Returning the ‘wet’ to Arizona wetlands

Most of us would simply call it mud, but to wetland biologists, dark messy, sloshy soil is as good as gold in the arid Southwest, oozing with organically rich potential.

Early settlers found a lot of it. They described pools of water, knee-deep grasses, narrow streams and fertile soil as they passed through Arizona’s high country. But scientists are concerned that many of our seeps and springs are drying up.

While plotting a route from Arkansas to California in 1857, Navy Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale raved about the fresh water and lush vegetation of the Little Colorado River near Winslow.

“The soil seems fertile and bears good meadow grass in all parts,” he wrote, “while the plains, extending from its banks as far as one can see, are covered with rich grama grass.”

A visit there today might make you wonder if Beale had been trotting his camels across some other territory. Now 50 percent of what the Little Colorado holds is silt and much of its banks are stripped of native vegetation.

Researchers say Hoxworth Springs, a restored wet meadow south of Lake Mary, is humming with hundreds of dragonflies and more insects than any other wet meadow in the region.

“The very first explorers would have moved through an area that had very open forests in the uplands. They would have come through one meadow after another as they worked their way from east to west across this region,” said Jim Allen, executive director of Northern Arizona University’s School of Forestry.After wading through 150 years of human-caused changes on the land that included the exclusion of fire and many, many grazing cows and sheep along with the introduction of Rocky Mountain elk, researchers believe pioneers experienced a much different northern Arizona than what we see today.

Those spongy, muddy, spring-fed meadows, similar to one at Griffith’s Spring near Flagstaff, kept a variety of plants and animals well watered.

Now much too often, deeply eroded gullies quickly whisk water away. Dry meadows carry only memories of old stream channels. And scientists like Abe Springer, director of NAU’s School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, say our overcrowded pine forests are draining the wetlands. His research on wet meadow restoration and his continuing long-term research on springs ecosystems will help land and resource managers prioritize valuable management and restoration resources.

“Those floodplains would have had different kinds of wildlife, like beavers that have been hunted out. There would have been very different kinds of plants. In many cases the area would have been too wet for ponderosa pines,” said Allen. “Imagine how much water might have been stored in acres and acres of wet meadow, five, six, maybe 10 feet deep before hitting bedrock, gradually releasing water downstream over time.”

Abe Springer and Karissa Ramstead
Abe Springer, director of NAU’s School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, and student researcher Karissa Ramstead examine insect larvae clinging to a rock, a sign of a healthy stream at Hoxworth Springs, where land managers have restored this wet meadow south of Lake Mary.

“If we return forest density to more of a presettlement, open condition, our studies show we should increase the surface runoff and recharge aquifers by decreasing the amount of water that trees and other kinds of vegetation use.”

Even after 15 years of drought, a healthy hum is beating on the wings of hundreds of dragonflies at Hoxworth Springs, a restored site south of Lake Mary.

“In these types of seeps and springs, dragonflies are the top predators,” Springer  said.  “They are the carnivores of their world and a very good indicator of a high quality condition.”

Another good indicator is a high concentration of graminoids, says NAU School of Forestry student researcher Karissa Ramstead.

“A graminoid is a grass-like species. You want to see a high percentage of sedges and rushes in the vegetation along streams. They help stabilize the banks.”

By removing some of the trees in the surrounding uplands, rebuilding shallow streams, reducing the impact of grazing animals and reintroducing fire, researchers are confident that “wet” can be returned to wetlands.