Water developments have been constructed throughout the west since the early 1800’s in order to provide for the watering needs of domestic livestock. Water developments have been utilized to provide free (surface) water to domestic livestock as well as to assist in controlling or managing livestock use of rangelands. Vallentine (1974) notes:

The location of water developments on rangeland is important in controlling the movement, distribution, and concentration of livestock. Improper distribution of grazing frequently results from improper distribution of watering places. Cattle will graze an area close to water again and again rather than travel long distances to better forage. This results in deterioration of forage resources near the water supply and wastes forage at long distances from water. The excessive travel associated from this inefficient harvesting is harmful to the grazing animals and to the rangeland as well.

Figures 2.1-1 and 2.1-2, taken on arid public lands utilized for livestock grazing in southern Idaho, provide an illustration of Vallentine’s concerns:

Domestic livestock require relatively large amounts of free water on a daily basis. Recommendations by the Forest Service have been to allow from 12-15 gallons per day for horses and cattle, and approximately 1 to 1.5 gallons per day for ewe-lamb pairs (Vallentine 1974). These daily water requirements will decrease when succulent green forage is available. Increases in daily water intake by domestic livestock occur with high temperatures, low humidity, when forage is dry, and when forage contains high levels of either salt or protein. Water is both a nutrient and a medium for metabolic functions, is an important tissue constituent, and provides for necessary waste disposal (Vallentine 1974).

Range research has determined that if water intake is limited, livestock weight gains will be impaired. Under continued or severe water limitations impaired weight gain remains permanent - even if livestock are later moved to ranges or pastures with more favorable conditions (Vallentine 1974). Infrequent watering of cattle as well as sheep can also result in plant poisonings and other health risks. It is the attempt to provide daily or frequent water sources of sufficient amount to meet the needs of concentrated numbers of livestock (as well as attempts to utilize widely scattered forage values) that has led to the practice of devising, constructing, or otherwise implementing water developments within arid landscapes for use by domestic livestock.

Antelope, deer and other native wildlife require access to free water - but are efficient at utilizing minimal resources such as small seeps and springs, intermittent creek flows, temporary pools, and similarly limited water sources in arid habitats. In addition, native ungulates instinctively carry out specific migration and foraging strategies in relation to the seasonal availability and palatability of native plant species (Ackerman and others 1984). Domestic livestock are placed in rangeland settings at varying times of the year- typically in large numbers that reflect pre-determined "stocking rates."

While domestic livestock may demonstrate preferential grazing of specific types of plants throughout the continuum of the grazing season - these "exotic" animals have not evolved naturally within the west’s arid or semi-arid ecosystems and have not developed sufficient survival strategies to enable them to live in the arid west (at least in large numbers) without human intervention. In addition, property ownership and management strategies (such as the use of fencing and other range facilities) may prevent domestic livestock from making use of any natural migratory tendencies or other survival characteristics (Bell 1973).

Human intervention to facilitate livestock grazing in arid ecosystems has been carried out through a variety of means. Livestock use of forage has been facilitated by the feeding of salts and minerals on the range, through seedings or other alterations of natural desert or semi-arid plant communities, through a wide array of management strategies, and through the creation of livestock water developments. It is interesting to note, that as private and political interests "fight" to retain grazing activities on arid public lands in the west (in spite of mounting public criticism), an increasing justification for water developments has become that of "protecting" natural water sources from livestock degradation.

Water developments for domestic livestock employ a wide range of designs - from simple earthen reservoirs and dugouts to the elaborate pumping of water through miles of pipelines to distant troughs. Existing natural surface waters can be captured, diverted, or dammed, while subsurface waters may be made available through excavation or the drilling of wells. Valentine (1974) contributes the following observations regarding potential water developments or sources on western ranges:

Spring development consists of locating the true water-bearing outcrop, cleaning out the area where the water emerges, and providing a means for collecting and utilizing the outflow.

On impervious rock or soil, a concrete or stone curbing can be used to collect the flow; or an adequate collection basin can sometimes be made by digging toward the spring source and filling with rounded rock.

Seeps are somewhat more costly and more of a gamble to develop than are springs. They are usually found on flat, often boggy terrain where it is difficult or impossible to pipe water away for better access.

Wells equipped with a windmill are the most common type of water development in the Great Plains and other areas where wind is reliable…Where water table is deep and no perennial lakes or streams exist, wells may be the only feasible source of permanent water…However, in many areas of the Intermountain and Southwest, reliable water sources are found only at deeper depths if at all…

Both reservoirs and dugouts are used to intercept overland flows of water and provide storage while making the water available to livestock and big game…[these] generally provide only temporary or seasonal sources of water.

[Overland flow includes rain or melting snow- often facilitated by drift fences around water developments.]

Rain traps, also variously known as catchment basins, paved drainage basins, and guzzlers, are now being used in low rainfall areas and on coarse-textured or shallow soils where cheaper and more dependable sources of water are not available.

Water hauling to livestock in tank trucks may be used in emergencies, may be used to provide a temporary source of water, or used as a continuous practice on rangeland where no other sources of water are available.

Water may be piped…from central water sources to tanks placed in areas where natural water sources do not occur.

