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Earth Notes: Restoring Heiser Spring

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Life flourishes near water in the desert. From rare plants to insects that begin their lives in water to the colorful warblers that eat them, healthy springs are hotspots of biodiversity.

But overuse of springs for human and livestock needs has taken a toll. In Arizona’s Wupatki National Monument, one exhausted spring is being brought back to life.

Heiser Spring, named for an early homesteading family, has been used by humans continuously since at least AD 500. Early Native Americans left pottery sherds near the spring. Navajo sheepherders and Anglo ranchers watered their livestock there in the late 1800s.

The 1930s brought a CCC labor camp to the site, and National Park Service housing sprang up during the 1950s. By 1980, operations ended at Heiser, leaving behind a severely degraded spring.

In 2008, the park demolished remnant structures and pavement. Crews cleared away invasive camelthorn and contoured the most compacted soils to create pockets of moist, seedling-friendly conditions. Desert olive and fragrant sumac were planted, and staff began monitoring groundwater levels.

Currently, the fragrant sumac and desert olive shrubs are flourishing without irrigation, reaching as high as six feet tall. No surface flow yet exists. But a record monsoon season in 2013 raised the water table several feet, where it has since remained just two to three feet under the surface.

This experiment in restoration is just one of many efforts in the Southwest to return springs to their vital role in ecological health.

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