• December 7, 2021
 Green in the Desert: Local Biologist Taps Rainwater to Restore River Flow, Defend Against Drought

Green in the Desert: Local Biologist Taps Rainwater to Restore River Flow, Defend Against Drought

When Mike Gaglio and his team go to the river, their intention reaches beyond simply planting trees.

Each hole dug, each cottonwood set in place, each willow planted represents a small step in the direction of a much larger vision, said Gaglio, owner of High Desert Native Plants, an El Paso-based environmental and ecological restoration company.

“The Rio Grande used to be a half-mile, to mile-wide meandering stream,” he said. “As it meandered, it deposited sediment and helped make healthy soils, and those soils contributed to all kinds of natural habitat for local species.“We’re planting trees to restore a bit of that habitat. It’s an attempt to recreate what was here before.”

This year, Gaglio’s company won a U.S. International Boundary Water Commission contract to restore habitat for two endangered species: the Southwest Willow Flycatcher and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo—birds which need a certain variety of trees and shrubs along the river if they stand any chance at all in making a comeback.

As a result of this project and others like it, High Desert planted about 7,000 native trees along the Rio Grande last year alone.

In the coming year, Gaglio expects the company to plant in the neighborhood of 15,000 trees. Ostensibly, the plantings provide habitat for the two endangered birds. Gaglio refers to the medley of trees and shrubs as a “mature riparian forest,” a flora gallery that includes coyote willow, indigo bush, sumac and currants.

In many ways, the habitat mirrors what was here before humans came and dammed and channeled the river, and such a setup does in fact support life for the endangered birds.But, as with most projects, Gaglio’s mind is on the river itself—commonly described as the Chihuahuan Desert’s lifeblood.

The Southwest Willow Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cuckoo are “indicator species,” he said; if they are in abundance, they signal a thriving river ecosystem. And a thriving river ecosystem is precisely what Gaglio hopes to help recreate.

“Right now, the river is designed like a stormwater ditch,” he said. “It’s designed to get rid of water as fast as possible, to just take it all downstream. But all these projects I’m involved in—they’re designed to return some of that natural flow.”

Gaglio, a biologist, often says his company does “everything with conservation in mind.” The phrase encompasses the breadth of his projects, which include landscape-scale restoration, a native plant nursery that salvages cacti from destruction, and an innovative approach to water conservation that takes advantage of the surprising abundance of desert rain.

The local ecosystem’s defining characteristic is aridity, Gaglio said.

Ironically, that means much of his work revolves around water. Pay attention to the water, he says, and you can do much in the vein of land stewardship, including drought reduction, species restoration, erosion control and more.

“The way we’re currently using water in this area is just not sustainable,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of managing, and we’ve got to conserve more of the water that comes down that river.”

Overtapping our Water Source

Many local experts agree.For the most part, the area’s water comes from three sources, the Rio Grande and the Hueco and Mesilla bolsons, which are underground aquifers, said William Hargrove, director of UTEP’s Center for Environmental Resource Management.

Hargrove and Josiah Heyman, director of UTEP’s Center for Inter-American and Border Studies, received a $4.9 million grant to co-lead research on the potential for water shortages in the region’s future.

“If we want to think about the future of water here,” Hargrove said, “the number one issue is climate change.”

Warmer temperatures affect water supply in two main ways, he said: They create more water demand locally and reduce the amount of water flowing down the Rio Grande.When Spring comes early, for example, agricultural operations demand more water.

Likewise, hotter summers put greater demand on El Paso’s electric plants, which use water in the electricity generating process.More importantly, hotter temperatures mean less snowfall in the high mountains of southern Colorado, where the Rio Grande rises.

The river’s annual flow largely depends on each year’s snowmelt, and climate models predict shorter winters and less snowfall in the future, Hargrove said.“All of that adds up to less water flowing down the river and more demand,” he said.

Because of such constraints, border populations are already drawing down the groundwater from the other two sources—the Hueco and Mesilla bolsons—faster than in the past, Heyman said.

