Mineral monsters, skanky rocks, crazy egg cartons: Welcome to the aquifer!

 

mineral-monsterImage courtesy New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources. The obstruction, discovered in a 3200-foot well at nearly 1900-feet down, is believed to be zinc carbonate.

 

Through murky half-light, a subterranean water world percolates with activity. A video camera lowered into a 3,200-foot deep well in order records the scene:  large white flakes swirling, colliding and…growing.

Within a week, the resulting “mineral monster” sealed off the foot-wide casing, clogging it with an impenetrable barrier.

Hydrologist Peggy Johnson explained it to Taos County commissioners at their June 28 meeting, adding: “It’s Flint, Michigan. In reverse.”

Needless to say, her statement caused commissioners to sit up and take notice.

Johnson and husband-collaborator and principal geologist Paul Bauer are well known to water engineers, rafting guides, government officials, and well-drillers. They’ve spent twenty years reporting on the hydrogeology of the county. They provided critical data to negotiators of the Abeyta water rights settlement.

I had the chance to talk rocks and water with them over lunch in Socorro, home of New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, where the two have built their careers and considerable reputations.

“We’ve taught each other a lot over the years,” said Johnson, looking across the patio to a row of giant sunflowers. “This is our last report.”  Johnson, who received a Community Service Award from the county, retired in August.

The report was commissioned in 2011 and cost the county $150,000, with an additional grant from the Healy Foundation. Johnson and Bauer estimate a truer figure for their Hydrogeologic Investigation of the Southern Taos Valley would be $600,000-$700,000.

Key partnering with USGS Denver on aeromagnetic, ground-magnetic and gravity surveys and analyses helped defray costs.

From 2011-2015, the team sampled 43 wells, three springs, and discharge from the Waste Water Treatment Plant.

The report is designed to help elected officials make data-driven decisions about development in neighborhoods that include Los Cordovas, Ranchos, Talpa, Vista Linda, Llano Quemado, and Tierra Blanca (the Stake Out area).

At the June commission meeting, commissioners appeared to emphasize different aspects of the data. For example, upon hearing that acequias play a crucial role in replenishing the shallow aquifer, Commissioner O’Donnell commented, “Retiring water rights from irrigation ditches could have the effect of lowering the aquifer.”

Commissioner Blankenhorn, on the other hand, highlighted the rich and plentiful groundwater supply. “These are great aquifers,” he said. Bauer would later tell me, “Taos is sitting pretty.”

Johnson told commissioners, “This area has the most complex hydrogeology of any place in New Mexico. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

What’s going on? Here’s the short and simple of a cautionary tale.

Near Ponce de Leon springs on the north side of Miranda Canyon, three complex fault systems converge. Blankenhorn, in a separate interview, described the area as “the crazy land.” And it is a kind of Bermuda Triangle.

The Embudo faults angle southwest from Talpa through the Rio Grande canyon and across the Espanola Valley.

The Picuris-Pecos system slices through deep basement rocks from Pecos northward through the Picuris Mountains and out along—but deep below—an apron of sediments that fill Taos valley.

The Sangre de Cristo fault marks the massive uplift of this range.

Rock layers span time from 1.7 billion years ago (back when New Mexico was a land of beaches and ocean) to the present.

Their make-up is extraordinarily diverse: deep crystalline rocks, limestones, sandstones, gravels, and more recent basalts (locally called, “lava rocks”).

Each fault system displaces these rock units up, down and sideways. When the systems collide in the Talpa area, the already displaced rock units are further stressed into an off-kilter maze of tilting, fractured blocks.

Now, imagine ground water trying to make its way through all this.

And as it flows, it picks up the particular chemistry of surrounding rocks. The geochemical analysis in this report sets it apart from previous studies.

The study area revealed three distinct—but interconnected—aquifers. Generally, water flows in a shallow aquifer along the valley’s rivers and also down slope from the mountains, and then drains northwest across what the report labels the Picuris Piedmont toward the Rio Pueblo.

