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ASH MEADOWS NWR: Restoration In The Fragile Landscape of Longstreet Spring
California-Nevada Offices , March 11, 2014
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Longstreet Spring, circa 1972.
Longstreet Spring, circa 1972. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Rob Andress lifts a section of concrete from the old diversion channel at Longstreet Spring.
Rob Andress lifts a section of concrete from the old diversion channel at Longstreet Spring. - Photo Credit: Jon Myatt, USFWS
Cyndi Souza, visitors service specialist for Ash Meadows NWR looks out over Longstreet Spring recently.
Cyndi Souza, visitors service specialist for Ash Meadows NWR looks out over Longstreet Spring recently. - Photo Credit: Jon Myatt, USFWS
Longstreet Spring before the restoration project began.
Longstreet Spring before the restoration project began. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Longstreet Spring after being restored to original size.
Longstreet Spring after being restored to original size. - Photo Credit: Jon Myatt, USFWS

By Jon Myatt

 

Dust clouds billow up from a stand of ash trees near Longstreet Spring on Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in southern Nevada. The sounds of gravel being dumped and the rhythmic beeping of heavy equipment reversing and pushing forward punctuate the afternoon.

Longstreet Spring is a thermal spring with a constant temperature of 79 degrees Fahrenheit, part of an extensive wetland system within Ash Meadows NWR. This and other springs on the refuge support more than 26 endemic plants and animals—believed to be the largest concentration of endemic species in the United States.

Heavy excavation equipment might seem a bit inappropriate in such a fragile desert landscape, but according to refuge staff, the work being done at this natural desert spring is necessary to reverse the effects of habitat alteration and loss.

“So much has changed in the past 100 years. When the first western settler, Jack Longstreet built his cabin next to this pool in the 1880s, very few people lived along these springs and channels,” explained Cyndi Souza, visitor services specialist for Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. “And Longstreet Spring wasn’t as large as it is now. In fact, it was approximately 50 percent smaller.”

“In the early 1900s more people came in to buy small ranches. By the 1960s when agriculture came here on a large scale, there were agricultural fields everywhere, and that’s when the springs were enlarged and began being diverted to large concrete ditches,” she said, sweeping her hand wide along the horizon.


“Some of these springs were actually pumped dry, they pumped so much water from them,” she added.

Over time, agricultural diversion of spring water into irrigation channels radically altered the natural flow through the slough, Souza said.

Most of the disturbance to Longstreet Spring was done in the late 1950s through the early 1970s when land developers converted large portions of wetlands associated with  the springs, including the pool at Longstreet Spring for agricultural use.  The pool at nearby Fairbanks Spring, was also artificially expanded.

“The outflow from these springs was diverted from its original channel to a concrete ditch for crop irrigation, and the original channel consequently dried up,” Souza explained.

To convert the land to an agricultural field, riparian vegetation was removed, the floodplain was leveled, and eight-foot tall berms were constructed across the meadows to protect the agricultural fields from being flooded by runoff from ephemeral washes. The washes, once vital to delivery of gravels and nutrients, as well as flushing the spring channels during spring storm events, were effectively cut off from the historic channels.

Rob Andress, a contract restoration specialist supervising the project, hops down off a large escavator covered in the chalky white dust that coats everything and everyone involved. Andress has worked on ecosystem restoration efforts at Ash Meadows for more than 20 years, including restoration of many springhead pools and their ouflow channels.

“The best example that we have (of Longstreet Spring and the Upper Carson Slough) visually are the 1948 aerial photographs that show fairly well what the landscape looked like before large fields were leveled and flows were diverted into ditches,” he explained. “With them, now we can see the subtle patterns in change of vegetation that existed at the time.”

“Comparing them to today, it shows extensive impact to the system for agricultural uses even by 1948,” he said.

On this current project, Andress and his team will restore Longstreet Spring, reducing it to its original size, and restore a portion of the original outflow channel to “a similar state to what it was prior to the 1940s.”

“While it’s not an exact replica of what was here, it will be quite close in terms of where the water is on the landscape… and over time, vegetation grows in, water finds a new path, creates new channels, and as that process repeats over hundreds of years nature will create a complex system of wetland marsh and channels,” he said.

He estimated that it will be 10 or 15 years before this site begins to return to a natural state.
Springhead restoration at Kings Spring, the only other system where the spring was reduced in size after it had been enlarged for agriculture, is a successful example of how this technique works, he added.

To reduce the size of the Longstreet Spring pool, Andress and his habitat restoration crew will place large pieces of caliche (“kea-lee'-Chee”) rock around the shallow shelf and fill spaces in between with cobbles, gravel, and sand. An angled drop to the springs center will help prevent cattail growth, encourage natural vegetation and return the spring to its natural shape.

“As an example, we completed restoration on Kings Spring (six miles south of Longstreet Spring) 15 years ago and only now you can see the end result of restoration and recovery, and this same process occurred there,” he said.

Longstreet Spring once contained a spring-snail that only occurred at this spring. The Longstreet Spring snail (Pyrgulopsis spp.) is now extinct due to agricultural modification of its habitat.  Reducing the size of the spring pool will help maintain higher water temperature further down the outflow, which is beneficial to remaining native aquatic species (pupfish, speckled dace, and aquatic invertebrates), he said.

The Carson Slough is the primary drainage in Ash Meadows and is the core of the Ash Meadows ecosystem. This area provides designated critical habitat for seven threatened and endangered plant species, one threatened aquatic insect, and four endangered fish.

Restoration plans for the Upper Carson Slough aim to preserve these native communities through the restoration of the natural springs and spring outflows, concurrent with invasive species management, according to Souza.

Future restoration plans for the Upper Carson Slough include the restoration of Cold Spring and its outflow channels and the Rogers Spring channel.  Sections of roads and ditches remaining from the agricultural activities will also be removed, she said.

In addition, a recreational hiking trail system that includes loop and spur trails, parking areas, overlook areas, and boardwalk designs is being planned. This trail system would expand upon the existing recreational trail and boardwalk network in the Ash Meadows NWR to allow visitor access while protecting sensitive spring sites in the Upper Carson Slough.

- FWS -

Jon Myatt is the Digital Communications Manager for the Pacific Southwest Region, in Sacramento, Calif.


Contact Info: Jon Myatt, 916-414-6474, jon_myatt@fws.gov



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