Springing back to life: volunteers rejuvenate North Rim spring

Volunteers remove sections of rotten fencing around Parissawampitts Spring on the North Rim. Around 300 feet of new fencing was installed.

Photo/Blake McCord, Grand Canyon Trust

Volunteers remove sections of rotten fencing around Parissawampitts Spring on the North Rim. Around 300 feet of new fencing was installed.

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — In the high desert, springs and seeps are often the only source of life-giving water to be found for plants, wildlife and grazing livestock. After decades of overuse, a group of volunteers is taking steps to preserve and restore North Rim watering holes.

After securing a grant from Patagonia, the Grand Canyon Trust enlisted the help of several volunteers for a three-day trek to the North Rim to restore Parissawampitts Spring. Led by the Trust’s volunteer program director Emily Thompson and land conservationist Cerissa Hoglander, volunteers included professors, entrepreneurs, a mathematician and even a rocket scientist. The group removed about 300 feet of rotted wood fence and built a new one to protect about 4,000 square feet of wetland habitat from trampling by bison and livestock.

The Trust works with Museum of Northern Arizona’s Spring Stewardship Institute to identify and assess the condition of springs on the Kaibab Plateau. Volunteers are trained to locate springs and report on their condition, including evidence of trampling, water quality, signs of erosion and invasive plants choking out the native reeds and rushes.

Springs are some of the country’s most threatened waters, Hoglander said, because there aren’t many environmental policies specifically designed to protect these tiny watering holes, even though they have a huge impact on the surrounding ecosystem.

“Spring ecosystems are incredibly important because they’re the only source of water in some of these places,” Hoglander said. “They have been incredibly overused and abused.”

The small pools can be adversely affected by everything from rusty pipes that once filled livestock troughs to developments pumping more groundwater from the aquifers far below the surface.

After looking over the reports provided by the Spring Stewardship Institute, the Trust chooses one to three springs to work on during a season, contacting other land managers to decide exactly how much work can be done.

Collaboration is important, Thompson said, because different land users can’t always get together to provide the best solution.

“With collaboration and innovation, it is possible to bridge the gap between different parties,” Thompson said. “Sometimes agencies don’t have the funding available to do these projects, so the Trust can bring in volunteers to get it done.”

Hoglander added that the team had the backing of the rancher who grazes livestock on the land.

“Consultation with the ranchers about what we’re planning to do is very important,” she said. “We want them to be in full support (of the project).”

Any projects to restore the springs are subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Once the group is cleared, work on the springs can begin. With the help of heavy moving equipment from the forest service, the group installed 300 feet of fencing around the spring. The group also removed invasive weeds and rebuilt a bank near the spring’s source to prevent further erosion.

Even a small amount of work can lead the way for big changes in the spring’s ecosystem. Although it may not look like much, Hoglander said, the spring could see a shift in as little as a year. But even if the changes aren’t seen for years to come, the changes are still making a big impact.

“Protection from trampling is one of the best things we can do,” Hoglander said. “Some part of the ecosystem will rebound fairly quickly, while others will take a really long time. After just replacing the fence (at Parissawampitts Spring), we will see an initial response within a year with the regrowth of the native coyote willows.”

Aside from retaking the landscape from invasive species such as the tamarisk scrubs, the coyote willows will shore up the spring’s banks, helping prevent future erosion.

Hoglander said the group has made substantial progress since it began repairing springs in 2013.

According to Thompson, who coordinates and schedules the projects, the Trust plans about 20 projects per year (not all of them are spring restorations) and has about 350 total volunteers per year. She said about 80 percent of them are new volunteers, with the remaining 20 percent participating in multiple projects.

The 2017 spring restoration projects were underwritten by a grant from outdoor gear provider Patagonia, which allowed for the physical labor on the restoration as well as a web storyboard chronicling the obstacles facing the Grand Canyon’s seeps and springs. The storyboard can be viewed here.

Thompson said the Trust is currently planning its 2018 volunteer projects, which should be available to the public by Feb. 2018. Those interested in participating can sign up online at https://www.grandcanyontrust.org/volunteer. No experience is necessary.

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