By Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
(Pinal County, Arizona) Four recently constructed artificial watering holes in the Superstition Mountains and two in the Mescal Mountains ensure black bears, golden eagles, bighorn sheep and other thirsty wildlife have plenty to drink during the state’s 27th year of drought.
In addition to saving animals, these new water catchments also save the Arizona Game and Fish Department from schlepping tons of water over deeply wash-boarded dirt roads by truck or even helicopter.
It’s a lot of work for a department that receives no state general tax dollars, with most of its funding coming from hunting and fishing licenses. But, since it costs $500 to replace a single tire on one of its four custom-built, four-wheel-drive water-hauling trucks, any savings are good news for the AZGFD's habitat planning program manager, Joseph Currie.
"Those [catchments] have kind of proven their weight in gold, so to speak, alleviating us from having to haul water in that part of the Pinal County area," Currie said.
Doing More with Less
Unfortunately for Currie, who has a quarter-century of experience building, maintaining and designing water catchments, the tons of water saved from being shipped are a drop in the bucket. Last year, his five-person crew hauled nearly three million gallons of water — four and a half Olympic swimming pools worth — to 3,000 catchments across the state.
The catchments consist of three parts. First is a collection skirt made from corrugated metal roofing, concrete slabs or natural terrain. Skirts direct water into a tank, the second part, that feeds a trough, the third part, where animals drink or bathe. Often, cameras with motion sensors are mounted nearby to capture images or videos of wildlife visits.
Older tanks are smaller and dry out more frequently. Modern ones refill themselves more efficiently and run larger.
“Just as an example, we have a 3,000-gallon catchment in elk country up on the rim,” Currie explained. “The elk can drink that dry, 3,000 gallons, in one week. Up there, I try and build my catchments to 20,000 gallons so that hopefully we can get from now until the monsoons hit.”
Currie designs skirts to capture one and a half times a tank’s volume based on an area’s average annual precipitation. Since many places regularly fall far short of average or still have older tanks, Currie and his crew must haul more water to compensate.
The department has looked to volunteers for help plugging gaps. Members of the Arizona Elk Society, Arizona Antelope Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation and Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society assist in maintaining catchments. Individuals also lend a hand by hauling water, monitoring water levels, or donating.
If all of this sounds like a lot of work for so few people, that’s because it is. Once, the AZGFD’s catchment program had nearly three times as many workers while being responsible for far fewer sites.
The Rise and Fall of Gallinaceous Guzzlers
The first documented water catchments that Currie knows of date from either 1939 or 1940. At the time, called gallinaceous guzzlers, they were meant to sustain hunting birds like quails. However, their benefits to other wildlife were soon noticed, leading to the AZGFD establishing a traveling construction and maintenance crew who built around 1000 catchments.
At its peak, the AZGFD’s catchment program had 14 workers in four crews. However, these numbers dropped steadily over the last two decades while drought drove the demand for water higher. Even worse, the Forest Service and BLM quit maintaining their water catchments.
“Our commission said, ‘We don't care who quote-unquote owns the catchments; we’re fixing them all,’” Currie said. “We think we've inherited a couple thousand catchments, plus the thousand we had ourselves.”
Saving More than Wildlife
Providing water to wildlife is more than an act of altruism. According to a report from the Arizona Department of Transportation, from 2003 to 2018, 969 wildlife-related crashes occurred in Pinal County, and 20,326 occurred statewide.
As Arizona's population and infrastructure have grown, wildlife-related auto accidents have increased. Currie sees water catchments as a way to reduce these tragic occurrences.
“We've literally put that water catchment in the travel corridor of the wildlife,” Currie explained. “It stopped them from crossing the highway to go to a different water source, therefore stopping them from having to cross the road and get hit by a vehicle.”
Protecting wildlife also protects the economy of the county and state. An AZGFD study from 2001 found hunting and fishing in Pinal County generated $20 million in expenditures, $900,000 in state tax revenue and 296 jobs. Hunting and fishing accounted for a $1.34 billion impact at the state level.
On the less lethal end of the outdoor recreation spectrum, a 2011 analysis by the Tucson Audubon Society found wildlife watching activities led to retail sales worth $27,541,139 in Pinal County. This economic activity helps partially fund the water catchment program’s considerable costs.
No Blue, No Green
Despite all the efforts, sometimes it’s not enough. While Currie and the AZGFD can bring water to the desert, they can’t make it rain. Lower precipitation leads to decreased plant growth, resulting in wildlife populations contracting.
“There's no way we can go out there and feed all the wildlife across the state,” Currie laments. “That's impossible, but what is feasible is to supply water out there, even though it's really expensive.”
For those interested in donating to the AZGFD’s water catchment program, text "SENDWATER" to 41444, or visit www.sendwater.org.