Texas Tech University

Arid Assignment

By: John Davis 

‘In the Field’ Host describes desert research project in first-person tale of sweat, sun and water sampling.

close up of lizard beneath a creosote bush
A lizard seeks the solace of shade beneath a creosote bush on the Air Force's Barry M. Goldwater Range – East in Arizona. Photo by John Davis

Jagged shards of stone crunch underfoot as we stride along the trails of the Sauceda Mountains on the way to a tinaja called Thanksgiving Day Tank.

This natural water catchment sits tucked away in a wash about a mile from where we parked the truck on the Air Force's Barry M. Goldwater Range – East in Arizona. At 11:30 in the morning, we're late, and we're paying the penalty with a hike that increasingly tests endurance with the passage of time. The temperature climbs to 115 degrees, and not a single cloud hangs in this sky.

Just a vulture.

Kerry Griffis-Kyle, an associate professor of wetland ecology in the Department of Natural Resources Management, explains as we trudge along how these natural water catchments make life possible for the animals of the desert. At the moment, only we, a few bighorn sheep and the Africanized honeybees are out in the sun. However, the desert is far from a barren moonscape.

Most all of the animals are biding their time waiting for the sun to go down. The photographic evidence on the game cameras attest to that. Once the sun drops, they're off to drink the water and hunt some food. Maybe even mate.

small pool of water in rock filled with tadpoles
Hundreds of frog spawn have hatched inside this small pool of water at the Air Force's Barry M. Goldwater Range – East in Arizona. Desert amphibians must develop rapidly before tiny tinajas such as this dry up in the sun. Photo by Kerry Griffis-Kyle

Life is everywhere. Watching us, probably. Wondering why humans do such dumb things.

“This is one of the most extreme environments on the planet,” Griffis-Kyle says. “I mean, it is really amazing here. Now you know why we try to come out here earlier in the mornings.”

Centuries of flooding events have washed a seven-by-five bowl out of the stone. The water is about five feet deep, and its presence keeps the desert fauna around it alive for months after the rainy monsoon seasons subside.

Griffis-Kyle and her two graduate students, Demi Gary and Joe Drake, take samples from water that's covered with a thick carpet of duck weed. It looks swampy, and a dead pigeon bobs on the water. Clouds of the bees take water back and forth to a hive hidden somewhere in the crags, so we slow when we approach the pool.

Evidence of droppings and a young desert bighorn killed by a mountain lion speak to this puddle's importance. Gary and I perform tests to check for ammonia with gear similar to pool testing equipment. We write down the results and laugh as the scent of the dead lamb wafts back into our shaded makeshift lab on a Hadesian breeze that offers no relief.

“Man, you just never get used to that smell,” she says, slightly gagging. “That's a good thing, though.”

man and woman testing water on back of white pickup truck in the middle of the desert
Demi Gary, right, and Joe Drake test water samples taken from a manmade catchment on the Air Force's Barry M. Goldwater Range – East in Arizona. Researchers are trying to figure out how the chemistry of the manmade water traps compare to the natural tinajas. Photo by John Davis

It's hard to impart what Sonoran Desert heat feels like in July. Texas comes close, but doesn't quite compare. Some suggest standing in front of the oven with the door open. That can create the same feeling to, say, your face. But the confines of an air-conditioned suburban home cannot recreate the total emersion of this relentless experience.

Add the lack of any humidity. The atmosphere is a vampire drinking up all your moisture faster than you can replace it. The heat can almost invade your soul.

As we walk, I constantly check myself. Complex thoughts are difficult and sometimes muddled. Surprising vestigial survival cognition springs into action. I will have imbibed about two gallons of water when we're finished filming in about two hours. Hot, stale, life-sustaining grocery store water.

