How beavers make the desert bloom

‘I’m always looking for ways to keep water here, and the beaver do it for free.’

 

Illustration by Emily Poole

At nearly a million acres, the Winecup Gamble Ranch, a mountainous Nevada spread hard up against the Utah border, puts Rhode Island to shame. The Winecup Gamble is owned by Paul Fireman, the executive behind the ascent of Reebok; its past owners include a Nevada governor and actor Jimmy Stewart. Posterity failed to record how Jimmy Stewart felt about beavers, but it’s safe to say his cowboys didn’t look kindly upon them. When Fireman hired a jocular, pink-faced rancher named James Rogers to manage the place in 2010, Rogers found that the staff tended to shoot beavers on sight, as reflexive as breathing. One of Rogers’ first acts as the Winecup Gamble’s manager was to declare an armistice in its war against the rodents. “You just see glimpses of the benefits, if you have enough of an open mind,” he told me as we bumped through one of his pastures on a June afternoon, his truck enveloped by dust. “I’m always looking for ways to keep water here, and the beaver do it for free. They don’t do it perfectly, but who am I to think that I can do it better?”

Rogers pulled over and led me on foot downhill, into a valley lushly furred in bunchgrass. Thousand Springs Creek, so named for its countless cold-water seeps, glugged along, impounded every hundred yards or so by another willow beaver dam. As the string of ponds soaked into the soil, they raised the water table, sub-irrigating pastures in one of the driest corners of North America. “This valley is probably producing 1,000 pounds of grass per acre, and the sagebrush we just walked through is only 100,” Rogers said, running a stalk through his fingers. “From a rancher’s perspective, beavers increase production tenfold.”

Protected from gunfire, the creek’s beavers had ventured down from the Winecup Gamble’s mountains to establish colonies nearer ranch headquarters. That was fine by Rogers, whose gee-whiz humility marks him as something of an anomaly in the machismo-driven world of livestock production. “I want everybody to buy in — I want people to feel as passionate about ’em as I do,” Rogers said when we stopped to admire a particularly majestic dam. “When a new guy comes, I don’t want to be the guy to tell him we don’t shoot beaver on this ranch. I want my other employees to say, ‘Man, you gotta check out what these beaver are doing, they’re awesome — and by the way, we don’t kill ’em.’ ”

IN THE WINTER OF 2017, Rogers’ relationship with beaver took another leap forward — thanks not to drought, but to flood. Ferocious storms swept Nevada and California, washing out roads, smothering highways in mud, and killing two people. On Feb. 8, disaster struck the Winecup Gamble. Twenty-One Mile Dam, a 47-foot-tall earthen structure that supplied irrigation water to the ranch, caved beneath its swollen reservoir. Floodwaters scoured Route 233, rerouted trains, and forced Elko County to declare a state of emergency, though in the end no one, fortunately, was injured.

If you missed the Twenty-One Mile Dam story, it’s because that breach was overshadowed by an even more terrifying near-miss. The same storms that swept Nevada also bloated California’s Lake Oroville to perilous levels, jeopardizing the Oroville Dam, a 770-foot embankment on the Feather River. Anxious engineers tried to alleviate the pressure by dumping water down the dam’s concrete spillway — a reasonable idea, until a spillway crack grew into a 250-foot crater. When administrators closed that channel, water began cascading over the lip of the tallest dam in the United States, eroding hillsides and threatening to undercut the structure. California officials evacuated nearly 200,000 downstream residents. Although the dam ultimately survived, the close call shook engineers and water managers to the core.

In retrospect, the most remarkable thing about the Oroville near-catastrophe was not that the dam almost failed, but that disasters don’t strike more frequently. The last major dam failure in the West occurred when Idaho’s Teton Dam disintegrated in 1976, killing 11 people and thousands of cattle. Collapses may be mercifully rare, but many dams still pose cataclysmic risks. In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers classified more than 15,000 dams as “high-hazard.” Rehabilitating those dangerous dams alone, the report found, would cost $22 billion. Repairing our entire decrepit fleet of dams, whose age averages 56 years, would run us more than $60 billion.

Even when they’re not crumbling, dams wreak havoc — there’s a reason John McPhee placed them at conservationists’ “absolute epicenter of Hell on earth.” In the Colorado River, less a river at this point than a chain of reservoirs, fishes like the pikeminnow and the razorback sucker have been nearly wiped out by changing water temperatures, altered sedimentation patterns and invasive species. Although dams are touted as sources of clean power, methane outputs from their reservoirs account for more than 1 percent of global emissions. They’re also prone to filling in with silt, rendering costly public investments inoperable. More than half the Bureau of Reclamation’s dams are over 60 years old, approaching the end of their “sediment design life.” When beaver ponds fill with sediment, they become fertile meadows; when vast reservoirs clog, they turn into bowls of shallow, turbid soup, incapable of spinning turbines or sustaining aquatic life.

