By E. Dan Klepper
In dry West Texas, these simple, artificial catchments can be the difference between life and death for wildlife.
Frog Canyon, a remote and sometimes soggy whelping ground for families of the amphibious kind, meanders steep and wide through Big Bend country. Within the sliver of the vast Chihuahuan Desert called Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, scrubby canyons such as Frog appear often and endless and run in every which direction. Off to its side, just east of the Texas bite of the Sierra del Carmens, lies one of its pretty little unnamed feeder drainages. The drainage is visited more often by wildlife than many similar draws nearby. It is exceptionally popular with mule deer, javelina, scaled quail, black bears, butterflies and, yes, frogs, because it offers up something that most desert draws of its kind cannot: a year-round water supply. The source is neither a seep spring nor a desert tinaja (natural rock cistern) but a bunker-like invention with a solid name to accompany its weighty visage — “Cement Guzzler.” Old “Cement” was constructed in 1953, according to the date inscribed in lead pencil just above its highest water line. The guzzler, consisting of a fan-shaped platform of concrete that channels water into an underground box cistern, replicates nature’s inclination to focus and collect rainfall.
The box has a holding capacity of approximately 1,000 gallons of water, and a good frog choker (a heavy rainstorm during the desert’s monsoon season) is all that is needed to fill the cistern to overflowing. The backside of the box cistern opens to the sky and is accessed by three descending concrete steps much like old-fashioned storm cellars. As the water disappears, wildlife can continue to drink by stepping down into the box. Water guzzlers like this one are excellent examples of the way humans have mimicked nature to benefit wildlife. The guzzler, a boon to both public and private lands, capitalizes on nature’s propensity to capture, conserve and release precious water wherever it’s in short supply.
While the concept of the catchment and storage cistern system has been around for thousands of years, the installation of guzzlers specifically for wildlife began in Texas some time in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Since the early construction of “Cement Guzzler” and others like it, the design and distribution of water guzzlers and water catchment systems have improved and increased. They are essential components in West Texas wildlife management areas where, above all else, access to water is the key to encouraging healthy wildlife populations.
No one seems to know exactly how these artificial water catchment systems came to be called guzzlers, but it seems likely they were named for their ability to drink up as much water as possible whenever it becomes available. Guzzlers come in a variety of configurations and their designs are determined primarily by the landscape. Slickrock guzzlers take advantage of natural drainage gutters incised into exposed limestone along steep terrain. A small concrete dam is built below the slickrock to slow the water’s progress and a pipeline is installed to feed the water to a storage tank below the dam.
“The profile of a good drainage for a slickrock guzzler would be someplace that is not too terribly steep,” explains Tom Vanzant, Black Gap wildlife biologist, “and doesn’t have too large of a surface area for gathering water. Otherwise, the dam could be washed away by the runoff of heavy rain.”
Often, in places visited frequently by fragile or dependent wildlife populations, several guzzlers are installed to ensure that water continues to be available if one guzzler malfunctions. Repair and maintenance are big considerations in guzzler design. Maintaining a guzzler may include removing built-up soil, leaves and debris that clog pipes leading to storage tanks. Metal catchment boxes and float valves attached to some guzzlers tend to need replacement every so often. But typically, the modern-day guzzler is simple to construct and maintenance-friendly.
Ease of fabrication and maintenance are especially important attributes when guzzlers are placed in extremely isolated areas, such as the top of a mountain. “Air-mobile” guzzlers, created specifically for hard-to-reach places, are constructed from prefabricated support panels. The components are delivered to the remote site by helicopter and assembled on location.
Ground-level water catchment systems, which incorporate trenches, fill material and anchored synthetic fabric, have also been employed to conserve rainwater in arid regions. Inverted umbrella catchments, sometimes referred to as “trick tanks,” are equally effective and use less space. A metal, upside-down umbrella is mounted above its storage tank to catch the rainfall.
For simple yet precise plans and a corresponding materials list to build a guzzler, contact the TPWD office in Alpine at (432) 837-3251 and ask for booklet No. 7100-32, “Water for West Texas Wildlife.”
Regardless of the design, a guzzler’s success depends primarily on its ability to provide all wildlife — large mammals and tiny songbirds alike — with a thirst-quenching swig.
“Some of the early wildlife studies in the Southwest showed that sometimes animals will go into a natural water catchment and, because of the nature of the formation, will not be able to get out,” explains Vanzant. “This information influenced the way we thought about guzzler design. Even with the early cement cistern-type design like Cement Guzzler, animals were sometimes hesitant to enter the box because it blocked their side vision and prevented them from watching for predators. So we have learned to be careful about how we design guzzlers and where we place them. That’s one reason we started building what we call the ‘conventional’ guzzler.”
The conventional guzzler is basically an upside-down roof, approximately 20 feet by 20 feet, constructed above a slope with a gutter running down the middle that channels the water into a storage tank below it. One or two troughs, or “drinkers,” fitted with flotation release valves, are connected to the storage tank farther down the decline. The “floaters” regulate the release of water and gravity provides the flow. The drinkers are typically shallow, round metal basins with easy access for both big slurpers and little sippers.
“Goat Camp Guzzler,” located at Black Gap Wildlife Management Area and a stopover site on the Gap’s self-guided driving tour, is a prime example of the conventional guzzler. To see it in action, turn south at Marathon on U.S. 385, drive for 40 miles, then left for 18 miles on FM 2627 to the Black Gap entrance. Pick up a tour brochure from the little metal box at the entrance and continue down FM 2627 to see selected sites. A permit is not required for the driving tour.
Originally built more than 30 years ago, “Goat” has been retrofitted with new panels and a metal framework. It is a popular site for humans and wildlife alike and its drinker has been known to serve up something more than a just cool, wet draught.
“We put a camera on it during one of our bear studies,” Vanzant recalls, “and were able to capture photographs of a bear cub lying down in the drinker and taking a bath.”