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Large scale Swale Examples in Arizona or W.NM?

 
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Do you know of any good documented examples?
Not irrigated swales ... but rainwater catchment strategy to establish vegetation, and help with water storage/inflitration.

(please don't say those CCC non-swales in Tucson, those are really poor examples)
(they are basically a glorified rancher's stock tank/pond ... they dammed up a wash)

I've google-searched the hell out of it ... can't find nothing.

Thinking about doing this on my property in AZ.
It would be nice to get some data on this method, ya know, before and after pics .... documented results.

If this thread goes no where, this will be my placeholder/log of sorts for my own project.

Any info would be appreciated!
Thnks!

Mike
 
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Hi Mikhail, and welcome to permies. If you're talking about the gabions along the Altar Wash in Buenos Aires, those are drop structures put there to try and heal the downcutting of the arroyo by trapping sediment, spreading and slowing flows to increase infiltration, and improve the habitat. Not swales, though.

There might be some good examples on the Empire-Cienega Ranch...I seem to recall talk about it years ago but memory is a little hazy on details.
 
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Hi, Mikhail! I don't have any for-sure examples for you (although there are at least a few smaller scale projects in southeastern Arizona), but I have some potential places to start looking:

  • Brad Lancaster, Tucson-based author of the Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond books, has an online list of demonstration projects in Arizona here (I don't see any in New Mexico);
  • Bean Tree Farm north of Tucson was designed by Barbara Rose (part of the Sonoran Permaculture Guild) using permaculture principles and "welcom[es] rainwater into the landscape through gently placed earthworks, cisterns, and organic mulches, increasing soil health and habitat for native and drylands-adapted species," and workshops and a farmstand welcome guests to the location;
  • Gary Paul Nabhan's orchard farmstead, Almuñia de los Zopilotes, near Patagonia uses "water-harvesting strategies... to reduce on-farm groundwater and fossil fuel uses," maybe including swales?;
  • one of Nabhan's latest books, Food from the Radical Center, mentions the traditional stone checkdams built in the West Turkey Creek watershed of the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona by rancher Valer Clark of the Cuenca de los Ojos Foundation and her El Coronado Ranch to return water to the landscape (pp. 46-51 of the hardback edition) -- I realize this isn't swales, but it's in the family of water management to revegetate arid lands. I believe the ranch has a guesthouse for game bird hunters, etc. so maybe you could see that in person, too, should you wish it; and
  • Not sure at what scale, but Marcia Gibbons of Ransom Ranch somewhere near Bisbee is doing really cool things at her earthship homestead that may involve swales, although I think she's doing more bio-intensive gardening than, say, arid lands sunken bed monsoon gardens. Not sure, but she has an open house potluck the first Sunday of every month.

  • I hope that's at all helpful. Best of luck with your property! Are you in the Tucson area? [Edited to clarify details of (re)sources.]
     
    Phil Stevens
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    Beth, those are great resources. I completely forgot about the Bean Tree Farm. The stone checkdams at Turkey Creek are interesting too. We used to go there for picnics and hiking when I was a kid and I remember my uncle had some story about them, but I could never tell for sure when he was pulling my leg so I didn't always pay attention.
     
    Mikhail Mulbasicov
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    Phil Stevens wrote:Hi Mikhail, and welcome to permies. If you're talking about the gabions along the Altar Wash in Buenos Aires, those are drop structures put there to try and heal the downcutting of the arroyo by trapping sediment, spreading and slowing flows to increase infiltration, and improve the habitat. Not swales, though.



    Not talking gabions and/or rock dams.  

    Moreso asking about swales on contour, for rainwater collection/storage/soil building/etc ... (not irrigated swales).


    There might be some good examples on the Empire-Cienega Ranch...I seem to recall talk about it years ago but memory is a little hazy on details.



    I'll check that out.  I know where that is, I've been there a couple of time for work funny enough.  Thanks.
     
    Phil Stevens
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    The place I'm thinking about is near the headquarters, ESE of the buildings.
     