“Groundwater is complicated,” he added, “because it does recharge. But the groundwater isn’t recharging anywhere near as fast as it’s being drawn out. There are wells that we have records of that are measured over time, and the depth to the water in the wells…is going down. And you can see that not just in one place, but in many places.”

Moreover, in the case of intense drought, such as the one experienced in 2011, water sources are likely to be further diminished, placing a strain on industries and populations who depend on consistent water flows.

“If we model 10 (consecutive drought) years like 2011,” Heyman said, “it really takes the groundwater levels down fast. It doesn’t zero it out, but it shows that we really will be stressing our water-supply system when we get a big drought in the future. “And I don’t say if we get a big drought in the future; I say when we get it.”

Prolonged droughts would likely first impact local agriculture operations—such as pecan and alfalfa growers—which use about 80-85 percent of the area’s water, Heyman said.

Both Hargrove and Heyman mentioned the El Paso water utility has taken numerous sophisticated measures to help ensure residents retain reliable water access in the future, including water desalinization and purchasing water ranches in areas outside El Paso—like those near Dell City, about 100 miles away. But such investments are expensive, and local taxpayers help foot the bill.

Heyman said there is a less costly way to improve water supply. “The cheapest increment of improvement for water supply is actually conserving water,” he said. “It’s cheaper to conserve water than it is to haul it over here from Dell City.”

Rainwater Harvesting

And that’s where Gaglio’s work comes into play.

In El Paso, High Desert Native Plants is spearheading a novel approach to conserving water. The concept, as it turns out, falls right out of the sky.

“Water harvesting is all about taking the water that’s naturally available and putting it to beneficial use right where it falls,” Gaglio said.Water harvesting refers to a set of integrated landscaping methods that uses the natural flow of water as the focal point of design.

When Gaglio looks at a landscape, in other words, he imagines himself as a drop of water. He asks the question: How would I flow through this place if I were water?

“What we try to do is slow, spread and sink the water,” he said. “We want it to infiltrate the soil and to sink into the ground, so that it can be stored there and used by plants and contribute to healthy soil.”

Water harvesting could alleviate numerous ecological problems. For one, it can help offset stormwater damage to infrastructure. By taking water out of street-side gutters and curbs and sinking it into organic landscapes, less water surges into storm drains and containment ponds. This, in turn, reduces strain on water infrastructure.

The practice could also help bring down municipal water demand, Gaglio said, especially if it were adopted on a wide scale.Through a combination of shaping landscapes to retain water, planting native plant palettes and installing structural rainwater catchment systems—such as cisterns that store water running off roofs—residents can reduce the amount of water they demand from municipal sources.

“Most of the water we use here in the city is on landscapes,” Gaglio pointed out. “It takes a ton of water to maintain all those green grassy lawns.”Water-harvesting landscapes, in contrast, rely primarily on rainwater, as opposed to keeping plants on life support from municipal water sources.

Gaglio said people commonly object to the applicability of rainwater harvesting because of the area’s scant rainfall. But El Paso averages about 9 inches of rain a year. By that measure, a 1,000-square-foot roof could collect about 6,000 gallons of water in a year.

“A lot of people don’t understand that because we don’t get lot of rain here, that’s even more of a reason and more incentive to harvest water,” Gaglio said. “It’s true, we don’t get a lot. But, with a landscape of native plants—which are adapted to survive here anyway—we get just enough.”

What Our Water Futures Hold

When looking at water futures, Heyman said the region faces steep challenges, especially as temperatures warm and borderland populations demand more water. Over the course of his study, however, he said he has seen reason for hope.

“I think our water futures could be alright,” Heyman said. “I think they will take really, enormously more conservation of water, by everybody who uses water—by cities and by utilities and by farmers.”

For his part, Gaglio thinks water harvesting could play an important role in those conservation efforts. It might not solve the entire water-management puzzle, he said, but it could provide an important piece.

“I’d really like to spread the word about this,” Gaglio said. “My goal is to increase awareness of the potential for water harvesting at all scales. “I want water harvesting to go viral.”

***Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area.  Previous Columns can be read HERE.

Writer Chilton Tippin is project manager and communications coordinator for Wondor Eco:Nomics. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.

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