Dam It!

How To Help A Damaged River System.
By Kevin Franklin

OUR BACKS STRAIN and the sun beats down on us as we pass the heavy stones along, like a granite bucket brigade.

Out There The front-end loader dumps another pile of rock in front of me. I bend down and resume sorting and lifting rocks to the other men and women in the brigade.

Has the Out There Finance Team finally been caught and punished for its complex network of Ponzi schemes? Not yet. This is a volunteer effort. We're slogging rocks in order to repair some of the damaged river systems in the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge.

"When the Fish and Wildlife Service bought this property," says FWS biologist Mich Goddard, "it was in pretty bad shape."

Goddard explains 100 years of overgrazing in the refuge southwest of Arivaca severely damaged the land's ability to hold water. De-vegetation of the complex systems of grasses allowed water to run off rapidly and erode huge volumes of dirt. Now the natural drainage systems are incised 20 feet below the surrounding landscape.

Today, myself and about 20 other volunteers are building a gabian across the arroyo. Gabians are large wire baskets filled with rocks and linked together. When completed, the gabian network will form a permeable dam spanning the arroyo. When the arroyo runs during storms, all the debris and sediment it carries will get caught behind the gabian dam. Eventually enough of this material will accumulate to completely backfill the dam and everything upstream from it.

"This structure is going to start building the bottom of the wash back up," says Goddard.

When the gabian accomplishes its mission, rain runoff will cease shooting through the refuge like a rocket and eating the landscape. Instead it will move in slower, wide sheets and provide the refuge's plants with life-sustaining water.

The Arizona League of Conservation Voters is working with the FWS in order to build the gabians. In late October, the FWS and the AZLCV received a grant from the Arizona State Water Protection Fund to build a pair of gabians on the refuge. However, the funding covers only the cost of materials. So Bob Beatson, AZLCV executive director, sent out a call to arms for environmental shock troops to come sweat for ecological preservation.

"This is the kind of work I enjoy," says Tracy Eberingham, a University of Arizona greenhouse manager. Eberingham will take hard, outdoor volunteering over eco volunteering on the phone any day.

"I was a firefighter out here about six years ago," says Eberingham. "I liked it out here and got to know the place real well."

He even lassoed friend and co-worker Arturo Baez, a skilled front-end loader driver, to come help. Baez deftly maneuvers the small CAT from the big dump truck pile over next to the volunteers.

"I needed some hours for a biology class and this seemed like a good project," says Baez.

All kinds of people show up for the effort. But the group that surprises me most is the UA fraternity. Usually when I think of Greek volunteer efforts, I recall the time a UA sorority held a watermelon-smashing contest to raise a few bucks for fighting hunger. But these guys came out for a good project and they worked hard.

"We figured it would be a good community service to come out and move some rocks," says Phi Kappa Psi historian Ryan Bigham. "We were supposed to have a couple of sororities too, but there was a communication problem. We may try to come out again."

I guess I have to refrain from stereotyping fraternities now.

One stereotype that will never die is the dishonest and mean-spirited politician. Arizona State Rep. Bill McGibbon, R-Dist. 9, made a motion for a resolution in the state Legislature to censure the FWS, says Beatson. McGibbon, a former Arizona Cattleman's Association president, accuses the FWS of mismanaging its land and causing vegetation damage.

"It's absolute bullshit," says Beatson. I did research here in the late '70s (before the FWS took over), and I can tell you it was barren out here."

Looking at the moonscape of some nearby ranch land and comparing it with healthy fields of grass on the refuge, one can't help thinking McGibbon is more concerned about the refuge making its neighbors look bad.

But don't take my word for it. Come out this weekend and see for yourself what's going on here.

Getting There

The AZLCV will be on working on the gabians Saturdays and Sundays through April 13. Call (520) 622-2819 for directions on the day you want to come. TW

Photo by Kevin Franklin

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