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Protecting the Pecos: Landowners and Agencies Partner to Protect the Pecos River

story by Jaime Tankersley

The Pecos River is an iconic symbol in West Texas. Many consider it an oasis in the water stricken, semi-arid desert country of the state. It has served as a source of major historical, biological, and hydrological importance to the entire Pecos River Basin and the Rio Grande. The Pecos River provides approximately 9.5 percent of the annual inflows to the International Amistad Reservoir, a major source of drinking and irrigation water for the lower Rio Grande Valley and its millions of residents. However, the river also contributes an estimated 26 percent of salt loading to the reservoir annually, periodically causing salinity levels to approach the maximum drinking water standard.

With time and the worst drought in 50 years still holding a death grip on the area, the once ample historic source of water is dwindling down to a trickle in some areas. Its salinity is so high that its use for irrigation and livestock watering has become limited in many instances.

Knowing a change was needed, conservation-oriented agencies stepped up to the plate. Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB), USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Crockett and Upper Pecos Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Texas Water Resources Institute, Texas Clean Rivers Program, Texas Forest Service (TFS), and local landowners set forth to improve and conserve the present natural resources.

Through the Watershed Protection Plan Development for the Pecos River project, a watershed protection plan (WPP) was developed that addresses watershed concerns, impairments, and resource management issues. The WPP was developed using scientific data gathered throughout the course of the project along with information and guidance from watershed landowners. The WPP was completed and distributed to watershed landowners in December 2009. Two separate projects were initiated concurrently to implement portions of the Pecos WPP.

Utilizing partnership efforts, SWCD field technicians have been working directly with watershed landowners to promote, develop, and implement Water Quality Management Plans (WQMP) through the TSSWCB. Starting on properties adjoining or near the Pecos River and now including properties along major tributaries, producers are being offered financial incentives and technical guidance to implement conservation practices and management plans that can improve the overall condition of the Pecos River.

Chemical application, biological control, and prescribed burning are all conservation practices being utilized to rid the basin of its number one problem causing, invasive species - saltcedar. Saltcedar was introduced as an ornamental from Asia, and it has invaded riparian areas throughout the American West. It accumulates salt in its tissues, which is later released into the soil or water nearby. In addition, large saltcedar trees have been reported to use 200 gallons of water per tree each day.

Through WPP landowners can choose to chemically or biologically treat the species in areas near and adjacent to the river channel and remove debris from previous treatments through the use of controlled burns. In terms of biological control, one tiny beetle, Diorhabda sublineata, commonly known as the Tunisian beetle, seems to play the part as a major advocate to landowners.

The jaunty beetle, imported from China, Kazakhstan, other parts of Asia, and the Mediterranean region - all areas where the troublesome tree is native - has taken an impressive bite out of saltcedar in several study sites in the West.

To this insect, vast stands of saltcedar are just one enormous, seemingly endless banquet. The plant's scale-like leaves offer a nutritious treat for the insects, whether they're in their caterpillar-like larval stage or have matured into quarter-inch-long adult beetles.

Besides thriving on emerging leaves and shoots, the beetles also nibble on the bark of small twigs, all the while posing no hazard to people, pets, or crops. Since the establishment of this program, Texas AgriLife Extension Service has been compiling data from the water quality monitoring activities and incorporated into a database.

In trying to expand the territories covered under WQMPs and inform producers and partners of the efforts made thus far, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service hosted two workshops in April 2012 covering the Pecos River Watershed Protection Plan.

During recent Pecos River Watershed Spring Field Days, producers gained insight into the ways NRCS, Farm Service Agency, and SWCD programs can be combined to help them combat the water quality along the river. Working with the varied programs allows producers to obtain both technical and financial assistance. Producers also learned about the options available to them through the Pecos River Watershed Protection Plan, including:

  • the SWCD Water Quality Management Plan program, which offers technical and financial assistance to agricultural producers,
  • saltcedar leaf beetles, and
  • prescribed burning of dead saltcedar along the Pecos River.

Plans for the future include establishing additional saltcedar leaf beetle colonies, conducting prescribed burning of the dead saltcedar along the Pecos River, and expanding the Water Quality Management Program to include producers along the Pecos River and the major tributaries of the Pecos River.

Land managers interested in these programs should contact Amy Porter at 432-445-3196 x 3.

Pecos River Diorhabda sublineata

The Pecos River provides approximately 9.5 percent of the annual inflows to the International Amistad Reservoir, a major source of drinking and irrigation water for the lower Rio Grande Valley and its millions of residents.
Photo courtesy of Lucas Gregory, TWRI Project Manager

In terms of biological control, one tiny beetle, Diorhabda sublineata, commonly known as the Tunisian beetle, seems to play the part as a major advocate to landowners.