  • The most productive water wells in the Picuris Piedmont aquifer are drilled in the valley-fill sediments of Ojo Caliente Sandstone and the Chama-El-Rito member.
  • Below these formations lie what Johnson calls “skanky rocks.” Water from this aquifer tends to be clay-rich and muddy.
  • Deeper still is highly fractured crystalline bedrock, which is where we find the deep confined aquifer.

A “zone of no recharge”—south of Miranda Canyon to the Stake Out—prevents ground water from even reaching the valley sediments. The Stake Out area has good water because it lies outside that zone and within a “hydrogeologic window” that allows water to flow through bedrock.

To understand the deep confined aquifer, Johnson asked me to imagine it as an egg-carton. “It’s like water comes up from below into an egg carton, but then gets stuck in these compartments.”

Water in the egg-carton can be 26,000 years old. Having flowed into the egg-carton from the crystalline rocks, it is super hot and bears a load of metallic elements.

Sometimes, as in the Ponce de Leon hot springs, this water rises through faults to the surface. Johnson and Bauer theorized that “there may be many little Ponce de Leons” out in the valley that never make it to the surface.

As you may have guessed, the “mineral monster” resulted from drilling into the deep aquifer and allowing water with widely different chemistries to mix. Rapid mixing led to rapid growth of what Johnson suspects is the mineral zinc carbonate.

The most vulnerable area to this kind of mixing extends from a few miles east of Rio Grande del Rancho westward beyond the golf course.

Could this happen elsewhere in the county?

“We just don’t know,” said Johnson. The craziness referred to by Blankenhorn could, in fact, “wrap around the base of the Sangre de Cristos.”

What about the regional ground water flow model related to the Abeyta water rights settlement? Johnson was unequivocal: “Groundwater flow models typically don’t consider the geochemistry.” Settlement provisions that call for drilling and developing deep supplemental wells may need to be examined in light of additional geochemical modeling.

Johnson offered this parting advice: “Make good decisions. Maximize what you have. Don’t be bold and stupid.”

 

Cow-pie Birding

Long-billed Curlew photoshopped

Let me say at the outset: Costa Rica it’s not, but birding in a feedlot casts, well, if not charm, then at least, its own piquant “spell.”

To get to Feedlot Road (yes, there’s a road sign and everything), I drive two hundred miles across stunning, snow-capped mountains and veer south onto the nearly featureless western limit of the Great Plains.

Three hours later, at 8:30 a.m., I arrive at the feedlot—a small one, as far as feedlot operations in the West go. Through my binoculars, I watch a cowboy saddle his horse. Since I don’t want to be chased off what is probably private land, I plop on my goofy birding hat, a get-up calculated to ensure I’d be quickly dismissed by anybody who might wonder: Why is a Toyota highlander creeping along a dirt road at 5 mph in Ford pickup country?

Intent behind the steering wheel, I peer right and left for any possible bird movement. I listen, too, for soft cheeps and twips through an open window that also invites the uninterrupted breezes from across the plains. The dashboard gauge registers 28 degrees. Because of the cold, there is no manure smell, though cattle gather at the edge of a greenish-hued pond laced, no doubt, with nitrogen run-off. Recently, environmental scientists report “legacy nitrogen” has been contaminating lakes, rivers and ground water for 100 years. I scan the pond’s edge for migrating shorebirds. None, thankfully. Just dried-out cow pies.

I’m listening for longspurs. A chestnut-collared longspur is not totally out of the question, even in mid-March. They may not all have migrated yet for the Dakotas where they breed in summer. I could catch sight of one. I find myself making bargains, grasping for the straws of some amazing sighting. Whereas in reality, the only bargain a birder might make is this: pure gratitude in exchange for a glimpse of a wild bird or a snippet of its song. I open to the possibility of beauty. Frozen fog drapes the distant mesas. Then, the fluting melody of western meadow larks fills the highlander. In this big land are big, open-hearted sounds.

