Anybody who shoveled the 2023 winter out of their driveway should be concerned that the soil moisture in Routt County is already at levels usually seen in late-July or August, not the beginning of July.
Climate change is analogous with atmospheric carbon dioxide. But what about soil moisture, or soil organic carbon, or how urban planning and storm/snowmelt runoff has been changed in the Anthropocene?
Humans are the current capstone species on this globe. We manipulate our environment at all levels to make it more hospitable for us and the animals we care for. We are not the first species to transform the environment to make it more suitable to raise offspring and secure a healthy lifestyle.
The mighty beaver held the title for major ecosystem manipulator, until the beaver felt hat won Europe. Did you know that prior to the fur-trading craze of the 17th and 18th centuries, North America was home to more than 200 million beaver and almost a third of all land types was a form of wetland?
But wait — what do wetlands do, and why did the landscape create wetlands versus rivers or meadows? When we compare the planet to our body, the amazon and boreal forest are considered the lungs, and wetlands are the kidneys.
The body has evolved a waste management system that utilizes the kidney to filter toxins out of the bloodstream. Wetlands serve the same purpose on a regional scale for the removal of heavy metal toxins, bacterial growths and the cycling of nitrogen and carbon through plants, soil and the atmosphere.
Wetlands come in many forms: swamp, marsh, riverine or wet meadow. Each one has evolved as the landscape dictates. The main reason they form is that water is held in an area and forced to infiltrate through the ground down gradient.
Systematic land conversion has shepherded water off our landscapes to allow for agriculture expansion or urban growth. Centuries later, the arid Northwest is gripped with a megadrought. Is that correlated with wetlands loss? If we blame gas engines for smog, we should probably consider the systematic removal of wetlands akin to a patient on kidney dialysis.
Whether we enjoy cohabitating with the beaver is not the point. Beaver activity is the point. As kids we all threw sticks and rocks in drainages — humans love interacting with water. The ponding of water in the high country is the point. Mega reservoirs like Mead and Powell have made the Colorado River less sustainable.
New studies of indigenous techniques illustrate small steps that landowners can take to increase the water-holding capacity of their property. They do not require engineers or huge Tonka toys to alter the landscape. These small speed bumps in streams prevent water from leaving our mountain valleys and ensure water availability into the dry fall.
More information can be found at LowTechPBR.restoration.usu.edu and USGS.gov/media/images/installing-natural-infrastructure-can-impact-water-and-carbon-budgets-dryland-streams.