled a well and created off-channel water supplies for cattle and wildlife.

Other recommendations in the TMDL report were to revegetate the riparian corridor with willow plantings and grass seeding using a Critical Area Planting method as outlined by the National Resources Conservation Service. These plantings could be supplemented with sprinkler irrigated water until they took hold on the established banks and stream course. The plantings on the upland areas beyond the stream corridor could be sprinkler irrigated until the root systems were established. These plantings would help protect the erosive soils and act to dissipate stream energy during critical flow. A Riparian Restoration Implementation Plan was created to identify locations for vegetative plantings and stream structures necessary to meet water quality objectives, and willows were planted in strategic locations along the creek.

 

An additional recommendation was a sprinkler irrigation system combined with a pipe to line the irrigation ditch to increase irrigation efficiencies and allow for more water to stay in the stream and thus increase the stream-flow year round. Combined with other projects and aspects of implementation, these tools would allow for effective revegetation and removal of cattle and wildlife from the stream course for the majority of the year by creating more forage in the managed rangeland and an alternative water source created from the groundwater wells. So, Jim laid pipe in his earthen ditches (see photo at right). Part of the irrigation water flows into a 250,000-gallon water tank salvaged from a nearby sawmill. The tank allows him to collect water slowly, leaving more water in stream for habitat during dry times while continuing to supply his sprinkler irrigation guns, which he installed to irrigate pastures and riparian vegetation. Sprinklers operate more efficiently than the flood irrigation they replaced, and the reduced return flow is less likely to erode soil into the channel.

Another recommendation was to remove rabbitbrush and re-seed with grasses to create more forage for cattle, to reduce their reliance on the vegetation of the stream corridor, and to allow for their removal from the riparian corridor with the use of fences and altered range management. This is what Jim has done. From a watershed standpoint, the removal of rabbitbrush and re-introduction of grasses improved species diversity and composition. Also, the grasses provide a more stable root mass than the rabbitbrush, thus increasing the soil stability of the rangelands and decreasing the amount of sediment contributed from sheet flow and wind erosion over these rangelands.

The TMDL plan also recommended monitoring because it is an important tool in decision making. The ADEQ periodically monitors turbidity levels on the ranch. Recent data indicate that turbidity is not increasing with high water events, as in the past. In addition to lowering turbidity, conservation practices are improving water quality, riparian habitat, and ranching economics. Elk use, fish, and other wildlife are also being monitored, as is vegetation.

Another recommendation of the TMDL report was outreach. This would be important in helping others interested in implementing conservation practices to improve water quality, wildlife habitat, and ranching economics. Jim has been featured in a number of newspaper and magazine articles, and he hosts tours of his ranch. His web site has a wealth of useful information about riparian area management and obtaining grants to fund projects. You can visit it at http://www.ECBarRanch.com.

What about the ranching end of all these conservation improvements? Have they made a difference in Jim’s cattle operation? He made a strategic decision not follow the local custom of having a cow-calf operation. Restrictions of public land grazing allotments are forcing ranchers to increasingly graze their cattle on private lands, but the private land base cannot support large enough operations to be financially viable. Jim found that a yearling operation fit his situation very well. He buys as many as 300 weaned calves in September at lower prices, grazes them on the grass that he produced over the summer, and sells them 200 pounds heavier from January to March when cattle prices are higher. He also avoids the labor and expense associated with breeding, calving, and year-round animal maintenance.

 Nutrioso Creek after
Nutrioso Creek after

As a result of Jim’s stewardship and the support he has received from public agencies, the entire 2.5 miles of riparian corridor on the ranch has improved to an upward trend with some places now in proper functioning condition, with stable wetland habitat and abundant forage for dormant season grazing. As Jim sees the future, the spinedace will recover so it can be delisted, water quality in Nutrioso Creek will improve to the point that the creek will no longer be classified as impaired, more grass will grow along the creek, and he can fatten more cattle. Everybody wins.