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Badland Beauties

Rare flora and fauna hang on for dear life in the hidden wetlands of West Texas.

By E. Dan Klepper

It isn’t difficult to understand why some ancient desert cultures appropriated the snake as their symbol for both lightning and water. Lightning, like the snake, strikes fast and deadly, yet its arrival in a desert also signals rain — a factor that often determines life or death in an arid world. The early Papago (now known as Tohono O’odham) of the southwestern desert placed their faith in the corúas, or serpent gods, which protected the desert’s water. Every water source had its own corúa replete with killer fangs to deter abuse. But should the serpent die, claimed the Papago, its protectorate would evaporate.

Texas’ own arid land, the vast swath of Chihuahuan Desert that embraces the western elbow of the state known as the Trans-Pecos, has harbored its share of serpents, lightning and a good deal of water as well. The cataclysm that formed the West Texas geography turned seabeds, coral reefs and volcanic eruptions into eroding mountain ranges, deep canyons and broad grass-covered basins. For thousands of years this topography conserved the paucity of rainfall that fell upon it. The land captured the rain within layers of mulch that filled the grassy basins where water percolated slowly down to replenish the water table and revitalize springs. Rainwater collected in reservoirs of canyon tinajas and settled into the pockets of the desert’s subterrain. It saturated flat gravel beds along the desert’s surface and spread across the arid skin in green wetlands before it disappeared back into the ground.

The Trans-Pecos features a variety of wetland environments due to the extreme elevations in the region — from low desert to high mountains — including playas, cienegas, ephemeral streams, marshes, wet depressions and vernal pools. Perhaps the most unique is the hanging garden, which occurs along the seeps and springs of desert canyon walls. These microhabitats form without a significant amount of soil and can be found along cracks and pockets in the rock face where disturbance from flooding is minimal. Seep-line and wet-wall gardens, protected from sun and wind by canyon shadow, can support algae, bacteria and delicate yet drought-tolerant vegetation such as the venushair fern.

The venushair, Adiantum capillus-veneris (capill refers to hair and vener to Venus), is the only maidenhair fern species to occur in the Trans-Pecos and can often be found in abundance along hanging garden habitats. Considered medicinal for centuries, used primarily for hair and scalp problems, the venushair is instantly recognizable for its diamond-shaped pinnules that comprise its fronds. The fern also is remarkable for its ability to thrive, like all wet-wall species, on a meager yet constant source of water. In fact, almost all of the state’s western wetlands are dependent on groundwater that infiltrates subsurface permeable layers and then arises through seeps and springs.

These West Texas wetlands and their attendant springs and streams are ancient places, often demarcated by stone metates and hieroglyphs left by ancient people. They have always been integral to the survival of humans who have chosen to move through this arid country to hunt, gather, grow crops and build communities. Many wetlands and springs in the region have been documented by the progression of maps created since Spanish exploration began. Other desert wetlands have remained nameless and are often accessible to humans only with great effort. To come upon such an unknown place in the desert means to enter the true realm of the natural world. Here, in these deeply hidden swales, the trappings of human comfort do not exist. The succor of life rises and falls upon the whim of shadows and heat and intermittent rain. The realities of wildness and its harsh parameters dominate life, allowing a glimpse of the primordial state of early humans. The transitory pulse of nature can be felt most profoundly in these wild places, where the rhythms of time beat and flow without regard to human presence or absence. Until now.

The Trans-Pecos wetlands inhabit a region comprised of several vast counties, including (but not limited to) Hudspeth, Presidio, Brewster, Jeff Davis and Pecos, some so large, in fact, that their square mileage exceeds that of entire states. This is big, open country where the geography is defined in sections more often than in acres and where year-round water sources, including springs and seeps and their marshy wetland habitats, are highly valued and constantly scrutinized. Many of these springs and wetlands were utilized for millennia by nomadic populations and, in historic times, by travelers on trade routes as well as ranchers and the military. Spring and wetland references can be found in an archive of documentation including journals, correspondence, government reports and diaries. In addition, geologists and hydrologists have studied and measured hundreds of West Texas wetlands and springs over the last 75 years. Their changing conditions, whether flush or dry, have been the measure for all springs and wetlands across the western countryside both recognized and unknown. As a result, beginning in the mid-19th century, wet environments throughout the region have been monitored and documented with some regularity, and the results of this monitoring provide a record of alarming decline.

The wetlands and springs of Hudspeth County in West Texas were first noted by Spanish explorers in the late 1500s. The Spaniards observed the conservative irrigation techniques practiced by Jumanos Indians farming along the exploration route. These irrigation practices represented a remarkable feat for an agrarian community living in such an arid region. And as late as the 1920s, the flats around the county’s Dell City created an ideal wetlands environment, an expansive area covered in water that, along with the region’s springs, had served the needs of humans and wildlife for centuries. But modern and unfettered irrigation rendered the flats dry in just a matter of years. In fact, out of the 25 major wet environments scattered throughout Hudspeth County that were documented by the late Gunnar Brune in his comprehensive 1981 book, Springs of Texas, Volume 1, all have either declined significantly or disappeared altogether.