Unless natural flow is enough to promptly and continuously supply the maximum amount of water needed, stockwater developments must be provided with storage facilities…

Storage facilities may consist of metal, cement, or masonry tanks or cisterns…Collapsible butyl rubber bags can also be purchased…and they have been particularly recommended for use in conjunction with rain traps.

Figures 2.1-3 through 2.1-20 illustrate a variety of water developments constructed or utilized within arid and semi-arid landscapes of Idaho, Nevada, and for domestic livestock purposes:

Water developments for livestock purposes are frequently proposed as range improvements, yet land management plans and alternatives rarely if ever address the potential impacts that may result from those same water developments. It is interesting that a number of our noted range scientists have recognized the potential for livestock water developments to adversely impact western rangelands. Vallentine (1974) makes a number of important observations:

Stocking rates cannot be evaluated only in terms of forage since it must be accompanied by adequate drinking water for the grazing animals.

Stockwater problems arise on the range:

1. When there are too few watering places.

2. When the water yield or storage, or both, is inadequate.

3. When water sources are poorly distributed.

4. When water developments are wasteful because of leakage or high evaporation.

5. When there are erosion problems at present facilities.

  • Ranchers and other range managers must carry out year to year programs of developing and maintaining water supplies…the planning of range water developments must include provisions for future maintenance.
  • When water is short, ranchers may be forced to move their stock from the range before the forage is fully grazed. Even more common is a heavy concentration of animals at remaining water sources after the less dependable springs and reservoirs dry out.
  • On the other hand, care must be taken that additional water development is not used to crowd more livestock onto a fully stocked range.

Vallentine (1974) suggests that at least one water development facility is needed for every 50-60 animal units for a full growing season of use. Vallentine also notes that cattle should not be expected to travel more than one-quarter to one-half mile from forage to water in steep rough country, or more than one mile on level or gently rolling range. Forced restrictions of daily water intake by livestock on the range can result in sharply reduced milk production of lactating mothers, reduced weight gains in both weaned and unweaned young, and may contribute to or even cause death losses of both cattle and sheep (Vallentine 1974). In reviewing Vallentine’s recommendations, it would seem that many of our western ranges remain severely overstocked - simply based upon a widespread lack of adequate water resources.

Bell (1973) has published similar concerns for water developments and associated range management. Bell notes the following concerns relating directly to livestock water developments:

  • Next in importance to fencing, water locations, supplemented with salt and mineral locations are the most important ranch improvements as a regulator of grazing distribution. Water strategically located is important to any grazing distribution and uniformity of grazing.
  • Although water locations are important, a word of caution is necessary. More water locations or closer spacing of them is not always helpful. This might actually contribute to overuse of the range by increased concentration of the livestock.
  • Although livestock will travel great distances for water, this is not in the best interest of either the animal or the range…misplaced or too widely spaced water locations cause undesirable grazing patterns. If animals have too far to travel between water and suitable grazing areas, the pattern of use is that of grazing out and trailing back…the water location becomes a point of concentration with destructive grazing of everything edible. As this continues, a series of concentric rings of progressive degrees of overuse will result.

Figure 2.1-21 and 2.1-22 are illustrative of two of Bell’s and Vallentine’s identified concerns for rangeland water developments - overgrazing and erosion:

The overuse (or misuse) of range facilities and the attendant overgrazing of western rangelands would appear to be a violation of the very science intended to facilitate livestock grazing. Yet misuse of rangeland resources is prevalent, and has become the source of much conservation-related discontent and public controversy over the current conditions of our western rangelands. It is important for the reader/viewer, regardless of political affinity or public grazing position, to recognize that these conservation concerns have been identified and discussed by professional range scientists throughout past decades, as well as into the present.

In relation to poor management practices, particularly during times of drought when both water and forage are limited, Box (2000) made this observation in the Farmer-Stockman Journal:

This is a dry year. The cattle should be on the allotment about a third of the season. But permittees say they have no place for their cattle, the ranger will compromise, the allotment will be grazed bare and public opinion will swing to the anti-grazing minority.

Bell (1973) provides a more eloquent summation of the problems relating to proper range management; and in essence, the very description of what we can readily observe to be occurring on our western rangelands today:

To insure proper distribution and uniformity of grazing, a range requires both careful management of the range and the livestock. It is more difficult to achieve this particular objective than almost any other phase of range management. This is due primarily to the fact that the livestock have to be managed and manipulated more by persuasion and inducement than by direct control. Whatever the cost and trouble, proper distribution and uniformity of grazing are among the most rewarding achievements in range management. Without them, the loss in production can be twofold. First, there is loss from forage production that would be otherwise unused; second, there is loss through continued overuse and progressive expansion of that part of the range used by choice. Improper distribution of grazing, especially when induced by selective use, becomes a continuing and expanding deterioration of a range. Areas of selectivity continue to grow and eventually will engulf the entire range, resulting in severe overuse and poor condition of all the range.

Echoing Bell’s and Valentine’s concerns identified more than 20 years ago, increased public scrutiny is now being given to livestock water developments and associated impacts to the natural environment. Conservation concerns range from impacts to native plant community and wildlife habitat values to wildlife access and safety issues. A more in-depth discussion of the ecological impacts or “costs” associated with livestock water developments will be presented in Section 3.1, followed by a discussion of wildlife access and safety issues in Section 4.1. Please note that this report does not attempt to address the actual economic or dollar impacts, pro or con, of either livestock or wildlife water developments.


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