It is worth pondering, for a moment, why the first farmers who invaded the West found so much land they needed to “reclaim.” We associate the Southwest with hot sand and red rock, stunted mesquite and prickly pear. Once, though, it was a lusher place — thanks in part to beavers. James Pattie, a trapper who wandered southwestern New Mexico in the 1820s, described a landscape cratered by ponds and wetlands; attracted one day to a lake by the honks of ducks and geese, he remarked, “What gave me much more satisfaction, that is to say, three beaver lodges.” In one watershed, Pattie claimed to have taken “the very considerable number of 250 beavers,” likely destroying in the process hundreds of dams and the watery cienegas — spongy, alkaline wetlands endemic to the Southwest — they helped create. Having depleted our landscapes’ ability to store water, we felt compelled to imitate our rodent rivals by building thousands of concrete boondoggles. Our dams were partly designed to solve a problem the fur trade created.

At this point, you are perhaps shaking your head at the notion that beavers, however industrious, ever matched the capacity of, say, Lake Mead. “I’d be cautious about calling beavers even a partial solution for some of these gigantic storage and delivery projects,” Jerry Meral, former water commissioner for California’s Marin County, told me. He’s an ardent beaver proponent, but he also appreciates human infrastructure. “California has built 1,700 dams, including some of the largest ones in the world, to store water in winter and move it so it could be used for irrigation season in summer. There’s nothing a beaver could do to match that.”

Beavers would certainly be hard-pressed to replicate the precision of the West’s extraordinary water-delivery infrastructure. For all the risks that come with centralized storage, there are also many advantages, notably the convenience of sticking a bunch of straws into a single milkshake. Still, we’re not just debating the future of aging dams — we’re also contemplating new ones. Haunted by the specter of climate-fueled drought, public agencies are considering massive new storage projects in California, Colorado, and other states. Take the Utah Division of Water Resources, currently mulling two prospective dam sites in the Little Bear–Logan River sub-watershed which would store 40,000 acre-feet and cost up to $500 million. That’s where beavers could really prove their worth.

In 2016, Konrad Hafen, then a graduate student at Utah State University, decided to find out whether beavers could beat concrete walls. He calculated that the Little Bear-Logan watershed could support around 3,700 beaver dams, which could capture up to 7,500 acre-feet of water — an impressive figure, but less than 20 percent of the proposed reservoirs. So beavers lose, right?

Well, not so fast. Hafen, befitting a diligent scientist, used some conservative assumptions in his study: namely, that each beaver dam would hold no more than a single acre-foot of surface water, and that they’d store the same amount below ground as above. We cavalier journalists can play a bit looser with our postulations. One study by a group called the Lands Council, for instance, estimated that beaver ponds in arid eastern Washington store an average of 3.5 acre-feet of surface water alone, and press at least five times that much into the underlying ground. Apply those figures to the Little Bear-Logan watershed, and suddenly its beavers can trap around 64,000 acre-feet — 50 percent more than concrete. Whatever numbers you use, it’s clear that our rodent partners can put a dent in our storage needs without impeding fish passage, driving sediment rates out of whack, or costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

If everything goes according to James Rogers’ plans, the Winecup Gamble Ranch might someday provide a half-decent model for beaver-based storage. Rebuilding the blown-out Twenty-One Mile Dam was beyond the Winecup’s means, he told me that evening, just before we settled down to some of the tastiest steaks I’d ever eaten. Besides, it didn’t make much hydrological sense. Twenty-One Mile Dam’s failure had been a fiasco, yes, but Rogers also considered it an opportunity to rethink his ranch’s relationship with water.

“We’re looking again at this thing and going, ‘What if we held that water in different places?’ ” Rogers said. “What if we broke it up and held 1,000 acre-feet over here, and 1,000 there, and 500 feet here and 250 over there? What if we could strategically build two or three or four or five wetlands, or recharge pools, or whatever you want to call them, where we know the water always is? And what if the beaver could help us do that?” Rogers, I realized, was discussing nothing less than beaverizing the water delivery system of a parcel of land the size of a small Northeastern state. 

Ben Goldfarb is a frequent contributor to High Country News. This excerpt is adapted from his new book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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