The road is rutted, but dry. I venture on. Ahead, a large holding tank is perched atop huge sawhorses. Stenciled across it in faded block letters is a single word: AMMONIA. It’s used to fertilize crops fed to cows. Past the tank, the highlander rocks one way, then the other, not unlike the weathered cedar fence posts that teeter along the roadside. Suddenly, a flock of starlings balloons above the lot and undulates in perfect synchronization, folding one way, then the other, finally settling back down onto a heap of …what? A heap of manure; a mound, really, a couple of stories high.

Fields are marked off in strict parallelograms. Miles of telephone wire meet at right angles. A driveway to a ranch house is straight as a compass needle. Two stunted, but symmetrical ponderosa pines mark the entrance. A “No Hunting Within ½ Mile” sign rusts in a tangle of downed barbed wire. No turkeys in sight. A meadowlark pops up on the roof of a dilapidated shed, its bright yellow chest the only spot of color.

Scarcely raising a whisper of dust, a pickup pulls up alongside the highlander. From inside the cab, a black cowboy hat nods and the side window slowly rolls down, “Everything okay, ma’m?” I point to the emblem of a sandhill crane on my birding cap: “Just birdwatching.” The cowboy nods again and the window slowly rolls up.

The highlander backs into last year’s dried sunflower stalks, jerks around. Up flutters a hundred horned larks. Like disturbed bees, they frantically climb air. Two killdeer dart out from a furrow of a newly plowed field, their strident didideeerr out of all proportion to any real bother they have suffered. Through the binocs, I spot a single canyon towhee, its usually rusty underside standing out as a miniature orange flag against the gray backdrop.

Dullness lulls and mesmerizes, and the highlander plods forward, heavy as a cow. I turn right and discover the road is petering out and descending onto the dark blackened ground of the feedlot itself. It’s getting mucky. I could get stuck in here. I glance around for someone to rescue me in the event I need rescuing. In fact, I’m looking for the cowboy I earlier shunned. No sign of him. I can only proceed forward, skirting the shitty muck as best I can.

The highlander leans into an embankment, and that’s when I sense a peculiar jabbing motion along the incline among last year’s broken stalks. Up and down, up and down, like a pump one sees out on the oil and gas fields. But this is no pump; this is a graceful bow of a bird’s beak, like a scythe but slicing vertically and smoothly through the stubble. I count one, two… eleven long-billed curlews, each probing for some delicious morsel hidden in the muck. The curlews are oblivious to my presence. But I note that they are searching for and finding something precious and praiseworthy. As am I.

Brutal Birding 101

 

7

Here we are, an hour into a slow, tough slog through three feet of cold stream water. I’m traipsing behind Jay Gatlin, who’s as sunny and cheerful as a Yellow Warbler. Ironically and right on cue, the warbler’s “sweet sweet so sweet” melody sails across the silent marsh. Jay, who makes a point of involving the public whenever possible in the work of the US Forest Service, invited me to participate in the annual survey for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. She’s the wildlife biologist out of the Camino Real office in Penasco and together with wildlife biology technician, Art Abeyta, heads up the surveying team. It’s already 8 a.m., and we haven’t seen nor heard a flycatcher. Three hours to go. Or more.

Okay, it’s incredibly beautiful, with beaver ponds glittering in morning sunlight and herons and red-wingeds flying overhead, but it’s quickly turning into Brutal Birding 101. I’m wearing my husband’s waders with heavy boots provided by the USFS. With each step, my boot sinks into rich marsh muck. Tangles of vegetation entrap my hiking poles and slash against my face. In contrast to me, Art and Jay appear to move through this environment as effortlessly as river otter. My respect for field biologists soars. I just try to keep up.

Last year, we counted possibly three birds. So far this morning, nada. Up ahead of me, Art halts, switches on a recording of the flycatcher’s distinctive “fitz-bew.” We freeze and listen, hoping to hear the return call of a real bird. Nada. Jay scribbles some notes. We trudge on. Up and down embankments, across dry patches, then back into the dense riparian habitat these birds require for nesting. Again, nada. About two hours later, Jay lifts an arm, points south. She’s heard the buzzy call of the flycatcher, but we’re umbrella-ed beneath willows and can’t visually sight the bird. We bushwhack forward and come to a clearing. And there it is: a non-descript little gray bird perched atop a dead snag, checking out his domain. We’re all ecstatic. “Maybe he’s got a lady,” Jay says in a burst of optimism. But this guy is the only one of its kind we will find today.