    Mikhail Mulbasicov
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    Beth Wilder wrote:Hi, Mikhail! I don't have any for-sure examples for you (although there are at least a few smaller scale projects in southeastern Arizona), but I have some potential places to start looking:

  • Brad Lancaster, Tucson-based author of the Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond books, has an online list of demonstration projects in Arizona here (I don't see any in New Mexico);
  • Bean Tree Farm north of Tucson was designed by Barbara Rose (part of the Sonoran Permaculture Guild) using permaculture principles and "welcom[es] rainwater into the landscape through gently placed earthworks, cisterns, and organic mulches, increasing soil health and habitat for native and drylands-adapted species," and workshops and a farmstand welcome guests to the location;
  • Gary Paul Nabhan's orchard farmstead, Almuñia de los Zopilotes, near Patagonia uses "water-harvesting strategies... to reduce on-farm groundwater and fossil fuel uses," maybe including swales?;
  • one of Nabhan's latest books, Food from the Radical Center, mentions the traditional stone checkdams built in the West Turkey Creek watershed of the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona by rancher Valer Clark of the Cuenca de los Ojos Foundation and her El Coronado Ranch to return water to the landscape (pp. 46-51 of the hardback edition) -- I realize this isn't swales, but it's in the family of water management to revegetate arid lands. I believe the ranch has a guesthouse for game bird hunters, etc. so maybe you could see that in person, too, should you wish it; and
  • Not sure at what scale, but Marcia Gibbons of Ransom Ranch somewhere near Bisbee is doing really cool things at her earthship homestead that may involve swales, although I think she's doing more bio-intensive gardening than, say, arid lands sunken bed monsoon gardens. Not sure, but she has an open house potluck the first Sunday of every month.

  • I hope that's at all helpful. Best of luck with your property! Are you in the Tucson area? [Edited to clarify details of (re)sources.]



    thanks for responding.  Seems like Brad's work (that I can access on the net / no books yet) is mostly centered around urban projects.  
    I've been through that link, with all of the demo-sites in and around Tucson.   Mostly landscaping and smaller scale urban stuff from what I remember.

    The El Coronado Ranch thing sounds very interesting, and more of the scale I'm interested in it sounds like.

    Years ago (like decades) before I was .... ummm... much less "environmental aware" I was wondering around south-eastern Arizona, I came around what could be described as some shallow but very long rock dams that looked ancient.  I wonder if that's the same thing (West Turkey Creek reference).  I'll check it out, see if I can find it again.  From what I remember, that area was beautiful and lush (at the time).

    Thanks for all the info.  I really appreciate it.

    I'm really from the Phoenix Area.  
    But I work (and "play") a lot in Southern Arizona.  
    Have some land down there.
     
    Beth Wilder
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    Mikhail Mulbasicov wrote:The El Coronado Ranch thing sounds very interesting, and more of the scale I'm interested in it sounds like.

    Years ago (like decades) before I was .... ummm... much less "environmental aware" I was wondering around south-eastern Arizona, I came around what could be described as some shallow but very long rock dams that looked ancient.  I wonder if that's the same thing (West Turkey Creek reference).  I'll check it out, see if I can find it again.  From what I remember, that area was beautiful and lush (at the time).


    El Coronado is definitely large scale, but Valer's work with the checkdams there is not that ancient, so I don't know if it's what you and Phil saw before or not. There were apparently older ones in the general area. Aldo Leopold described "ancient trincheras check dams... along mountain ridges in Mexico to slow floodwaters, capturing moisture and soil in land that would otherwise erode. In the 1940s, Leopold and his family watched deer browsing on the grassy benches held in place by check dams built centuries before on the Rio Gavilán, not far from Valer's own ranches near the Sonora-Chihuahua border" (same Nabhan book, pp. 46-47).

    But what Valer has done -- paid to have done -- is pretty incredible from the sound of it. She hired stonemasons from Guanajuato -- traditional cantero artisans -- to build check dams on her ranch starting in the 1990s. They built eight to ten dozen dams per drainage wash, and when at first these kept getting wiped out by big rains, she kept having them rebuilt. They built so many that Valer "stopped counting at twenty thousand" (Nabhan, p. 49). The USGS later inventoried them with remote sensing and follow-up walks and "discovered that more than forty thousand check dams had been put in place by the canteros of Guanajuato. They also found that 630 tons of moisture-holding soil were captured behind the dams in just three years." And "the children and grandchildren of the first cantero stone masons continue to build and occasionally repair the tens of thousands of check dams on the lands that Valer manages" (Nabhan, p. 50).

    So that's been a very expensive project. But Nabhan also tells the story of Joe Quiroga, a ranch foreman for Diamond C Ranch in the Canelo Hills region of Santa Cruz County, who starting at around age 60 began moving rocks and boulders around to span "shallow waterways eroding into deep gullies" wherever he saw them. He was about 75 when Nabhan wrote this (published 2018), and with no more equipment than a digging bar and occasionally a pulley and ratchet hooked to his pickup, he had managed to build more than 1,200 check dams by himself (Nabhan, pp. 51-53).

