by David Baxter.
©2009 Texas Wildlife. Originally printed in Texas Wildlife magazine, September 2009, pp. 18-20. Reproduced with permission.
“Come on, Campers!”
Eighty-one-year-old J. David Bamberger urged on a scramble of biologists, reporters and other usually sedentary folk up a rocky hillside on his 5,500-acre Blanco County ranch. Reaching the top, without so much as pausing to catch his breath, the octogenarian apostle of conservation launched into an explanation of the latest low-tech way he is working to capture every raindrop that falls on his ranch, Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve. The rest of us, at least two or three decades younger, struggled to keep up with him and it would be a while before we had breath enough to ask a question that would sound like more than a wheeze.
It’s this tireless, persistent evangelism that earned Bamberger and the Selah Ranch staff the 2009 Leopold Conservation Award from the Sand County Foundation and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, part of TPWD’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards. Your TWA and the H. Yturria Land and Cattle Company are among the award’s major sponsors.
What we heard this day – Bamberger’s sermon on the mount – was the outline of an ambitious project that will take 15 years to complete and thousands of volunteer hours to move by hand tons of rock to shape some 28 miles of berms and 12 miles of water pans.
The 81-year-old J. David Bamberger with his latest water-conserving project: simple rock berms that snake along the hill’ s contours to slow rainfall and trap sediment. Some 28 miles of berms are under construction – all by hand. Photo by Chase Fountain, TPWD.
The berms are low rock terraces that snake around the hillsides like contour lines on a quad map. When it rains, the berms slow the water’s downhill rush, and trap sediment. On top of the hill is what Bamberger calls a water pan – really nothing more than a shallow trench several feet wide, edged with rock. The idea is to hold rainfall and let it percolate into the porous Hill Country limestone.
All of the work is done by hand: by the hands of Bamberger and the Selah staff and scores of volunteers such as members of the Central Texas Trail Tamers in nearby Austin. Using heavy equipment such as bulldozers would be hazardous on Selah’s steep hills, and tear up valuable grass.
“This is nothing new, folks,” said Bamberger. “Ancient civilizations were doing much the same 5,000 years ago.”
Bamberger’s project is a little more recent, unveiled in October 2008 in response to nearly two years of little rain – 14 inches total in 2008 – and his concern that such weather patterns forecast things to come in Central Texas.
“The limestone hills of the Edwards Plateau are dotted with ‘perched aquifers,’” said Bamberger. “These are pockets of water perched above the main aquifer, usually on a hill top or hill side, separated from the main aquifer by a layer of rock that water can’t penetrate. Water from these little aquifers flows out in the form of hillside springs.
“After a recent heavy rain our first hilltop water pan filled with water. Within 48 hours, water flow in the nearest downhill spring box increased by a quart per minute – not much, but it adds up.”
Bamberger is quick to point out that all the ranch’s water needs are fed by two springs
“There are no working wells on Selah,” he said. “Two springs supply water for four full-time resident families and some 3,500 visitors a year. And, we don’t use pumps to move the water; it’s all by gravity flow.”
Atop a Selah Ranch hill, Bamberger has water pans – shallow trenches edged with rock – to hold rainfall and let it percolate into the ground. Twelve miles of water pans are being built. Photo by Chase Fountain, TPWD.
Bamberger’s current project of berms and water pans is the latest in 40 years of work to make the most of every raindrop that falls on his Blanco County ranch. What he did with “the sorriest piece of land in Blanco County” has become legend in the annals of private lands stewardship.
“In 1969, when I bought the place, we started drilling wells, but came up with little or nothing. In hindsight, we were drilling right past the perched aquifers. But, we also aggressively cleared cedar [Ashe juniper] by whatever means we could – axe, chain saw, loppers.
“Seven years later two creeks started to flow again; then 11 springs started running – not a huge flow, about a gallon per minute, but that’s 1,440 gallons of water a day. Our ranch families and visitors use about 50 gallons per day (our goal is 25 gallons/day/person); adequate, but far less than what the average American uses [some 80 to 100 gallons/day/person].
The long-term benefits of removing high-water-consumption trees such as Hill Country cedar and salt cedar is well known to TWAers. It’s not enough to remove a tree and its water use, but it must be replaced on the landscape with native grasses such as bluestem.
Bamberger has a demonstration he puts on for most all Selah visitors, and our group was no exception. It’s a “rain machine,” a demonstration – comparison actually – of how two landscapes react to a simulated rainfall. It’s a concept familiar to most [of] our members but, according to Bamberger, an eye-opener to urban visitors, especially school kids.
Conservationist as evangelist: Bamberger with a favorite native grass in front of a “rain machine” demonstration that shows differences in how rain moves across landscapes covered with such grasses compared to those with only cedar, Ashe juniper. Photo courtesy Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve.
“We pour water – ‘rain’ — into two pans,” he said. “One side showers a small cedar tree planted in a pan of otherwise bare ground. The other side has bluestem. Below each is a pair of glass containers: one marked ‘run-off’ the other marked ‘groundwater.’”
Bamberger’s rain produces immediate results on the cedar side: silty water starts flowing into the run-off container — nothing percolates through the bare ground and into the ground water container.
On the bluestem side things are pretty quiet until well after all water is poured into the rain machine. Only much later does the bluestem release a trickle of clean water into the ground water container – barely a drop goes into the run-off container.
On the right side of the rain machine, with Ashe juniper, silty water quickly runs into the “Runoff” jar, little into the “Ground H2O” jar. On the left of machine, the native grass side, water slowly trickles into the “Ground H2O” jar with little in the “Runoff” jar. Photo courtesy Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve.
“I love this plant,” said Bamberger, clutching a bluestem root ball to his bosom. “In one square yard of bluestem there are 25 miles of roots. Not only that, we measured summer temperature differences between the cedar and bluestem demonstration pans – it was 17 degrees cooler on the bluestem side.
“Among the many mistakes I made 40 years ago was thinking that I could buy all the native grass seed I needed to reseed the hillsides cleared of cedar. I spent $20,000 on seed; I cornered the market on native seed that year. It’s not something I would recommend to any landowner, regardless of their finances.”
Instead, Bamberger urges landowners attending his stewardship workshops to patrol highway rights-of-way and gather native seeds. Better yet, clear cedar in patches, leave downed boughs and leaves as mulch and let native grass infiltrate on its own.
“It doesn’t take lots of cash to be a good land steward,” he said. “But it does take hard work and dedication. Do what you can with what you have. Most of the landowners attending our workshops own less than 100 acres – 10- or 20-acre spreads.
“That trend towards smaller landownership, fragmentation, is typical of what’s happening in Blanco County. When I bought Selah in 1969, the ranch ranked 17th in overall size of county private lands. Today, it ranks number-three in the county, not because of acquiring additional land, but because other ranches have been broken up.”
On top of the ridge with the water pan, Bamberger spreads his arms wide and extols his visitors to go down and do the good work of conservation.
“Conservation is not just for the rich,” he said. “Anyone can do it, and they must. Water issues are bearing down on us; they will be the defining issues of our lives.”
Even in a two-year drought, Selah lakes have water in them, captured through aggressive rainfall management. Photo courtesy Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve.
Even at 81, I’m betting J. David Bamberger will be around 15 years hence, when his network of berms and water pans is finished, collecting raindrops a few at a time, funneling them into the Hill Country limestone, trickling into perched aquifers, flowing out as springs, into creeks and finally into the Colorado River as it heads downstream to urban dwellers who use far more than 50 gallons a day.