Weather Stations and Water Wells

July has been a month of working on weather stations and wells in Natrona County. My mentor, Shane Evans, is responsible for maintaining 18 gauging stations across Natrona county. All of the stations have at least a rain gauge, a temperature gauge, and a transmitting antenna. Some of the more complicated ones measure stream height, and take water samples.

Rainfall is the main determinant of the maximum yield of rangelands, so rainfall data is especially important to ranchers. The stream height data helps Shane track the response of a stream to rainfall inundation. If a stream is well-vegetated and not too deeply incised, then its banks should be able to withstand high flow events without eroding.

Shane has been working on updating the computer systems in all of the gauging stations and replacing the pressure sensors. I’ve had the chance to come out with Shane and learn a bit about wiring. I’ve also had the chance to do some demolition work on old weather stations!

Shane also oversees all of the livestock wells on public land in Natrona county, a number close to 300! The wells are extremely important in the arid high desert: they allow ranchers to move their cattle through areas with no surface water. Often in the summer, Shane gets concerned calls from ranchers explaining that a well is not producing very much water. Would you please come out and take a look? Of course! Off we go in Shane’s F-350. We bring electrical tools to check on the solar power, and the computer which controls the pump. We also look around the area to make sure that water is not seeping out of a broken pipe before it reaches the troughs.

Shane’s F-350 pulled up next to Cowboy Well

I love the variety of work we get to do in the hydrology division. Water is vital to all life, but its importance is especially prevalent in the arid west, a fact which keeps the hydrologists very busy!

Desert Treasure

Our job has become a treasure hunt on a grand scale. The treasure we seek is not gold, or diamonds: it’s water.

We are now well into the process of spring inventory. Twenty years ago, BLM hydrologists went all over Natrona County and catalogued information about every single spring on BLM land. The hydrologists took photos, made maps, and took water quality samples. The time is ripe for new hydrologists to begin the task of assessing the health of these wetland areas.

Armed with topographic maps from the 90’s, and a couple of old photographs, we set out in our pick-up to check the wetlands. The search is sometimes simple: a spring may lie just off a county road, but often, things get complicated. Two-tracks visible on satellite imagery are not always what they appear to be on the ground. There may be a giant rut running through the center of the two tracks. One false move, and the truck is almost guaranteed to be stuck.

I’m always excited when we find the wetlands. We may have been hiking or driving for an hour, not seeing a trace of green vegetation, or water, when suddenly we come upon a wet meadow with a giant cottonwood swaying in the wind. Water in the desert! Treasure found!

Sometimes the spring is very colorful and smelly!

The next task is to take some quick, but informative water quality measurements: conductivity, pH, and temperature. Then we take photographs, and map the area precisely using arc Collector on a tablet. Afterwards we inventory the riparian plants found in the area and assess the ecological condition of the spring using a checklist designed by the Natural Resource Conservation Association. Then it’s on to the next spring! Only three hundred more to go!

The New Ruminant on the Block

     Buffalo used to be the largest ruminant on the North American continent. Now, the ecological role of buffalo has been taken up by domesticated cattle. The BLM plays a huge role in managing ranching operations on public lands, and strives to make sure that sustainable yields of cattle can be maintained long into the future.

Cattle being moved to a new pasture.

     As part of the management of ranching operations, the BLM performs rangeland health assessments, which are reports outlining the ecological health of land grazed by cattle. To provide an inter-disciplinary examination of the land, we pool our expertise with the range team and the wildlife team. Ranchers in these arid plains need to be careful to not overgraze their allotments. Grasses take a long time to become established, and if a herd of cows grazes all of the grass to the ground, it may be five or ten years before anything can grow on the sandy soils. Furthermore, overgrazed areas are prone to invasion by non-native species, which are not as palatable to cows, and very difficult to remove. The wildlife team is mostly concerned with making sure that enough habitat remains in these areas to support the sage-grouse, a threatened species.

     The hydrologists are concerned with the health of wetland areas. In the summer, a cow may return to a water source three or four times a day in order to drink. Many times these water sources are artificial troughs fed from wells, but sometimes they may travel to natural sources of water. Hydrologists are responsible for monitoring the health of the riparian areas on public lands, which in this case, often means making sure that the wetland areas are not over-used. We are looking for signs of damage to the fragile ecosystems, like deep hoof-prints, which form bumps over time (called hummocks).

     The hydrologists are also responsible for taking and processing soil samples. We are updating the Natural Resource Conservation Association’s soil type map. Soil type, along with precipitation, is the most important predictor of ecotype. Soils with a good balance of silt, clay, and sand, tend to be better able to support grasses. Many ranches lease land on sandy soils which are more prone to erosion, and have a lower yield than more loamy soils. Updating the soil information helps the range team create accurate estimates of how many head of cattle one acre of land can support.

 

Me holding a photo board to document a seep on BLM land.

     Ranching is definitely not an easy task in the arid plains of central Wyoming, and participating in the rangeland health assessments has helped me to appreciate the vast quantities of land needed to support cattle. Sometimes I try to visualize the large herds of bison that used to run through the plains of the United States. And sometimes, if I try hard enough, I can hear the thunder of their hooves rushing along to green pastures.

 

New Beginnings

I’ll be honest, I was a little scared looking out over the high plains of Wyoming as my flight landed at the Natrona county airport. Where had all the lush trees gone? Where was Lake Michigan? Not here, Max, not here.

Not in Chicago anymore!

Wyoming is a land of big skies, strong winds, and geological wonders. Here, one can tap into their inner cowboy: the abundant land that rolls on in every direction invites one to run wild and free. Here too, one can sense the expansionist frenzy that drove hundreds of thousands of Americans to walk to the lush forests of Oregon in the 1840s. But for right now, my journey west has ended: I’m here to stay. I’m here to find water.

The agenda for this summer’s hydrologic interns is to find and record the status of around 250 springs and seeps dotted all over the public lands of Natrona County. Much of our work will be interdisciplinary: we will pool the qualitative expertise of BLM staff that are familiar with high desert ecosystems. They may be biologists, rangeland health specialists, or hydrologists. Each member of the monitoring team will help to ensure that these important wetland habitats are functioning at or near their ideal level. Why does this matter? Well, consider the fact that something like 99% of wildlife in Wyoming depends on wetlands and only 1% of Wyoming is wetlands.

A seep we will be monitoring.

I’ve spent the first weeks of my internship learning the protocols of proper functioning and conditioning monitoring. As field season begins to amp up, my co-intern and I, have been making our initial forays into the BLM lands of Natrona county. We use 4×4’s to traverse the county roads and two-tracks that spiderweb their way across the landscape. Armed with a GPS and maps we’ve created, we’ve begun the process of route-finding our way to the seeps and springs we will be monitoring in the coming months.

Exploring Natrona county, meeting my fellow staff members, and learning about hydrologic monitoring techniques have occupied my time so far. Overall, I am very happy to be here, even if there aren’t too many trees!

The author taking photographs of his new surroundings