Maintaining a Gila River Friendly Property
Riparian areas make up a small portion of the Arizona landscape, yet they provide many unique and important benefits. In addition to being utilized by at least 80% of the state’s resident wildlife species at some stage of their lives, the vegetated land along river corridors stabilize streambanks, limit erosion, encourage flood protection, and promote improved water quality. These ecosystem services not only benefit the river and riparian plant and animal species, but also neighboring and downstream communities.
When altering or improving your land, taking measures to protect riparian areas can help to maintain the long-term ecological health and overall economic integrity of the Upper Gila Watershed. Provided here is a checklist of actions that you may be able to take to benefit the Gila River, its riparian corridor, and the ecology of the watershed as a whole.
Healthy, native riparian and wetland vegetation along the water’s edge may:
- Save money and increase property values, as the land is more productive and attractive over the long term.
- Reduce the intensity of flood flows, reducing erosion and property loss.
- Provide food, cover, and breeding habitat for fish, birds, and other wildlife.
- Keep water cooler in the summer and prevent ice damage in the winter.
- Reduce water pollution by filtering out sediment, chemicals, and nutrients in runoff, ensuring better water quality for you, your animals, and your neighbors.
- Hold more water in the soil, slowly releasing it for longer-season stream flows and groundwater recharge.
- Satisfy your responsibility to be a steward caring for the land.
To maintain water quality:
- Plant shrubs and trees along the streambank to prevent erosion and provide wildlife habitat.
- Pull small weed patches near the river by hand, as heavy machinery can compact and disturb near stream soils.
- Limit livestock access to degraded riparian areas, until vegetation is fully recovered from disturbance or overgrazing. Cattle troughs, stock water tanks, feeders, and salt blocks can be placed away from the river to prevent trampling of banks and overgrazing.
- Practice rotational grazing. Continuous, season-long grazing in a fixed area can compact soils and damage trees that can be important in controlling streambank erosion, water quality, and wildlife habitat quality.
- Practice farming techniques such as minimum tillage, contour farming, filter strips, and grassed waterways, which can reduce erosion and increase water infiltration.
- Monitor irrigation: under-irrigating can shorten the life of your agricultural land, while over-irrigating can waste water and energy, and cause valuable topsoil, fertilizer, and pesticide runoff.
- Trust your soil test. Over-fertilizing is not better, as it can waste money and damage water quality. Contact NRCS or County Cooperative Extension for soil test and fertilization recommendations.
- Properly dispose of manure, feed, and bedding wastes by spreading on your cropland. Be sure soil is not too wet or frozen to absorb wastes. This practice can reduce the need for expensive commercial fertilizers.
To Improve Wildlife Habitat:
- If they pose no safety hazard, leave dead or dying standing trees (snags) on site. Over 85 species of North American birds use cavities in snags, and bats and squirrels depend on snags for roosting and breeding sites. Many of these species consume large quantities of insects that, if left unchecked, can become major agricultural pests.
- Allow growth of hedgerows along roads and agricultural fields to provide escape, refuge, nesting cover, and travel lanes for wildlife. Low, woody vegetation along fence lines can serve as a windbreak and nesting site, while vegetation in gullies can provide riparian habitat and control erosion. Hedgerows at least 15-20 feet wide are most effective.
- Install fences in a way that allows wildlife movement and limits the risk of physical injury or death through entanglement. If possible, net or woven wire fences should be avoided, as they are the most difficult for wildlife to cross.
- Practice controlled, open burning. Controlled burns can mimic natural forces, and are often the cheapest and most effective way to create habitat.
- Remove brush selectively. Removal that leaves areas of brush for browse and cover will be more beneficial for deer than extensive brush removal projects. Brush piles can increase nesting and protection cover.
- Consider alternative water trough construction that encourages access, while reducing the threat of drowning. Constructing a trough 20 inches or less in height, will allow javelina and young deer access to the water. To reduce wildlife drowning, equip your storage tank with a floating board or cover, and install a ramp or escape ladder.
Many of the recommended measures can be found in “Tips on Land and Water Management for Small Farms and Ranches in Arizona,” Arizona Cooperative Extension:
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