Amid ongoing drought, water catchments across Arizona help keep wildlife alive

According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, in the 1940s, sportsmen built water catchments in the desert in an effort to stabilize wildlife populations for hunting and fishing.

More than 80 years later, the department now maintains hundreds of these catchments, filling them with millions of gallons of water every year, but they are doing so with a different purpose in mind: to keep wildlife in Arizona alive through the drought and dry monsoons.

Maintaining the catchments is no easy feat

The road is one less traveled, long, and rough.

"We have four water trucks and a couple of trailers," said Joseph Currie, Habitat Planning Program Manager for Arizona Game and Fish.

Currie says the water trucks use desert roads to haul water to wildlife every single day.

"We've been hauling water literally from April of [2020] all the way through now," said Currie.

Water deliveries increasing

Currie said in 2020, Arizona Game and Fish transported 2.4 million gallons of water to catchments, and might surpass that number in 2021.

"Most of the desert animals have evolved to be able to to drink very, very little free water, but when the free water is available, they'll use it," said Currie.

Video provided by the Arizona Game and Fish shows bobcats enjoying the catchments, and there are also photos of coyotes, deer, elk, and birds surviving because of the water.

"On this one, it's super easy because we are able to back right up to it, so I'll just pull a length of hose off, hook it up to the back, and we pull the valve and fill it up," said Currie.

Not all catchments are the same

Catchments can vary in size.

"This is 24 foot wide by 96 feet long, collects rain water, and so, the average rain water would fill this system one and a half times if we get our average rain precipitation, which we are not," said Currie.

Water hauled in by the trucks is released onto a collection apron, which is like a metal roof where precipitation gathers into gutters.

"In that gutter, there's two pipes that leads to four tanks that we are standing over right now, so there's a big hole below us with four 2,500 gallon tanks in it that store the water for the wildlife throughout the year," said Currie. "Drain all the water out of this, it will run down the apron to the gutter, and it will equalize into the drink."

Program can be costly

The program doesn't come cheap. Hauling 1,700 gallons of water in a truck within 100 miles of Phoenix costs $1,000, and there are about 300 catchments statewide.

"A normal year, we will spend probably about $250,000 on helicopter cost. [In 2020], we did half a million in helicopter cost, so that right there just gives you an idea of how expensive this can be and how record-breaking last year was, and we didn’t have much relief from the monsoon and again, we're in a dry, hot summer again," said Arizona Game and Fish spokesperson John Trierweiler.

Trierweiler says a helicopter delivers water to remote catchments trucks can't reach. He adds that the department doesn't receive tax dollars, and is self-funded, primarily through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. That us why donations are literally the difference between life and death.

"This is life-saving water for these animals," said Trierweiler. "It's hot out, it's dry out, we know how intense summer here can be, so when people step up, it really helps us make sure that we can get this."

While the catchments, especially the newer ones, were designed to fill themselves one and a half times, rainfall is not at normal levels, as Currie noted, and that is why the hauls are more important than ever.

Arizona Game & Fish - Send Water

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