As Climate Changes Makes Desert Water Scarce, the Debate over Livestock vs. Wildlife Heats Up | Civil Eats

As Climate Changes Makes Desert Water Scarce, the Debate over Livestock vs. Wildlife Heats Up

Man-made guzzlers are often the only sources of water for bighorn sheep and other endangered animals in Southern California deserts. Now, the unprecedented drought across the West is putting them at risk.

Desert Bighorn Sheeps in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. California.

Bighorn Sheep in California’s Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

Tucked away from humans in hard-to-reach places, hundreds of artificial water catchments—AWCs, also known as guzzlers—dot the arid Southwest landscape, collecting rainwater for wildlife to drink.

The introduction of livestock to the arid environment in the late 1800s and early 1900s, along with legislated prioritization of grazing rights, altered or usurped many natural water sources for the area’s native species. At the same time, the image of the West as an agrarian Eden, with plenty of land and sunshine, brought agricultural investment to Southern California–where water is in short supply. This in turn fostered large-scale water diversion and set precedence for putting agricultural water needs over wildlife.

By the 1940s, state and federal land management agencies acknowledged a decline in numbers of wild animals—which presented a problem for recreational hunting. To maintain healthy wildlife populations for recreation on public lands, they installed what would become a network of AWCs throughout the Southwest. Originally for quail and small game, new designs were added over the years for larger animals.

In the ’70s and ’80s, guzzler installation expanded to mitigate loss of water sources to drought and development. In Southern California deserts, where water is scant and ranchers reigned for more than a century, guzzlers became a go-to solution for thirsty native wildlife, including endangered and threatened species, sidelined by grazing cattle. As climate change has increased the severity of drought and continued to test the limits of desert animal survival, guzzlers have become a lifeline for many species. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 2022 is the driest in 128 years of record-keeping in California.

Neal Darby, a National Park Service biologist in Mojave National Preserve for 15 years, often visits these man-made storage systems—sometimes carrying water on his back—to top off tanks or make repairs. He has seen the difference they can make for struggling species.

A US Marine helicopter delivers water to a guzzler in southern California.

A U.S. Marine helicopter delivers water to a guzzler in southern California.

“Water was considered the primary limiting factor in recovery and conservation of desert environments,” he said. “Rain catchment and storage systems were designed to put permanent water sources across the landscape to complement water sources developed for livestock interests.”

A 2016–17 study in the preserve showed the guzzlers’ impact: 44 mammal species visited artificial water catchments, “which supports the long-held assumption that AWCs may benefit wildlife in arid habitats.” Recording devices have captured tortoises, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, ringtail, quail, bats, birds—even bathing burrowing owls—and a whole cast of characters frequenting these lifelines.

Like anything water-related in California, however, this wildlife-friendly water catchment system is controversial. When it comes to negotiating water rights, wildlife does not have a seat at the table. Environmental and agricultural advocates often find themselves at odds over water allocation and management, which historically favors the $50 billion agriculture industry in the state. And protections for wildlife are hard-won and heavily litigated.

When it comes to negotiating water rights, wildlife does not have a seat at the table. Environmental and agricultural advocates often find themselves at odds over water allocation and management, which historically favors the state’s agriculture industry.

Though guzzlers don’t require water diversion, AWCs in desert regions rely on rain to fill, and the “rainy season” is now less reliable. Additionally, filling them manually can be a costly undertaking. Moreover, some scientists think it’s unhealthy for wildlife to depend on man-made water sources.

But, as California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) biologist Janene Colby pointed out, in some particularly drought-stricken habitats—such as one area of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park known to support endangered Peninsular bighorn—guzzlers are the only viable sources of water for miles around.

Although government agencies are mandated to protect wildlife on public lands, it’s not always clear how that includes guzzlers. Man-made water sources fall in and out of favor with leadership in Anza-Borrego and Mojave, two of Southern California’s protected deserts still grappling with the impacts of grazing.

To Intervene—or Not—in Wild Landscapes

Simple design makes guzzlers durable and low-maintenance: a collection lid or apron channels rainfall, runoff, or snowmelt into a tank below (sometimes underground), holding a couple hundred to 10,000 gallons.

Animals access the water using a built-in ramp or external drinker box. Some have cattle exclusion fences and brush piles that create cover from predators; some include extra traction or escape ramps to prevent small animals from drowning.