We pass countless creosote bushes and 30-foot-tall Saguaro cactus, and I start to appreciate the tenacity of the early settlers of the town of Ajo, about 20 miles to our south. I wonder at the incredible endurance of the Native Americans who carved out a living by hunting and gathering in this hostile landscape. Life and death were and still are based on smart decisions. They both live around each curve in the trail. The desert shows no mercy. It waits for mistakes.

mountain lion standing beside a manmade catchment at night
A mountain lion slinks down to a manmade catchment on the Air Force's Barry M. Goldwater Range – East in Arizona. Below the cat's tail, a toad's eye glows in the dark. These water sources are important to all types of desert animals.

We also notice evidence of human trafficking. Mexican blankets lie abandoned in the dust. Plastic candy wrappers with Spanish branding turn to ash in the sun. Empty bottles stashed among the rocks make me question if their owners made it out alive. They, too, come to the watering hole and leave evidence. Perhaps they were sustained in the same way as the desert animals.

“If we see anyone, we have to report it,” Griffis-Kyle said. “So, keep an eye out. We don't approach them or talk to them. That's what the extra water is for. We leave that for them because, by the time they make it this far up, they're in trouble.”

Griffis-Kyle explains as we go how land managers in the '40s observed the natural tinajas and how an abundance of animals used them. Wouldn't it be wonderful, they thought, if they created something similar to increase game animal numbers?

These land managers began laying rectangular concrete basins that caught monsoon rains. They designed them to stop evaporation and hold the water for long periods. All sorts of desert animals took advantage.

three dear drinking from a manmade catchment
Three deer stop for a drink at a manmade water catchment on the Air Force's Barry M. Goldwater Range – East in Arizona.

Then, several years ago, Griffis-Kyle had an opportunity to check the chemistry of the manmade catchments and compared them to the natural tinajas. She found surprisingly high concentrations of ammonia inside the manmade oases compared to that of the natural basins formed in the mountains. While not much is known about the effect of these compounds on mammals, the wetland ecologist said, she knew that they were toxic for amphibians who would want to use these waters to mate, reproduce and stay alive.

Now she and her students are collecting samples of the water chemistry in both natural and manmade catchments. Prior to the hike to the Thanksgiving tinaja, Drake instructed me how to take a swab of algae from the manmade catchments, and I put my hand into water humming with dying bees and collected a sample.

horizon at sunset. silhouettes for cacti
The Sonoran Desert at sunset

“Do it for science,” I thought as we filmed the scene.

Griffis-Kyle surmises such chemical differences are caused by the way the natural tinajas and manmade catchments are created and trap water. When it rains in this rocky desert, the ground doesn't readily absorb what falls, and flash flooding occurs. As water runs down and off the mountains, it fills the basins. Evaporation occurs, dead animals and plant life may fall into the water and rot, and that pollutes the natural watering hole same as the manmade one. But while it may turn foul in between rains, eventually the “toilet is flushed” with the next rain, rinsing out any accumulation of ammonia.

The manmade catchments are shallow, rectangular concrete basins with corrugated metal roofing placed close to the top to prevent evaporation. When it rains, they never really flush out like their natural counterparts. Griffis-Kyle explains organic matter accumulates, decomposes into ammonia, which in turn kills off bacteria that aid in keeping the water clean. This accumulation of ammonia in catchments was unexpected and unfortunate as the levels of ammonia also harm aquatic organisms like tadpoles.

“We're hoping to find out what is going on so that we can build better water catchments,” she said.

As my photographer and I leave for a redeye out of Phoenix in the morning, ominous clouds gather in the mountains and the night sky strobes with lightning. The summer monsoons have come again, and the scientists prepare for possible deployment. If it rains, they'll go out after and collect the water.

Perhaps then, they'll have their answer.

Subscribe to “In the Field” on YouTube or like Texas Tech Research on Facebook to see this season on “In the Field.” Watch Life on the Devil's Highway, the two part “In the Field” story on the wetland ecology research taking place in the blistering Sonoran Desert, end of November 2016.