Puddles in High Demand

photo by Amanda Champion

photo by Amanda Champion

Dispatch by Maggie Baker

To the Forest Service, a spring may look like this: a large puddle on trampled ground, water leaking from a bathtub-sized trough, the air reeking of cow feces in the afternoon sun. Despite its function as a water source in arid climates, this scene is not what most of the public thinks of when they hear the word spring. Though they may not look typical, Utah’s springs are important to protect, as they are threatened by ungulates and impending climate change only increases their vulnerability. 

Springs are a particular concern in Utah’s Manti-La Sal National Forest. With one exception, every allotment in the Manti La Sal is grazed by cattle, and this impact takes a toll on springs, the life source for the land and for many other creatures besides cattle who reside on it. Cattle are especially destructive to springs because they like to congregate at them, drinking the water and churning up the ground until nothing is left but mud puddles. This harms plant communities, damages soil and soil biota, and can destroy spring sources for the future. 
Elk can take a similar toll on water sources in the Manti La-Sal. They are not as heavy or as stagnant as cattle, but elk also congregate at springs and can trample ground with their hooves. These ungulates make a practice of stripping the bark from small trees, damaging certain plant communities like aspen, who help keep spring environments thriving by providing shade. The Manti La-Sal is home to the largest elk population in Utah, but much of this is due to introduction by the Forest Service. Big game hunting is the incentive for introducing elk, with organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation which spent $174,700 on elk conservation for hunting across Utah in 2011. Many Manti La-Sal springs are naturally less equipped to withstand the pressure placed on them by these ungulates. 

In addition to ungulate impacts, some spring water is taken from places like Gentry Mountain to be used for mining activities in local coal mines. As Lee Mackelprang, lifelong public lands rancher and former coal miner can attest, local coal mining companies made a practice of obtaining permits from the Forest Service to siphon public spring water, with the promise that it would be replenished at a later date. In many places, however, this promise has not been made good upon and springs, like one on Gentry mountain, have run dry as the water table is lowered through mining activity. 

Long term, springs in the West matter. Climate change induced drought means that water is only becoming more scarce. Springs could provide an important safety net for future communities, but only so long as they are protected on public lands. This protection can take many forms, but fences must be utilized to prevent ungulates from entering spring sources, and better monitoring and dispersal of spring outlets could prevent muddy messes around water troughs. Many different interests have an interest in spring water, but without proper management, these public resources may be reduced to a trickle.