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  • Writer's pictureAspen Thies

A Day at Pyeatt Ranch

The Watershed Restoration Program is partnering with the United States Forest Service and Pyeatt Ranch to slow down accelerated erosion in the Canelo Hills. With funding from the Arizona Land and Water Trust we are building six enormous zuni bowls to fix a series of massive headcuts that have been eating away at the land just below a dirt road, and are within feet of destroying it. Our crew, Zach Farley, Eduardo Gracia, Rohan Sorta, and Aspen Thies, take great pride in helping restore our watersheds and the land that people rely on and are excited to take on such a large project.

Zach standing on the edge of a deep headcut in the process of being repaired with erosion control structures.

We begin our day with some stretching, grabbing a snack, and making sure we have our radio set up. By now it is 7AM and already hot. “It’s gettin toasty,” Zach says, but we dive right in, almost literally, because the headcuts we are working on are deeper and wider than your average backyard pool. A headcut describes a steep drop in the earth where water flows and strips away loose soil. As more soil is swept away, the drop becomes taller causing water to gain even more erosive force. Headcuts can become large - the six that we are addressing are all at least five feet deep and five to 20 feet across. Zuni bowls are what we call the structures used to stop them because of the natural bowl shape a headcut creates with steep sides and a basin in the center where water pools before flowing downstream.


Erosion control sturctures being built to repair and stop erosion next to a road.

Throughout the morning we work on different sections of the headcuts, sometimes rolling boulders into the bottom of a bowl to form the base using our one-of-a-kind wheelbarrow, affectionately named the “Boulder Bully” by Eduardo and Rohan. By laying hundreds of rocks carefully stacked and hammered into place in a mosaic-like fashion, these headcuts become encased in stone which allows flowing water to slide over the rocks and down the natural drainage, instead of picking up and eating away at the soil below. Below the headcuts are a series of one-rock-dams (ORDs) that act as barriers to stop water and allow soil to drop out of the water and settle in the rocks. This builds the soil level back up and creates new habitat. The decelerated water then has a chance to infiltrate the soil which lowers surface-level temperatures. This new environment stimulates plants to revegetate the area with the increased nutrient and moisture availability.


The steep sides of the area being repaired, damaged by the erosive force of water across the landscape.

By lunchtime we are all sweaty and sunbathed. Working through the summer heat is a challenge, but we reap the rewards when basking under the thin but velvety shade of the mesquite trees surrounding our worksite. Rice Krispie treats and special Eegee’s deliveries help too! We have spent at least one day a week at this site beginning in May, and over the course of the summer have completed four of the large zuni bowls, a dozen ORDs, and two long media lunas. We still have some details to finish and will revisit the site to repair any damage from the monsoon season. This work requires a lot of rock, and we have moved about 20 tons to reinforce these headcuts and prevent them from unzipping even more of the landscape. While our work is physically demanding, knowing that our structures and their positive impacts on our watersheds will outlast us (and many generations to come) is what makes every day fulfilling.

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