The Thirsty Buffalo

Photo: the rogue buffalo walking through Otwell’s campsite.

By Bob Otwell, FLOW Board of Directors

This past spring my wife Laura and I travelled to the Southwest to camp, see new sights, and leave the snow behind. We stayed at two very nice state parks in the Texas panhandle, with hiking trails through canyons cut by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. At Caprock State Park, there exists a large, free-ranging buffalo (bison) herd. These buffalo are descendants of the last members of the wild herd that used to roam the prairies and numbered 30 to 60 million animals in the 1800s.

On our first evening, we were walking to the restrooms at our campsite, and a huge buffalo stood in the way along a narrow trail. We backed up slowly and went elsewhere. When we came back to our campsite, this buffalo was standing next to one of the nearby water spigots, with the water on full blast. He would put his face in the water, and just enjoy it cooling his body as he rotated around. After about 30 minutes, he wandered off. Being the good water conservationist I am, I then walked over and turned the water off.

First thing in the morning, I went to the park headquarters and told them the amazing story of this creative bison. They laughed, and said that this is not uncommon, and in the summer, sometimes several of the spigots will be on all night, and drain their reservoir down to empty. The buffalo wiggle their bodies against the T-handle valve lever until the water turns on. Say what? What clever, resourceful animals. And the humans? Not so much.

This part of Texas utilizes the nation’s largest aquifer, the Ogallala (High Plains) for drinking water, industry and agriculture (irrigation). The Ogallala serves eight states, and water levels have dropped over the years, down as much as 150 feet in Texas. Water levels are dropping because the water is being utilized at unsustainable rates. The groundwater is not replenished by annual rainfall. Canyon, Texas, a small city near the head of the canyons, and a former home of the painter Georgia O’Keefe, is part of a larger study that is looking at ways to reduce water use to preserve this important aquifer.

Well, to help out, it took Laura and me about a minute to come up with a solution for Caprock State Park: replace the T-handle water valve levers with round ones the buffalo cannot open. But this little solution does not address the larger problem: many folks, including state employees, have their heads in the sand when it comes to solutions that will prevent future catastrophes like running out of water. Unless people in the West start seriously restraining  their unlimited development and deal with declining water levels, they will soon be eyeing our bulging Great Lakes to solve their self-induced problems.

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