Wetlands once dominated the Rio Grande floodplains of Hudspeth and neighboring Presidio County, which were fed by an array of draining arroyos and canyons along the international border. Many of these wetland sources have poetic names such as Arroyo de Los Barrancos (Stream of the Precipices), Arroyo del Fraile (Stream of the Friar) and Arroyo El Benigno as in Stream of the Benign One. But most all of their resulting wetlands have given way to agriculture or erosion from overgrazing, irrigation and the invasion of detrimental species such as saltcedar. However, agriculture is now threatened as well. The once-thriving business of cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon production in Presidio County is now struggling due to the degradation of water sources.

Presidio’s sister county, Brewster, is the largest in the state, with 6,169 square miles that include Big Bend National Park. The history of the many springs and attendant wetland species of Brewster County is well documented due to the efforts of biologists and historians associated with the county’s Sul Ross State University. Included in this archive is the ethnobotany of the Equisetum laevigatum, a moisture-loving fern distinguished by the particles of silica occurring in its stiff, rattling stems. The plant was used for scrubbing pots and dishes during the colonial and frontier periods, thus its common name — the scouring rush. It was also used in medicine, for weaving mats and to produce a yellow dye.

But after having provisioned human needs for more than 15,000 years, Brewster County wetlands, their associated species and any corresponding spring discharge have decreased noticeably within the last half-century. In fact, some desert wet-environment species may already be lost. A 1941 publication from the Texas Academy of Science on the fish of the Big Bend region reports that specimens of the little maravillas red shiner were already endangered by 1938. The new subspecies was identified, described and counted along wetland and spring-fed pools south of Marathon, and at the time, they were considered the only known members of Notropis lutrensis blairi. Twenty-five years later the maravillas red shiner was extinct.

To the north and west lie Jeff Davis County and the Davis Mountains, a rugged region of central Trans-Pecos that reaches above 8,000 feet in elevation. Wetlands and springs in these upper reaches show minimal human disturbance compared to other regions of the West. Yet documentation also indicates a decline in the number and size of both wetlands and springs. These cool, high desert swales are home to many endemic species, including the Demaree rose, found only along the seeps and springs of the county’s Wild Rose Pass. Another romantic wet-environment species, the wood fern Dryopteris filix-mas, can be found along the region’s bluffs and high-altitude glades. This fern’s spores were once thought magical and powerful enough to render the possessor invisible.

But down off the higher elevations, the county has suffered significant wet-habitat losses. In fact, one major surface water source has simply vanished: the county seat’s own Fort Davis Spring, which stopped its flow in the 1930s due to the influx of water wells.

Unlike the hidden corners of Jeff Davis County, Pecos County to the east has not been so lucky. The often-repeated story about the drying up of its Comanche Springs provides a dark lesson in the fragility of a wet environment, the troubling state of water laws and the finite nature of a water supply. Comanche Springs, once a source for 1,900 liters of water per second, was hailed in the early part of the 20th century as an “Inspiration for Irrigation” and, indeed, it was. Comanche Springs supplied water for the city of Fort Stockton and surrounding farms for decades. Beginning with a dramatic increase in irrigation pumping in 1946, the groundwater levels in the county fell significantly, and Comanche Springs, as well as many of the springs and wetlands throughout the region, dried up in less than 10 years.

Remarkably, one of Texas’ most endangered wetland environments is also a holdout in Pecos County. The Diamond Y Spring, and its system of smaller springs and surrounding streams, is one of the rarest and last remaining desert wetlands of its kind in the state. Diamond Y Spring Preserve, now in the hands of the Nature Conservancy, is a desert marshland called a cienega. Diamond Y Spring provides critical habitat for the federally endangered Pecos gambusia as well as for the Leon Springs pupfish, and it is considered the last remaining natural habitat for the pupfish. The preserve also protects habitat for the federally threatened puzzle sunflower, also called the Pecos sunflower, a beautiful bloomer with a ramrod stalk and large, blousy flowers. The survival of these species depends on the continued health of Diamond Y’s springs, pools, marshes and moist soils. It’s a critical habitat that occupies a small stretch of three tenuous miles.

The history of the region’s myriad wetlands, springs and attendant species suggests that the Trans-Pecos water world has arrived at its tipping point. Texans, proud of their outdoor heritage, continue to look to the Trans-Pecos as their last natural frontier. But unlike the hardy frontier spirit, West Texas wetland habitats are sensitive to change and quick to reach a critical stage when faced with adversity. Without a change in thinking about the importance of wetlands, they will disappear within a few years, leaving behind only memories of fragile treasures in a harsh land.

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