Monday, April 15, 2024
HomeNotes From KathyHow Do You Do Restoration on Bare Soil With No Water?

How Do You Do Restoration on Bare Soil With No Water?

Last week I (Kathy) met with Kieran, of Watershed Management Group, at a plot of land owned by Pima County in southeast Tucson along the Santa Cruz River. Watershed Management Group works with the county on watershed restoration projects, and this 40-acre open space is just one example. Here’s what it looks like now, in the second year of the effort:

Dry water, an unusual form of “powdered liquid”, is a water-air emulsion in which tiny water droplets, each the size of a grain of sand, are surrounded by a sandy silica coating. In this case they came in Pringles-can-sized tubes, and were placed at the bottom and at each of the 4 cardinal directions of the planting hole.

Like many areas intended for development, the desert was “scraped,” leaving nothing but bare soil. With nothing to hold it in place, blowing dust becomes a problem. And it can take 20 years or more for anything to grow back because we only get 12 inches of rain a year.

Kieran’s three goals for this property are to stop wind erosion, cover the soil, and improve water infiltration. If you look carefully at the picture above, you’ll see a small green strip. That’s last year’s first step in this restoration project – they created several water harvesting areas to collect summer monsoon rains flowing down the nearby neighborhood streets. They planted bushes and trees, supplemented with “Dry H2O” to get them started, and they also seeded with a native revegetation mix. This is how it looks now, which may not seem like success to many of you, but that almost all the trees and bushes survived without any supplemental watering and there’s some grass and forbs is a miracle in this area.

So what comes next? Kieran asked me and a local shepherd, Beryl Baker, to talk about how animal impact might help in the process. We talked about how hoof impact might both prevent and increase soil erosion, the benefits of laying down animal manure, and then the potential problem of too much fertility being added to the soil. It turns out that native plants here are adapted to low fertility soils and when we add things like compost and manure, we can prevent them from growing. We talked about using cows, goats, sheep and even chickens. I’ve been dreaming of starting an urban chicken egg and meat project for a long time, and am excited that this might finally be the time and place!

One of the areas we took a closer look at was this growing rill erosion where water is running off the armored area where “The Loop Trail” runs alongside the Santa Cruz river. These rills are a common problem in general with some areas having rills that are six feet deep and more.

One of the ways a local copper mine dealt with this issue was unrolling hay and letting cattle graze on it to stomp it down and prevent further erosion. They apparently gave that up for a different solution, so we’re going to get in touch with them to find out more about how that worked for them. We’re also going to get in touch with the Santa Rita Experiment Station, some folks at the University of Arizona, and some others who have been involved in somewhat similar restorations along the river to see what kinds of science, lessons learned, and suggestions they might have for us.

I’ll share more as we go along. Meanwhile, if you have ideas and experience with this kind of environment, do share!

Thanks for reading!

Kathy and Rachel

P.S. And here’s what the Santa Cruz River looks like – not a river at all until the monsoons come. Then it runs fast and deep carrying water out of the valley and on to the ocean.

Yes, those are footprints you see walking down the sandy, dry bed of the Santa Cruz river.


Your Tips Keep This Library Online

This resource only survives with your assistance.

Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


  1. If you haven’t already, check out the work of Geoff Lawton on Greening the Desert. There’s a series of videos. The site is in Jordan.

  2. Kathy, one thing I have noticed in reclaiming mine settling ponds and such is after the initial treatment of hay and cattle to get grass started, the cattle are not brought back on a yearly basis to keep the grass grazed, more hoof action, with manure and urine added to the soil. Animal action has to be ongoing. Congratulations on getting your foot in the door!

  3. I heard of another situation not unlike this a couple years ago, and I have since wanted to give their solution a shot.
    Chicken tractors, moved daily. Native seeds spread right before moving the tractors so the chickens could eat them, scratch them into the dirt, spread them,etc.
    It seems to me there would have to be something to keep the remaining seed from blowing away after the tractor is moved on the next day, or the next downpour from washing them away, and I do not know what that would be.
    As a fellow Arizonian, I have also wondered if the way to re-vegetate our former, very fragile, grasslands is to start at the water catches and as those start to grow green slowly march out their borders.
    I do not think, unfortunately, that our regeneration of the desert is a single generation task. However, when we in the desert get 1-3% more growth, that is along the lines of 100-300% more growth, so our returns are at least easier to notice than less fragile environments. That is encouraging.

Comments are closed.

Welcome to the On Pasture Library

Free Ebook!

Latest Additions

Most Read