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Arizona Ranchers Use Prison Labor to Construct Erosion-Prevention Dams

Whitewater Draw near McNeal, Arizona is a unique desert wetland with a shallow lake that hosts thousands of Sandhill Cranes and other water fowl. Water comes to the 600-acre wildlife area from the mountains that ring Sulfur Springs Valley. However, the water tends to arrive in the form of infrequent monsoons that cause heavy erosion of the surrounding ranchland.

Four local ranchers, under grants from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, have been working for three years to install numerous rock dams on their ranches to help prevent soil erosion. The dams were built using prison labor.

The rock dams are typically 18 to 24 inches high and eventually get covered with sediment, losing their effectiveness. Rancher Jack Telles of the Double U Ranch in Gleeson used 66 tons of rock to build 53 dams at different sites in a long wash on his property with a little rock left over for future repairs. The dams collect sediment and create small pools of moisture that help grasses grow, reduce erosion of topsoil and improve the quality of grazing for livestock.

Rancher Ruth Evelyn Cowan of the NI Ranch in Tombstone said the project was simple and inexpensive, but difficult due to weather and equipment failures. However, using three teams of prisoners, her rock dams were eventually completed.

“They work harder than volunteers,” she said of the prisoner workers from the Arizona State Prison Complex at Douglas.

Dennis Monroney of the 47 Ranch in McNeal said he was able to use an Arizona Department of Agriculture grant and prison labor to build 496 rock dams at active erosion sites on his property. He noted that the best time to build the dams is in June, when neither frost nor ice can affect them.

One has to wonder if the prisoners who are constructing the dams think that June, with its scorching heat, is the best time to be laboring in the Arizona desert.

Sources: Wick News Service, Douglas Dispatch

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