Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Attachment to place

I spent the last week in SoCal, and passed by a familiar landscape with which I had become intimately involved over a number of years by working on a long-term project in the area. I had become very attached to this certain landscape that is really quite trashed from anthropogenic activity, through many visits with a variety of colleagues, from hydrologists to ecologists, soil scientists to botanists. I had tears in my eyes as I drove through the area, once (and now barely) home to three endemic plant species (spreading navarretia, SJ crownscale, and threadleaf brodeia). Between the ag, previous recreational bulldozing in the waterway, sheep grazing, and sludge spreading, there is limited potential for restoration. Most of my work frustration in SoCal was related to this area, and the knowledge that this place had been a wonderfully functioning habitat for a variety of species that had perfectly adapted to the arid but occasionally very wet, alkaline but wetland, tectonically spectacular environment (the closest large fault system is around 700K years old and is one of the most active in SoCal). I really fell in love with the place, and shared that passion with some of my colleagues (a place only a mother could love).

Recently, I spoke with a coworker about the differences between where we used to work, and where we work now (somewhere in the southwest with not too much housing development, but lots of other activity). We both came from larger metropolitan areas, with precious aquatic resources in limited supply. We both realized in our conversation that it was only infrequently that we privately felt dismay and, frankly, heartbreak at the potential loss of these special places where we are now. Where we once felt this heartbreak on an all-to-regular basis, it only comes very infrequently in our current location. I'm lucky in that most of my work currently is focussed on repairing an already-impaired aquatic landscape or just dealing with legal or regulation-related minutiae, instead of watching the wholesale demolition of 200-1000 acres with no vestige of the former topography left (except perhaps in the development's name).

My significant other must have thought I was nuts, sadly proclaiming my attachment to a landscape that looks like mostly a trash dump and meth lab haven, a place only someone with intimate knowledge of its potential could love. I disparaged the sheep, the sludge, and once again, wished I'd win the lottery so I could just buy the floodplain up and return it to its former glory (along with a spa weekend, anywhere). I also realized that it's really kind of nice not to feel that heartbreak on a daily or weekly basis; that it is quite a drain on one's soul to live with that sense of landloss regularly.

Even though many of my recent conversations have centered around "no, using car bodies as riprap in designated critical habitat for endangered fish species isn't really a good idea...", I'm doing a lot of proactive, restoration-oriented activities, as well as assisting industries and local governments to buck up their maintenance and construction practices. It's satisfying in a way I didn't get to feel in SoCal. I'm glad I'm here.

Other places, other riparian habitat

Over the last month or so, it's been irrigation ditch, canal, and acequia clean-up time over the southwest. Much of the water in AZ and NM used for agriculture comes from surface irrigation supplies, especially in NM. The supply canals, ditches, and acequias are mostly unlined, so they end up supporting a wide variety of riparian and irrigation-induced wetlands. When it is clean-up time, the vegetation gets burned and the ditches get dug out. In some areas of CO that I've visited this spring (if you could call it that a month ago), even the freshwater marsh (i.e., cattails) that inhabits some of the low-lying swales gets burned.

We use these agricultural resources, and I understand the need to have a clear-flowing ditch or acequia to supply water to pastures and food/hay crops. Unfortunately, in many areas of the southwest, the acequia-induced habitat is most of what's left of the fairly vast riparian zones along the once-perennial or strongly-intermittent stream systems with occasional tenajas to supply water throughout the year. When the riparian habitat gets burned, there's that much less during the year for southwest critters to use as forage, nesting, and refuge habitat. One could argue that the riparian veg grows back, but the temporal loss still remains.

This all reminds me of the two months one summer (before the axis of evil) spent in the mountains of a central asian country, one with a very tall volcano. Like NM, the mountain villages (and the desert communities, too) have well-developed irrigation supply systems to provide their fields with water. The systems are called qanats (covered in the desert), some which have been in place for over a thousand years (or so I was told). I wasn't there during spring qanat-cleaning, but one of the practices I saw made me shudder all the same.

I was there as a tagalong with a more official research team. I was lucky enough to be looking at Neogene fluvially-derived sediments for a independent study-type project, of which there is a fairly large wedge in the local area. There are also springs in the hillsides of these sediments which support a diverse, fairly native (as far as I could tell) riparian habitat. There is little riparian along the creeks and rivers for both natural and anthropogenic reasons (primarily because the streams run big and carry lots of coarse-to-fine grained sediment - boulders to silts/clays - that blow out streamside veg). As such, the hillside springs support riparian veg that acts as forage, nesting, and refuge for the local central asian critters including these big, honking grouse-like birds that were about small turkey-sized. Each spring-fed riparian zone would house about 2-3 of these grouse, about half an acre in size. The locals would torch the zones to drive out the grouse-y birds, which they would then shoot for sport and dinner. In the area in which I was working, I recollect about three of these zones along one large stretch of hillside. There weren't very many, over all, and they housed what was left of the native habitat (probably having been grazed/flooded out centuries ago). I still think it was a shame to destroy those, even temporally, for one or two dinners, when a whole herd of goats and sheep were there to provide cheese, yogurt, milk, and meat on a very regular basis.

My other main recollection is that, like Europe, there is no place without people. I could not go about with my head uncovered, even in the mountains, as there was always the chance of coming upon a goatherd or another local, or even one of the religious police (yes, even in the mountains). I still think how lucky I am to live and work in the southwest, where I can always escape to fairly empty places, without a headscarf.

Not enough time on my hands...

The last month has been spent in plenty of overtime and lots of travel. Not much time to write then, but I now have a little space to play catch-up and put all the thoughts I've had over the last month or so to e-pen and e-paper. I've been all over the southwest this last month, from LA to Denver, from Redlands to Moab, and all sorts of places in between. It's really good to be home for awhile. I have lots to write about, so keep looking in to see what's new.