    Scale can be a misleading thing, I think. Sometimes -- Valer said this to Nabhan -- you have to start with something big and bold in order to really make a difference on a piece of land. But other times, maybe just as often, starting small wherever you are, however you can, can make just as much of a difference. When Valer started, her checkdams kept getting wiped out by floods. Nabhan didn't mention that happening with Quiroga's checkdams. Maybe it happened, but fixing them was just the same work as his continuous building of them in the first place, nothing catastrophic. That's what we've found at our decidedly small-scale place. We're more or less constantly digging swales and building berms and piling rocks in some places and wood-and-weed mulch in others, trying things and then trying other things. The best time to dig swales, we've found, is when it's raining and they're filling up with water. We did a lot of work last October when we had a surprise heavy rain and one of our main swales overflowed and the floodwater tried to create a new swale straight toward our front door. We've had no such surprises since then and there are lots of good places for any overflow to go. But it may well happen again, and then we'll learn from that and build in more redundancy and resiliency. What's that permaculture principle? "Apply self-regulation and accept feedback"? Something like that. I think -- at least in many cases -- that starting small, at a human scale, better allows for that kind of self-regulation, acceptance of feedback, and adjustment of strategy and approach.

    You started this thread looking for "some data on this method... before and after pics... documented results." And I agree, that kind of thing is incredibly helpful. I also think that seeing and exploring any examples, whatever their size or scale, whatever their success rate, whatever their intent or potential differences in goals from yours/ours, is helpful wherever and whenever possible, especially in landscapes and climates similar to ours. Unfortunately I haven't seen a lot of the places I mention in person, although I'd love to for just these reasons. Both Bean Tree Farm north of Tucson and Nabhan's orchard and nearby Native Seeds/SEARCH demo farm in Patagonia are high on my list. But what I'm gradually finding is that I'm not sure anything can replace hands-on trial-and-error experimentation on the piece of land that you're focused on, no matter how small you start. Principles and techniques and pictures and results are fantastic and helpful, but observation of and response to the land seems more and more to be essential.

    William Bryant Logan explains this idea of observant attention beautifully in Sprout Lands (published this year), referring in this case to the work of creating traditional hedges: "Hedging puts us into the landscape intimately. It makes us pay attention. When we pay attention, we are repaid in many ways. Attention manifests itself in our activity, not simply in our reflection. The activity may produce only marginal benefits, but the attention multiplies these exponentially. My father always patted his plants; the biodynamic gardeners make elaborate and strange preparations using herbs, minerals, and cow horns, elixirs stirred a prescribed number of times in one direction and then in another. Who knows what outward effect these actions have, but attention is first, priori to what we do, which is always an experiment. The experiment without attention is usually counterproductive, regardless of its content" (p. 105). Later he talks about the importance of physical knowledge built up by actively working -- with hands and brain -- with something like the land, although his example is making an axe: "The whole man had acquired this knowledge. This I would say is knowledge of objective truth. It is not thinking. It is not feeling. It is the training of perception in the face of resistant materials. It is need and thought adjusting to the real. It is a new participation in the world of relationship, one through which a strange kind of flexible precision emerges unbidden" (pp. 107-108).

    That "training of perception in the face of resistant materials," "need and thought adjusting to the real," producing a "strange kind of flexible precision" is what we've been stumblingly discovering at our place and I've been ineptly trying to explain about responding to a particular piece of land. What do you think?
     
    Phil Stevens
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    Beth, thanks for expanding on that. My family lives at the edge of the Canelo Hills and now I know what I want to do next time I visit them: see if I can poke around the Diamond C.

    Interesting that so many examples of these stone dams or gabions may have been put in place by the original Mexican ranchers. I wonder if the land grants are good places to look. I also wonder if the inspiration for making them came from what the O'odham had been doing for centuries a little further west.

    The ak chin, or floodwater field, is a method of dryland crop growing which uses the alluvial fan at the outflow of a mountain drainage. Starting with the fertile, deep silt which is already in place, the O'odham would place brush weirs across the direction of water flow and wait for the monsoon. The porous dams would slow and spread the runoff, and more silt and organic matter deposited on the ground. After the flood (which might very well be the only one they got that entire season) they would plant in the damp earth. The alluvium with all the extra organic material would hold the water and keep the plants growing through the late summer until harvest. This method of agriculture allowed the people to live and farm in the driest, hottest part of the Sonoran Desert, even in the Pinacate where annual rainfall is less than 10 cm.

