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Watershed Academy~Pathways for Water and Climate Resilience

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Lesson 10 of 23
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Observe and Assess- Reading the Landscape

September 13, 2023

 Time to look around

Every time we go out to the field, we asses our surroundings. Use these two steps to asses your area:

  1. Read the Landscape and the Room: Observe complex natural systems (more about this below) and the relationships in the area. Remember that people are part of a place and the system includes the human relationships and traditions too.
  2. Recognize & Utilize Regenerative Processes: Notice natural processes (water, plants, soils) and where they seem to be healthy and where they are not. Build upon existing processes through activities such as planting along rivers or supporting river banks with erosion control structures. Look around: has work been done here already? If so, did it improve the area or cause more harm?

When we assess a place for work we need to identify any existing issues that may be causing the landscape harm and any existing helpful structures that may be natural or man made.

Here are some harmful issues we might find at a site:

  1. Erosion- Erosion can be on the river bank, around a water body, on a road system or on a slope.  Erosion causes problems in the stability of the land.
  2. Invasive vegetation (plants) or wildlife- Look for invasive plants growing in the area (leaders can help identify these) or for signs of damage from invasive wildlife. Invasive plants or animals can displace native plants and damage native biology.
  3. Lack of vegetation- A lack of plants can increase soil erosion, decrease shade around streams (which can warm streams), and a lack of plants affects wildlife and insects that rely on plants for food or habitat.
  4. Overgrowth of vegetation- Some places have too many plants for a healthy environment. For example, ponderosa pine forests in New Mexico are often overgrown because of the suppression of wildfires for many decades. This has led to more fire hazard, which is elevated during droughts.
  5. Poor water quality- Nutrient runoff from farms, pollution from industries up stream, fire debris, pollution from cities (dog poop is actually a big pollutant!) or over use of water effects water quality. Water quality affects people, fish populations and everyone who depends on the watershed.
  6. Human caused destruction- Illegal fire rings, trash, illegal vehicle use (impacts on fragile soils), and poaching are just some of the impacts that can harm watersheds.

What about human-made or natural conditions? Here are some other factors found at a site. 

  1. Dams, or human made drainage systems– These are often constructed to protect communities from flooding or streams from erosion. However, these can be problematic for the natural environment. For example, fish may not be able to migrate the way they need to.
  2. Beaver dams– Beaver dams help keep water in an area and can change ecosystems, and they can be an important part of a healthy river environment. The dams sometimes can also cause flooding of an area.
  3. Natural cliffs or rock features- Direct or speed up water. Some banks may erode.
  4. Soil type– Affects how water moves through an area.
  5. Loose soil- Soil may be loose due to erosion or have another natural cause such as gopher holes. Loose soil can provide clues about how quickly the soil is washing/blowing away or what animals or organisms live there.
  6. Roads– Roads can be very damaging to the environment and can increase harmful soil erosion. Look at roads and surrounding areas for damage.

Tools we can use to observe and assess an area include:

  • Our own senses of observation – this is the number one tool we have!
  • Drone footage
  • Survey123 surveying (you will be trained in this)
  • Maps
  • Pictures
  • Speaking to locals and wisdom keepers
  • Cross section measurement of arroyos, channels or streams
  • Data from previous surveys and current dates