A twisting, turning tree-lined creek is a beautiful scene, unless those trees are salt cedars, a nemesis for many landowners.
In the early 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration championed the use of salt cedar trees to control erosion; little did they know that today salt cedar would be considered by many ranchers an invasive species competing for water supplies, disrupting riparian areas by reducing stream flow and increasing sedimentation.
Salt cedar is extremely hard to control because it will re-sprout after fire or mechanical removal of the above-ground parts of the plant. To manage infestations successfully, research shows long-term planning and use of a combination of methods to be effective.
John Anderson and Tim and Carol Wilson believe salt cedar has had a direct impact on the waters that once flowed in the creeks of the Clayton Estate, property that has been in the family for nearly 100 years.
In 1913, R.M. Clayton purchased a large tract of land in Borden County, which he operated as the Muleshoe Ranch. As his family continued in the ranching business, the original ranch was divided among his sons and daughters. Rich Anderson, and his son, John, continued the operation of their portion of the original ranch. John now manages the Muleshoe Ranch, while the Wilsons established their portion of the Clayton Estate as the Rocker Ranch, near Gail, Texas.
The Muleshoe and Rocker Ranches implemented invasive species management in 2005, using aerial applications to manage salt cedar and other undesirable plants. Their grazing management and strategic water distribution throughout the pastures have continued as part of their long-term conservation plans.
With decades of applying conservation practices to their land, the Andersons and Wilsons understand what it takes to care for the land. They experienced successful land management through conservation practices and wanted to broaden the efforts. Together with a few neighboring ranchers, they worked through the local soil and water conservation district and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Snyder to plan a strategy for managing salt cedar along their creeks.
The ranchers’ efforts are now reaping benefits from initial salt cedar control first applied in August 2005. Through conservation implementation, utilizing the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) through the NRCS and brush control assistance from the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, the creeks are rising.
Creek flow on the Rocker Ranch was first noted by owner Tim Wilson in the winter of 2007. Wilson contacted Kevin Wright, district conservationist in the NRCS office, and said this was the first time the creek had flowing water in almost 25 years.
“The Rocker Creek is fed by a spring that runs out of the Caprock and through a large pasture where we chemically treated salt cedars in 2005,” Wright said. “Seeing the water begin to flow in the dry creek beds has inspired the ranchers to continue in their efforts.”
By 2007, the headwater springs ran continuously following the control. Annual precipitation for this area was about 4 inches above normal at the time, and dropping 35 percent below normal for the last six months of that year.
Ranchers in this arid country are conscientious about water use — precipitation averages are low and the land continues to experience drought conditions entering into early spring.
Rocker Creek is a tributary of Mesquite Creek, which flows downstream to Lake J.B. Thomas, Ivy Reservoir and Spence Reservoir, eventually flowing into the Colorado River. Since the start of the brush management project through December 2008, spring flow in Mesquite Creek had traveled 10 miles to the city of Gail, Texas, on its way to Lake J.B. Thomas.
“We are making progress, but it’s never ending,” said Rich Anderson. “It will always be there and we will have to stay after it.”
Anderson, a third generation rancher, remembers his early years in the late 50s when he became owner of the Muleshoe. Salt cedar had already colonized and compromised the water supplies on the ranch. Anderson’s early efforts in the NRCS Great Plains program helped decrease salt cedar populations with root plowing, slowing silt in creeks and lakes and enhancing wildlife habitat, but there was still much to do.
“Our business is growing grass on the ranch, and we don’t need cattle if we can’t grow grass,” Anderson said. “Brush control has been an effective measure in the reestablishment of beneficial grasses and allowing the water to flow down our creeks.”
Through good conservation treatments, these streams have made a new source of livestock water readily available. The ranchers are better able to manage their operation and reduce the amount of water pumped by windmills from the underground aquifer to supply the needs for livestock and wildlife.
“I’ve done a world of conservation on the ranch and I know the benefits of clean water downstream,” Anderson said.
The conservation goals of the partnership have achieved success for improved water quality, as well as the volume of water flowing through their ranches.
As a result, these landowners’ efforts likely will have an impact on water supplies for urban areas, townships and rural users.
“It’s been 25 years since the streams have flowed through these ranches,” said Anderson. “I project it will take five to seven more years to clean up the salt cedar in our soil and water conservation district area.”
Today the springs are flowing in Borden and Scurry counties of West Texas. Ranchers attribute their success in bringing water back to their creeks to salt cedar control, grazing management and the overall conservation practices they applied on their rangeland.
“We are stewards of the land and it’s our job to return it in better shape than we found it; if we don’t take care of it, we will lose it,” Anderson said.