 

Field Notes from the Big Lonesome

Ute Mountain-NE flank            It’s all about scale. Start here. Ute Mountain. High desert steppe. Get out of car, set up tripod and camera. Walk around. Repeat. Five miles, four hours later, trip on basalt stone. Land one step short of a bunch of sticks.

HOLA next among basalt

          Startled bird shoots up. What is that! A horned lark. What is in there? Bend over, peer closer.

HOLA upclose egg in nest

          Two eggs, size of marbles. Shooters, that is, not peewees. It’s all about scale. Here’s my report from the field:

          I left the lower canyon at 5:30 a.m., March 29, and drove to Colorado, then turned back toward the state line and Ute Mountain. Call it a personal quest, to flush out the “Prairie Ghost,”  one of the common names given to Mountain Plover because it blends in so well with its bleak (but beautiful) habitat.  Outside BLM contracted surveys, there are only two sightings posted on eBird in the past ten years on what is now Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

            Yes, a needle-in-a-haystack bird. (But wouldn’t it be cool to see a shorebird in the Monument?)

Mountain Plover migrates in late-March/mid-April from California and Northern Mexico to sites on the high plains. So I’d have a better chance of spotting one out toward Lamar, Colorado. (But wouldn’t it be cool to see a shorebird in the monument, or did I already mention that?)

Mountain Plover prefers the same xeric landscape as bison, prairie dogs, and pronghorns. In fact, I spotted eleven pronghorns on the northside of the mountain. But sadly, no plovers.

The big, lonesome landscape belonged to Horned Lark, flitting up from one clump of grass only to dive down in another. I have to say, Horned Lark has an uncanny resemblance to the antelope—strong  facial markings, “horns,” which are actually feather tufts. I could make out three distinct vocalizations, each a soft tinkling.

Among the seventeen species I recorded were Sage Thrasher, its melodious song reminiscent of a Northern Mockingbird; Mountain Bluebird; a Kestrel kiting in the slight breeze above the sagebrush plain.

Later, I drove State Line Road to its dead end at the rim of the Gorge. There I heard a plaintive Say’s Phoebe , a burbling Rock Wren and, like a siren call, the high, echoing tones of a Red-tail. Then came my First of Spring (FOS) sighting of—amazingly enough—eight Violet Green Swallow. I won’t see them near my home for another three weeks.

Out there along the rim, I turned around in slow-mo, like a movie camera taking a panoramic: moving counter-clockwise from San Antonio Mountain to the Bread Loaf Hills (as I call the Pinon Hills on the west side of Lobatos Bridge); and from there to Blanco Peak and the northern tier of the Sangres and down the length of the Sangres to the Questa peaks and on around to a distant Chiflo Mountain in the south.

I entered my list on eBird. First ever bird list posted for Ute Mountain. I guess that makes me a virgin birder.

Chasing Eagles

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, location of today's eagle drama.

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, location of today’s eagle drama.

The Bald Eagle's plumage allows it to blend in with the brown desert varnish of  basalt boulders and dabs of snow.

The Bald Eagle’s plumage allows it to blend in with the brown desert varnish of basalt boulders and dabs of snow.