    Gary Nabhan might be worth chatting up. He could possibly point you to some good examples of ak chin that are still being done today.
     
    Phil Stevens
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    Mikhail, I trawled around a bit on Google Maps to see if I could locate an obvious ak chin site. No luck, but I know they're out there. I did come across a feature that might be worth checking out on the Tohono O'odham Reservation south of Sells, around the settlement of San Miguel:

    https://www.google.com/maps/place/San+Miguel,+AZ+85634,+USA/@31.6514561,-111.8030173,13022m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m13!1m7!3m6!1s0x86d50c96a46eedbd:0xadeced1a5ebc9b43!2sTohono+O'odham+Nation+Reservation,+Papago,+AZ,+USA!3b1!8m2!3d31.9894418!4d-112.046814!3m4!1s0x86d45943b569d155:0xf61ef6c28d6ba53b!8m2!3d31.6229094!4d-111.7778206

    I also made the mistake of typing "ak chin" into a search engine. Almost nothing but casino URLs came back. The Ak Chin tribe of the Pima have embraced 21st-century "precision" agriculture with laser leveled fields and sprinkler irrigation using water pumped uphill from the dying Colorado River. All to grow cotton and cattle feed:

    https://cowboylifestylenetwork.com/use-new-technology-helps-ak-chin-farms-achieve-bountiful-harvest/

    I wonder if anyone there even remembers the origin of the name and knows where to find one.

     
    Beth Wilder
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    Phil Stevens wrote:Interesting that so many examples of these stone dams or gabions may have been put in place by the original Mexican ranchers. I wonder if the land grants are good places to look. I also wonder if the inspiration for making them came from what the O'odham had been doing for centuries a little further west.

    The ak chin, or floodwater field, is a method of dryland crop growing which uses the alluvial fan at the outflow of a mountain drainage. Starting with the fertile, deep silt which is already in place, the O'odham would place brush weirs across the direction of water flow and wait for the monsoon. The porous dams would slow and spread the runoff, and more silt and organic matter deposited on the ground. After the flood (which might very well be the only one they got that entire season) they would plant in the damp earth. The alluvium with all the extra organic material would hold the water and keep the plants growing through the late summer until harvest. This method of agriculture allowed the people to live and farm in the driest, hottest part of the Sonoran Desert, even in the Pinacate where annual rainfall is less than 10 cm.

    Gary Nabhan might be worth chatting up. He could possibly point you to some good examples of ak chin that are still being done today.


    Yeah! O'odham techniques are a great inspiration, and not the only indigenous or traditional ones in the region. Water harvesting earthworks have been part of agriculture throughout this region (including the more arid/monsoonal parts of Mexico) for millennia. Successful checkdams in washes can eventually form terraces, and terrace agriculture has been practiced in various parts of Mexico (Sonora, Chihuahua, Oaxaca, etc.) by different peoples for an awfully long time.

    I've been obsessing over this stuff a bit, so I posted at length about Mexican terrace agriculture elsewhere on Permies here; and I summarized another Nabhan example of water- and soil-harvesting in Mexico using live-staked willow and cottonwood living fencerows to hold and build arable land in floodplains here and here.

    More information on terrace agriculture in other parts of Mexico is here:

  • Susan T. Evans, "The Productivity of Maguey Terrace Agriculture in Central Mexico during the Aztec Period," Latin American Antiquity Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun., 1990), pp. 117-132.
  • José Manuel Pérez Sánchez, "Agricultural Terraces in Mexico," World Terraced Landscapes: History, Environment, Quality of Life, Environmental History vol 9 (Springer, Cham), pp 159-176.

  • Nabhan writes about the O'odham floodwater fields extensively in The Desert Smells Like Rain: very inspiring and useful stuff. And I'm sure he'd be a great in-person resource if you're able to make that contact.

    Mikhail, I looked through my copy of Brad Lancaster's first volume, and another potential example is the Running Rain Society in west-central New Mexico. At the time of his writing, it sounded like Dan and Karen Howell's 40-acre homestead made up the entire society, but since then I've seen evidence online of what may be another ranch in it. I couldn't find much more though. Maybe you'll have more luck?
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