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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Chasing Water With Gabions

Chasing Water With Gabions

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Tuesday, April 16, 2019/Categories: wildlife conservation, video, birds, sustainability, environment, climate change

            Aridland River with Intalled Gabions (credit: USGS)

If you could 'catch water' what might work best? The ancient concept of a gabion is perfect.

Derived from the Italian word for basket or cage (gabbione) the technology was envisioned by Leonardo da Vinci from his fascination of flowing water. The structures combine elements of civil engineering, landscape design, and ecological sustainability. The gabion concept is bascially a simple one, ie. 'design from nature', but when deployed can result in complex environmental consequences. The simple structures are constructed at various opposing locations along a creek, stream, or river and connected to the streambank. They interrupt the flow of water in the stream bed, expecially during times of floods, and slow the direction towards the opposite bank creating pools and ripples in the process.

Before Leonardo's design improvements in the 16th Century, the practicality of a gabion was well understood by native Americans living in the Sonoran Desert of what became New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico. The tribes recognized that slowing water flow during a desert flash-flood was very useful. They wove their structures made from branches of local shrubs. Their gabions retained water during the region's monsoonal downpours. What the indigenous people didn't realize was the structure they had built also re-charged the underground aquifers and provided groundwater for grasses and other vegetation. All this changed in the 19th Century when cattle ranching became common and overgrazing greatly reduced the protective plant cover. During monsoons, flashfloods scoured out the stream beds causing extensive erosion leaving desert creeks in a degraded state now from this legacy.


       Gabion Construction (credit: Provo River Management)                       Restored River Flow with Rock Gabions (FAO)

Gabions are now being re-deployed to restore streams, fisheries, and deplated water tables in many states. They are often installed by local environmental, fishermen, wildlife conservation organizations, or government agencies. One example, from the Sonoran Desert itself, is Cuenca los Ojos a non-profit organization based in Arizona. Cuenca los Ojos shares information on desert conservation including the role of gabions. They generally support any efforts to prioritize environmental and ecological restoration in the desert. Their demonstration projects have shown impressive results.

A clever animation about gabions was created by the Aridslands Water Harvesting Study, the University of Arizona, and NASA's Space Grants program. It illustrates the environmental problem and gabion solution well.

With so many natural water cources degraded now, the use of an ancient "catching water" technology, combined with smart design and contemporary thinking, offers big opportunities for river restoration. Leonardo da Vinci would be pleased.



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