During drought, guzzlers provide a ready supply of drinking water and supplement moisture intake to compensate for extremely dry vegetation. “Availability of water probably helps with digestion and nutrient uptake to help animals persist despite poor forage conditions. It also helps many animals dissipate their body heat so they can handle the heat better,” said Darby.

Ironically, said Darby, “the biggest conflicts we have are the Wilderness Act and the ‘Organic Act,’”—a nickname for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. According to these pieces of legislation, land management agencies must perpetuate the natural state of ecosystems and eschew man-made alterations on designated lands. That includes guzzlers.

“Some people say, ‘If there wasn’t water here before, there shouldn’t be any here now,’” Darby explains.

“[Guzzlers] don’t necessarily fit in with wildlife values, but so many springs are taken for ranching, mining, and grazing—guzzlers in some areas are the only thing keeping wildlife alive.”

“If a species requires ongoing habitat manipulation to persist in a particular area—because we are unwilling to address underlying human-made causes of habitat change, because we are unwilling to let the species move to more suitable locations, or because natural processes favor a species evolution unfavorable to a particular species—do we opt for perpetually fabricated landscapes?” said Dana Johnson, attorney and policy director with Wilderness Watch, and a critic of the approach.

“Guzzlers are often associated with heavy motorized intrusions—helicopters for dropping water, vehicle use for access and maintenance, heavy equipment use—and their purpose is to perpetually manipulate the environment to maintain desired conditions at the expense of natural processes,” Johnson said.

“Guzzler opponents point to the historical purpose of artificial water systems—to grow wildlife to hunt them—and say adding water artificially inflates animal populations,” said Brendan Cummings of Center for Biological Diversity, who was once in the “absolutely no guzzlers” camp. He was a lawyer on a suit that halted Mojave National Preserve’s plans to add more guzzlers in the early 2000s.

“[Guzzlers] don’t necessarily fit in with wildlife values,” said former CDFW biologist Laura Cunningham, who worked in the Mojave for decades and is current California director of the Western Watersheds Project. “But so many springs are taken for ranching, mining, and grazing—guzzlers in some areas are the only thing keeping wildlife alive,” she said.

A Water Drop for Bighorn Sheep

“Allocating water for wildlife is often up to one or two people who recognize an issue and choose to move forward with it,” said retired Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Superintendent Mark Jorgensen. And it’s often up to the charisma of a few key species to rally support.

Jorgensen is one of those people; peninsular bighorn sheep is one of those species. Found only in the arid eastern mountains of Southern California, total bighorn numbers had dwindled to about 300 when it made the endangered list in 1998 due to drought, habitat loss, and disease from cows. Jorgensen recognized the park’s duty to revive bighorn back in the 1970s.

“We are not going to restore desert wilderness if we’ve taken away all the water,” he remembers realizing.

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Partnering with CDFW and multiple volunteers—including hunting organizations—Jorgensen and his staff installed 10 rainwater guzzlers throughout Anza-Borrego’s 600,000-acre terrain. By the time he retired in 2009, a coordinated recovery effort had brought the total peninsular bighorn population up to almost 800.

But park leadership did not prioritize guzzler upkeep after Jorgensen left. Ongoing drought left some dry; others deteriorated under harsh desert conditions. At the same time, a study of the Lower Colorado desert from 1984 to 2017 showed vegetation cover decreased by about 35 percent due to the warming climate.

When several endangered bighorn sheep were found dead near a dry guzzler in Anza-Borrego in 2020, CDFW scientist Colby contended that—by allowing guzzlers to fall into disrepair—park officials had failed to carry out their duty to protect the borregos. In a population that small (now about 900), every sheep counts.

“Bighorn sheep are important, but to what end are we watering a desert?”

Despite initial resistance from senior state park scientist Danny McCamish, who expressed concern that guzzlers were “bolstering a man-made false population,” Colby arranged Anza- Borrego’s first-ever emergency water drop.

With help from a helicopter supplied by nearby Marines, Colby and her crew hustled to repair and fill a guzzler near Whale Peak—on a 115-degree day. Similar operations have taken place for Riverside and Mojave county guzzlers. But at a cost of up to $65,000 for just one water drop to just one guzzler, with funds and supplies donated, water drops are not a sustainable solution.

