Brown Water and a Warming World

Dispatch by Evan Romasco-Kelly

At 10,200 feet above sea level in the Wasatch Mountains of central Utah, Spring 169 is not in good shape. A handful of head-sized sandstone boulders are scattered around a shallow depression in the mountainside where a thin stream of water emerges from the ground, marking the spring’s outlet. Just downhill from the tan rocks, the ground transforms into a micro-landscape of hills and valleys formed by cow hooves sinking deep into muddy earth. Several lucky grasses and forbs remain standing, but most of the vegetation that once populated the small riparian area has been trampled and pushed under the soggy soil. The spring water, tinged brown by mud and the occasional cow patty, fills the hoof-prints and flows slowly between the gullies they form. The mud and cow tracks continue downhill for another 50 feet while the spring water slowly disperses and percolates back into the ground.
Spring 169 is one of many freshwater springs that lie within the Manti-La Sal National Forest, a piece of public land that has almost all of its land area open to Utah’s cattlemen to graze their livestock. Cattle ranching is a profession that has been present in the Beehive State since white people settled here, and ranchers rely on springs in the Manti-La Sal to keep their herds hydrated. Some springs have all or part of their flow piped into troughs where the animals gather to drink away from the spring outlets. Many, however, are like Spring 169 and do not have such infrastructure, so the behavior and physiology of bovines start to cause problems. Cattle, especially beef cattle, are heavy with relatively small hooves, meaning that they exert a lot of physical pressure on the ground. These animals also drink copious amounts of water and therefore like to hang around in streams and riparian areas, so end up trampling plants, enhancing erosion, and defecating whenever the urge hits them. This dangerous combination is likely what has caused Spring 169 to look so similar to a rodeo corral after a rain storm.
Luckily for the flora and fauna that find habitat in areas wetted by springs, cattle also drink from streams and ponds in the Manti-La Sal, but this might be changing. In the mountains of the American West, global warming is predicted to create smaller winter snowpacks and earlier melting. This could result in lower flows to the streams and ponds that share the pressure of grazing livestock with fresh water springs. With the Forest Service operating on a budget that is allocated increasingly to fighting forest fires, supervision of the Manti-La Sal’s springs may fall by the wayside only to be trampled by thirsty cows.