     Today’s sunny interim (between yesterday’s storm and tonight’s) beckoned, and so my neighbor and I decided to drive through Orilla Verde and along the Rio Grande to see what was up. In a word, plenty.
     Past Petaca Canyon, a commotion barely 100 feet up the canyon wall caught our attention, so I pulled the car to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road. Is that a…..yes, it is! A Golden Eagle was giving chase to a madly flapping raven. What’s he doing down here along the Rio? We watched for nearly five seconds before the tides turned, and the raven, joined by another raven began chasing the eagle. They had just flown across one of those avalanche trails from last summer’s rains when, seeming out of nowhere, a Bald Eagle swept into the midst of the fray and the three-some split off, only to resume their back-and-forth chase.
     Finally, the GOEA landed atop a basalt boulder, giving my friend and me, both of us in a state of shock, a chance to back the car up, turn around, and pull off the road. We located the GOEA on a boulder across the river, who soon was in flight again, gaining altitude in the canyon, pursued now and again by the ravens. The GOEA flew nearly overhead, swooping across the entrance to Petaca Canyon, then back, then up to rim opposite us. Five crows continued the harassment along the rim. Whew!
     In our drive down to the Junction Bridge and back, we were able to confirm five Bald Eagles along that 5-mile stretch of river.
      Perhaps the best Bald Eagle display came on our way back, along the fisher path that leads northward from Rio Bravo campground. We’d noticed the pair of BAEA on our earlier drive through. They were still apparently motionless, still atop their hang-out boulders across from Rio Bravo campground.
     We were walking along the path when they both suddenly took off (we thought we’d disturbed them), but they both began circling over a flock of Goldeneyes, a couple dozen in all. They circled again, swooping closer to the ducks and the river. We dared not move any closer, though we tried for the best view we could from among the willows. I thought, they’ll never circle over the Goldeneyes again because we are right here!
     But they did, at least twice more, both of the eagles, getting very low. The ducks, meanwhile, did not take flight. This was amazing to us, as we all know how skittish Goldeneyes are. They began to move in unison, first to the left about ten feet, then to the right, then left again, sometimes bunching up close together.
     I thought, will an eagle actually pluck a duck out of the water?
     Right then one of the eagles descended into the middle of the flock and plucked from the water a…….fish! I’m watching the eagle carry the fish in its talons overhead, thinking, that’s not a duck!
     The moral of the story….get out and bird!

Notes From A Snowy Field

Photo by Stephen Knox Barrow's Goldeneye takes flight over Rio Grande

Photo by Stephen Knox
Barrow’s Goldeneye takes flight over Rio Grande

A day-long slog December 17 through the snowy drainage areas of Rio Pueblo, Rio Grande, Pot Creek, and Rio Grande del Rancho yielded 62 different species of birds during the eleventh annual Orilla Verde Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Next month, that information will be folded into count data from more than 2,400 count circles from across the U.S., Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands.
Bald Eagles were spotted, powerfully winging their way a mere fifty feet above the Rio Grande, scattering dabbling and diving ducks as they muscled overhead. One rare Arctic visitor—Barrow’s Goldeneye—and a group of unusual Hooded Mergansers lifted the spirits of cold birders. In Ranchitos, Red-tailed Hawks braved the weather, as did a handful of Eastern Bluebirds, who flitted on and off fences, apparently right at home though far off their geographical track.
Contributing to a CBC is one way ordinary people can make a difference to wildlife. And this year, participation was way up: twenty birders from Los Alamos, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, and the Taos area compared to just twelve in 2013. Public lands staff also lent their expertise, including Mary Orr, Wildlife Biologist, USFS (Espanola and Coyote); Jennifer Gatlin, Wildlife Biologist, USFS (Penasco); Cat Luna, Social and Economics Specialist, USFS (Taos); and Valerie Williams, Wildlife Biologist, BLM (Taos).
The CBC is the world’s longest running citizen science project. Smithsonian Magazine reports that Audubon receives three to five requests each week from scientists wanting to use CBC data for their research. Audubon and U.S. Geological Survey scientists have developed statistical methods of analyzing CBC data. Such mega-analyses can allow scientists to spot declines in bird populations before they reach a critical level.
But participating in the CBC is also a fun and rewarding way to spend a day. Wildlife Biologist Gatlin captured the essence of a bird count: “One of the greatest aspects of a CBC is that an entire community of people interested in birds comes together to count birds on a single day. At the beginning of the day you may start as strangers, but end up sharing identification tips, stories, and experiences. You end the day as friends.”