McCamish agrees and questions the ongoing support of guzzlers. “Bighorn sheep are important,” he told a reporter in April 2022, “but to what end are we watering a desert?”

The Usurping of Native Water Sources by Ranchers

After the Gold Rush, ranchers raising cows and sheep (not bighorn) set the course of water use in San Diego’s backcountry. Homesteading and farming accompanied the cattle, putting additional pressure on desert water sources.

In the 1860s, on one of only two year-round wetlands in Anza-Borrego, in the central part of what is now the state park, the Sentenac brothers built a cabin and started raising goats, cattle, and domestic sheep. Shortly thereafter, they began piping water from nearby San Felipe Creek to fill a cattle trough. San Diego cattleman George Sawday later started his famous livestock empire on that land, pumping water from the creek and the wetland to support his burgeoning herds.

Ranchers were also in the practice of burning native vegetation to make way for grazing cattle and planting non-native tamarisk for windbreaks. Tamarisk’s extensive roots, which make it drought-hardy, change water flow patterns and alter the chemistry of the soil. For more than a century, tamarisk choked San Felipe Creek and Sentenac Cienega, further limiting water availability for wildlife.

By 1910, almost 50,000 cattle roamed the region’s foothills and deserts. Though Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was established in 1933, grazing rights continued on the land until 1970, while a patchwork of private inholdings throughout the park continued to support cows. From the Riverside County line in the north to the Mexico border in the south, most prominent water sources were “usurped in some way,” Jorgensen said, altering the delicate desert balance to this day.

“If you had looked at the map and plotted to rid the desert of its native water sources, you couldn’t have done a better job,” he said.

Just 10 miles south of Sentenac Cienega, over a rugged smattering of mountains, at Vallecito Creek, a stage coach company and later a dairy farm replaced what had been a rich riparian habitat that supported deer, bobcat, mountain lions, birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, insects, and of course, bighorn—along with indigenous villages—and drained the water to feed domesticated animals. Ranching and agriculture continued there until the 1970s. And although the area around the creek is now a park, it’s still a popular camping spot where human use displaces wild animal use.

This was one of the most critical vicinities Jorgensen identified to install AWCs for bighorn, in the ’80s and ’90s, when numbers in the Vallecito Mountains had dwindled to under 30. One of those guzzlers—at the site of the helicopter water drop—is currently the only water source for a local ewe group. Yearly counts show a resurgence in Vallecito Mountains peninsular bighorn, at a height of 150-175 in the greater area.

Like water sources in San Diego County deserts, many springs and seeps throughout the Mojave, just over 200 miles to the northeast, were tapped for cattle starting in the late 1800s. Ranching in the vast desert area—with grazing allotments on public lands—continued for more than a century, even after the Desert Protection Act set aside 1.6 million acres for Mojave National Preserve (MNP) in 1994.

That meant local fauna and bovine visitors shared water—both developed and natural sources. But that didn’t work well for some species, like easily spooked bighorn or quail. And the impact of cattle trampling vegetation also challenged how native desert species survived in their own habitat.

Starting in the 1970s, the Bureau of Land Management and CDFW installed 134 small game guzzlers and six for big game in what is now MNP, along with “wildlife friendly” fencing that kept cows (and wild burros) from accessing certain streams while other animals could jump or duck in for a drink.

As the Ranching Era Ends, Infrastructure Questions Remain

In 2001, environmental groups precipitated the end of most grazing in Mojave National Preserve, contending it violated the 1994 Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan.

With the end of the ranching era, park leadership began to remove the wells, pipes, windmills, pumps, and troughs that had sustained cattle—and incidentally provided water for wildlife—for more than 100 years. But conservationists and hunters alike worried that animal populations, particularly mule deer, were declining without access to these watering systems. CDFW proposed to convert abandoned livestock wells to guzzlers.

That’s when Center for Biological Diversity stepped in with the lawsuit that halted the conversion, alleging that guzzlers harm wildlife, especially desert tortoise, a few of which were found dead inside tanks. Cummings, now a conservation director with the organization, said “poorly maintained guzzlers were basically death traps for tortoises,” and that he has a file filled with photos of tortoise carcasses from when he worked on the case.

