A Spring Has Sprung

Staff dive into Oregon's groundwater resources

Their hands were elbow deep in mud and their smiles were as wide as goal posts. On a spring day speckled with snow flurries, Allison and Zach were like two kids playing in a river during the heat of summer.

“I think I see a little sneaking through on your side, dude,” Allison said to Zach as she inspected their handmade earthen dam. “Let’s see if we can do a little bit better.”

The truth is, Allison and Zach are anything but kids. Allison has her Ph.D. from Cornell University in wetland ecology and Zach has his M.S. in aquatic ecology from the University of Maryland. Between the two of them, they have 35 years of experience.

Allison Aldous, The Nature Conservancy in Oregon’s senior freshwater scientist, and Zach Freed, The Nature Conservancy in Oregon’s biohydrologist, are studying nearly 2,000 springs in Central Oregon’s Crooked River Basin in an effort to improve groundwater management. And on that cool spring day, they weren’t just playing in the mud. They were in a nearly unaltered groundwater-fed spring building a “dam” around their flume, a tool used to accurately measure the flow of water.

“The flow tells us the amount of water in the spring,” Allison said. “We’ll be taking flow measurements in these springs during the various seasons to see how persistent, how perennial they are. The ‘dam’ helps ensure we’re getting the most accurate measurement possible.”

They want to see consistency. A healthy groundwater-fed spring should have the same or close to the same flow no matter the season. But, some of the springs Allison and Zach are monitoring won’t be consistent; some will be thriving in April and dry by July. These springs are the basis for their research. 

A Well-Fed Trough
Allison and Zach are gathering flow data on both unaltered and altered springs to create a baseline for their hypothesis: improving how water reaches cattle troughs will result in more efficient use of groundwater resources and reduce the impacts on the plant and animal life found in the springs where the water is sourced.

“Healthy springs are oases in the dry pine forests of central Oregon; they are rich in biodiversity and provide cool, clean water during long, dry summers,” Allison said. “If we’re just a little more creative on how we use these springs, then we won’t have issues keeping them healthy while supporting livestock operations.”

By gathering flow data on unaltered springs, Allison and Zach will have a baseline for “good flow.” And, by gathering flow data on altered springs, they’ll be able to see if flows improve after suggested watering techniques are implemented.

What makes a spring altered? A spring is altered when all of its water is diverted to a feeding trough; when it sits on a grazing allotment and it’s not protected by a fence; or when a well is installed nearby and intercepts its groundwater.

What types of improved watering techniques are being suggested? Allison and Zach are testing a “one-two punch” type of solution. First, they’ll start at the source of the spring and will split the flow of water between the spring and the trough, sending only the amount of water necessary for the cattle to the trough. Second, they’ll install a “float valve” at the trough that stops water from coming into the trough when the cattle aren’t drinking it, i.e. “turning off the tap” when water isn’t needed.

“Instead of taking all of the water all of the time, we are changing troughs so they take only as much water as needed, when it’s needed,” Zach said. “The idea is to change both the quantity and timing of the water flowing to the trough. If our designs work, we can continue to achieve livestock watering requirements, while providing enough water to protect the sensitive ecosystems that rely on the springs. We want a solution that meets everyone’s objectives.”

Allison and Zach are in the early stages of their work but are confident they’re making strides to improve how we use one of our most precious resources: water. 

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