Monday, February 26, 2024
HomeConsider ThisGetting Water to the Stock Means a Ranch Survives

Getting Water to the Stock Means a Ranch Survives

Thanks to Heather Emmons of the Natural Resources Conservation Service for this story of how to get water where livestock need it. (It comes to us from the  Conservation Roadtrip and you can see it in it’s original form here.) It can give you an idea of how you might work with the NRCS on your own livestock water needs and one solution for providing water during the winter.

There is a reason the celebrated American author Mark Twain titled his well-known novel “Roughing It” after enduring six months in the historic mining town of Aurora near the Excelsior Mountains in western Nevada. The area around Aurora is remote and tough, even for folks from around these parts, including those trying to graze cattle—and the lack of water is a limiting factor.

Drought in Nevada hit the Hunewill’s Ranch hard and they knew they would have to do something different to survive. A neighbor told them that a grazing permit was available and since they didn’t want to sell their cows, they decided to take it.

When they took over the permit, they knew that there were three springs in the area, but that they hadn’t been worked on in years. The first year, they had to haul a lot of water to their stock. Since then, they’ve been working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service on developing the springs and solving their watering problems.

Water Quantity Challenges

In the winter, rancher Jeff Hunewill and his family graze 900 head of cattle on 250,000 acres located about 150 miles southeast of Reno in the Excelsior Mountains near Aurora. The area includes three springs vital to watering their cattle: Whiskey Spring (reportedly named by Mark Twain), Pepper Spring, and Garfield Spring.

However, the springs hadn’t been developed, or had run-down water facilities that needed to be repaired. At an altitude of 6,500 feet, hauling water was difficult, and getting there regularly to tend to frozen water troughs and break ice was challenging.

Seeking Simple Solutions

The Hunewills sought help from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field office in Yerington. The NRCS field office staff helped them develop a conservation plan to address the water scarcity issue for their cattle. NRCS staff, including a conservation engineer and range land management specialist, surveyed the area with the Hunewills and determined that water-based conservation practices such as spring development and water facilities would remedy the situation.

NRCS staff recommended that the Hunewills use financial and technical assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to carry out the conservation practices.

The three springs—Pepper, Whiskey, and Garfield—were located apart from each other. Pepper Spring and Whiskey Spring needed to be developed completely, while Garfield Spring needed extensive repair.

(Clockwise) Bill Conlin, a retired soil conservation technician with NRCS at the Yerington Field Office discusses the spring development installation at Pepper Spring with Leslie Hunewill, rancher; Tracey Jean Wolfe, retired rangeland management specialist, NRCS; and Jeff Hunewill, rancher.


At Pepper Spring, they opened the ground, put in a pipe and put in a spring box, that brings the water back to the surface. Next they installed a 10,000-gallon storage tank that feeds a wildlife water trough for their cattle and a wildlife drinker. This water is used by diverse wildlife such as wild horses, antelope, chukar, quail, and mountain lion.

“With all this water that we’ve been able to get going again, we’re providing water down in the valley below us, which drops about 1,300 to 1,500 feet, to provide water for our animals down there,” said Leslie Hunewill, Jeff’s daughter. She helps him with his ranching operation.

“It’s the only water for miles,” Jeff Hunewill said. “We’re so far from town, and we didn’t want to haul water. We need these cattle to have water. And in the winter time, it’s hard to get here. We can’t even get to this spring, so the spring needs to be dependable, flowing.”

Whiskey Spring is the driest of the three springs. But with NRCS help and good excavation, the Hunewills found where water was located underground. Jeff Hunewill said the water is flowing even more now. Whiskey Spring is a vital source of water because it is the only spring within a 50,000-acre valley. Whiskey Spring is located several miles from the other two springs.

Water and Pre-Historic and Historic Evidence

Out on these rangelands, there are not many water sources, so when water does occur, it attracts diverse wildlife. Prehistoric and historic human settlement patterns are also oriented around these critical water sources.

This boulder in the area has drawings by prehistoric people and the names of historic residents too.

“Much of the water in the Excelsior Mountains comes from springs,” says Tracey Jean Wolfe, the NRCS rangeland management specialist who worked on the project before she retired. “Historically, the Excelsior was used for ranching and mining of copper, silver, and some gold. As mining activities developed, so did nearby towns such as Hawthorne and Aurora. Additionally, there is evidence of prehistoric occupation over a very long period. At the time of Euro-American contact, the area was occupied by groups of Northern Paiute American Indians.”

During the cultural resource survey for this spring project, both prehistoric and historic material was found adjacent to the project area. The prehistoric material consisted of some ground stone grinding implements and a scatter of obsidian flakes.

The historic material consisted of a stone structure on a bench above the spring and a collapsed wooden structure west of the spring. Not much remained of the stone structure, except a low collapsed wall showing the faint outline of the structure. All the prehistoric and historic material was outside of the project area of potential effects, and the Hunewills  installed everything in such away that they avoided any impacts to these historic sites.

Solutions for Freezing Water

The Pepper Spring project posed additional challenges for the Hunewills during the winter—frozen water that is difficult to access during that time of year. After burying 12-inch, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipe in the ground, the next step was to cut a disk out of the top of an old tire. Then they cut slots in the top part for the water to flow.  The pipe serves as a heat sink because it never freezes underground.

Beneath the surface, the spring water collection box holds water from the spring box and diverts it into several pipelines.

The system works by circulating water from the top of the water trough to the bottom of the HDPE well. Cold water sinks and warm water rises. This keeps the water circulating and reduces the chance of it freezing. They also installed a wildlife ramp on the tire to prevent small wildlife from drowning in the water.

“…There’s a flap at the top we can lift up to adjust the valve; it’s a really good design,” said Jeff Hunewell.

At Garfield Spring, the Hunewills installed a new spring development and built a protection fence around the existing spring. They used an existing pipeline and pond that provided water for cattle and wild horses.

Water Means the Ranch Lives On

After obtaining their EQIP contract, the Hunewills installed pipe within the first year. They were able to get the springs operational prior to grazing their cattle in the winter.

“The development and preservation of these springs are absolutely essential to the survival of the ranching heritage in this area,” said Bill Conlin, a recently retired NRCS soil conservation technician who helped the Hunewills with the spring projects. “We are honored we can help.”

Would You Like Help?

NRCS accepts applications continually for its conservation programs.  Agricultural producers interested in NRCS assistance are encouraged to contact their local NRCS field office. 

Feel like a trip to Nevada? Here’s a video version of the story to take you there.

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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.

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