Open land protects water

Wilcox Ranch infrastructure enables strategic grazing
By Samuel James Adams

In a drought, California can’t afford to lose the rain it gets.

Open land is part of the solution to managing stormwater runoff. Where rain falls and where it moves can be very different locations, with vastly different consequences. When rain sheets across blacktop, it moves whatever grits and slimes the surface into storm drain systems that run into rivers and bays—and our drinking water quality can be compromised too.

But when open lands form under millennia of rainfall, land develops its own defense systems. And when people like you protect land forever, these systems can support the wildlife you cherish and the water you drink.

Solano Land Trust manages open space to respect and restore natural processes, undertaking projects that widen flood plains to halt erosion on channelizing creeks and employ culverts to restore tidal flows in the Suisun Marsh. But these lands are working ranches, so how grazing is done is an essential part in making sure that land—and water—can work their miracles.

Every vernal pool on Jepson Prairie and Wilcox forms from rainfall. Sometimes as many as thirty pools form on Wilcox—from small swales to playa lakes. Several federally threatened species breed and live here.

Recently completed water infrastructure upgrades at Wilcox Ranch support this legacy. A solar-powered pump, eight new troughs (for a total of twelve), and over two miles of water line allow cattle to cover areas of property not previously grazed.

“The grazing helps keep the pools as pools,” says Project Manager Jasmine Westbrook-Barsukov. “Studies have shown when you exclude grazing from a vernal pool ecosystem, annual grasses from Europe and Asia can actually grow so well that they dry up the pools. Their evapotranspiration rates [the process by which water is transferred from the land to the atmosphere by evaporation from the soil, other surfaces, and plants] are higher than native plants.”

In fact, non-native grasses will take more water out of the pools than cattle will drink. When the cattle at Wilcox (and the sheep who graze Jepson) eat fresh, green grass and wet plants, the moisture they consume from vegetation allows them to consume less water.

“Vernal pools need a certain inundation period for organisms to carry out their lifecycles,” Jasmine says. “The California Tiger Salamander requires one hundred days of relatively deep water.”

The solar-powered pump stands next to a decommissioned windmill that is there basically for ambience, turning out an atonal but oddly soothing racket. The placement of troughs and fences respect the hydrology of the landscape, which the hefty cows disturb less than one would expect.

“We like cows moving on the ground,” says Jasmine. “It gives more topography and interest to the land.”

That topography provides security to humans too.

The grazing management of these properties reduces the severity of potential fires. During floods, a varied, healthy landscape can minimize the overflow of water. The prairies of Wilcox and Jepson stand between Travis Air Force Base and the Barker Slough Pumping Plant, part of the aqueduct which supplies water to 500,000 residents in Solano and Napa County. It takes a great deal of petroleum and other materials to put those fleets in the sky, and the shorter the distance contaminants travel under heavy rain, the better.

“At Jepson and Wilcox, groundwater that runs off can percolate through the healthy soils and healthy plants,” Jasmine says. “We are capturing a great deal of the pollutants that would otherwise go through the system.”

Ultimately, the cows, sheep, and humans who manage the land are indebted to the efforts of another, smaller mammal. Botta’s pocket gophers have been working a long time to scoop up those mima mounds, and they’re still digging with tooth and claw today. The subtle slopes they’ve kicked up may not look mountainous to you, but a raindrop traces dramatic changes in elevation.

And when billions of raindrops fall—as they will again—the resiliency of the open lands you’ve protected make a mighty difference.