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Though the conversion plan had already been approved by the National Parks Service, in 2005 Mojave’s superintendent nixed it at the last minute. Darby said those tortoises did not necessarily drown; they probably climbed in there to live out their last moments in a cool, protected spot.

The Preserve staff then launched research into the efficacy of man-made water sources, with mule deer as the subject. Preliminary results showed higher survival rates in areas with guzzler access. But several years into it, the preserve’s next superintendent stopped the study. Under Todd Suess, the Preserve management plan for developed water resources proposed removal or neglect of all guzzlers and abandoned wells in accordance with the Wilderness Act.

Lucky for him, Darby said, current leadership is supportive of catchment systems. But even with support, he said, the Wilderness Act makes guzzler maintenance tricky: it prohibits heavy equipment on the preserve, which disturbs the character of the land, said Dana Johnson, and “stresses the animals further.”

Instead of heading straight to the sites, Darby and his crew take a circuitous route on non-preserve land, pull the tanker up to the very edge of the preserve, and then deploy several hundred feet of hose to pump water to the guzzler.

“We actively maintain all bighorn sheep guzzlers,” Darby said, “even hauling water to replenish them if they go dry. This is because bighorn is such a keystone animal in the desert.”

Darby’s most recent Mojave guzzler refill was on September 17 in the Jackass Mountains, in collaboration with the Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep.

While guzzlers cannot bring back vegetation, habitat, or natural water sources, Jorgensen is hopeful that Anza-Borrego superintendent Ray Lennox “will do what needs to be done” to repair the ones he put in. Jorgensen heard through the grapevine that helicopters are lined up to do tank replacements, and a long-term guzzler maintenance plan is in the works.

The Need for an Overarching Wildlife Management Plan

Since the tortoise lawsuit, Cummings said his view of guzzlers has evolved in light of climate change. “It’s a lot hotter than it was back then,” he said. “We’ve altered the climate, and that’s dried up natural water sources. Bird species diversity in Mojave is half of what it was 30 years ago, due to drought and water stress. Wildlife is increasingly dependent on artificial water sources.”

The guzzler controversy, Cummings said, “is part of a much broader issue: our wildlife management is not changing as fast as the climate.”

“We’ve altered the climate, and that’s dried up natural water sources. Bird species diversity in Mojave is half of what it was 30 years ago, due to drought and water stress. Wildlife is increasingly dependent on artificial water sources.”

Opponents and proponents of guzzlers do agree on one thing: “fighting for water for wildlife is really hard,” said Cunningham of Western Watersheds Project. There’s no overarching plan on how to protect water sources for wildlife; no coordinated effort among agencies. And besides protected areas where advocates fight for exceptions, decades-old rules prioritize livestock water use and grazing rights on public lands.

“We’ve seen severe drought for years, and yet domestic livestock grazing on public lands continues without any meaningful restriction. The same problem exists with water diversion for human uses. We could give meaningful consideration to wildlife as a ‘stakeholder,’ but we often don’t,” said Dana Johnson.

Even California’s landmark water legislation, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, does not provide specific protections of water for wildlife: there’s a burden of proof on CDFW to show how misuse would harm Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems.

“We need to think about how to change land management paradigms,” said Cummings. “Right now, responses are reactive, not well thought out. It’s clear that species recovery under a changing climate requires some level of human intervention.”

The solution is twofold, Cummings believes. “Do as much as we can to protect desert groundwater and make sure surface waters are flowing, and climate-informed revisitation of guzzlers,” he said, noting that as they proceed, leaders need to be asking, “Where does it make the most sense to have artificial water?”

Leorah Gavidor is a San Diego-based writer whose work has appeared in the Seattle Weekly, San Diego Reader, Red Tricycle, and more. Read more >

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  1. Norm Lopez
    No mention of Burro populations devastating our desert environments? They’re not indigenous to the Mojave or Colorado Deserts.
    Forage is scarce so why are non native species allowed to compete with native Bighorn and other species?
    Thanks ,
    Norm
  2. Well researched and written article. In terms of the bigger picture re-wilding the west is the ultimate solution. It will require that the country's population at large drastically reduces its consumption of meat, particularly beef. A Blue-zone type diet would reduce healthcare costs, increase longevity and vitality, reduce climate disruption and result in the conversion of much of the west back to a non-grazed environment. Natural springs would re-emerge. Everyone can play a role.

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