Alvin and Eddie Dunn work to conserve water and grow healthy grasses for livestock and wildlife on their ranch.
Alvin Dunn and his wife Eddie Dunn, who is a retired Ballinger schoolteacher, own a ranch that has been in their family since 1902. Over the years yhey have worked tirelessly to conserve water, whether in times of drought or times of plentiful rainfall. They don’t have to go to extreme efforts to help out the water situation on their ranch that is 10,000 acres spread out over four separate locations. Their investment of time and effort is rewarded with a ranch that has a continuous supply of water year-round, regardless of climate conditions during the year.
To address the drought conditions, Dunn took matters into his own hands, “We started clearing brush within 50’ of every fence and creek on the ranch.” He had to address the issue while considering several factors, “In 2004, we were clearing fence lines and the brush was obviously a big problem. I told Eddie that we had to do something about it. So we took down the mesquite trees and brush along the fence, along Valley Creek and we cleared brush in other areas as well. When you clear the brush you have to leave some kind of cover for the wildlife. Once we cleared the fence lines and other areas the grasses grew tall and strong and now we have good grass on almost every area.” As we travel the ranch there are many areas with Bermuda grass that is well over 2’ tall. They are lush, green areas because when they were receiving little rain they were able to make the most of it without brush siphoning off every ounce of water.
As most any rancher or ecologist will tell you, strong grass improves a watershed. The roots of the grasses help carry down the water from the surface and add to the watershed. As the grass grows taller and the roots grow deeper, the water is transferred down from the surface more efficiently. Dunn says that the problem with brush is that the roots are often shallow and can affect a large area, “Brush will sap water 20’ out into a field or pasture. Clearing it along the fence line helped save some of the water further out into the pastures and cropland. That is especially important when you’re growing crops like cotton and wheat. Clearing that brush along the fences helped the cotton growing in the fields.”
Dunn looked to the state and federal government for help and insight but in the end he only accepted the help from the state, “The feds wanted to do it (clear brush) their own way and that wasn’t going to work for me. The state wanted 80% canopy left and I could accept that so they came onboard in 2009. We left pecan, ash and elm and cleared all of the mesquite along Valley creek and fences.” Fourteen years after he started clearing the brush on his own and 9 years after the state stepped up to help there is strong grass growing strong in mesquite thickets and other areas around the ranch, even with the 80% canopy left.
Their work has been a family endeavor for the most part, “It’s me, my daughter and two farm hands and we do all of the work. We use four-wheelers and sprayers to do most of the work. We sprayed the brush but we called in James Kirk to clear the mesquite from the fences and creeks. Clearing the mesquite helps the trees we want to keep such as the ash and elms.”
Another bonus of having good grasses is that they help stop erosion along the arroyos on the ranch. Dunn says the effect of clearing the brush along one creek was seen within a few weeks, “We didn’t have any water in that creek except in three places. Within 90 days of clearing that brush, we had water flowing in it.” That water started flowing years before the recent rains. Dunn had water flowing on his ranch when other ranches were enduring dried out stock tanks. Since 2007 they have only had to spray twice. Dunn points out that the cost was not as prohibitive as some would expect, “It costs me anywhere from $17 to $20 per acre to spray it. The upkeep isn’t nearly as much work as originally clearing the brush was.”
Dunn used a holistic approach, reading the land to determine the best way to deal with challenges, “The old timers say that conglomerate rock indicates water so when we ran into some conglomerate, we dug wells and found good water from some underground springs. We only have two springs on the ranch but with them and the water we conserve, they are more than enough.” Clearing the areas the way Dunn does creates several benefits in addition to conserving the water, “Clearing along the fence line created fire breaks. When we cleared out the brush from the trees in the thickets it removed fuel for wild fires.”
Fighting brush, other undergrowth and mesquite is an on-going operation, especially in the areas he has livestock, “Cattle will eat mesquite beans. When the beans pass through their system and end up in the cow manure the beans grow into mesquite.” He keeps a constant vigil on the areas and works to head off issues before they can become problems. The grass grows strong along the creeks and in the mesquite thickets with the brush having been removed and provides a nutrient-rich food source for his cattle and wildlife to graze on, “You have to manage your grass just like you do your budget. Growing good grass for your cattle saves money and having good water for them saves money.” On a creek up by his house, he built a small spreader dam to help with the water and the area has held water ever since.
Dunn’s water conservation efforts aren’t just limited to the pastureland and cultivated fields, he takes that approach to the house he and Eddie share, “My house is on 100% rainwater. We built this home in 2001 and it’s been on rainwater since the first day. If a water bill is $100 per month, then we save $1200 per year by solely using rainwater.” Using the $100 as an estimate shows that over the 17 years since constructing the house and going to 100% rainwater, the Dunn’s have saved over $20,000. At an average cost of $17 - $20 per acre to clear the brush, an average of $18.50 per acre shows that with that $20,000 Dunn saved on a water bill he could use that money to treat over 1,100 acres of land. The state’s help with clearing the brush was limited just to the Valley Creek area on his land. The cost for all of the other work came solely out of his wallet.
The Dunn’s have also reclaimed other areas of the ranch and grown strong grasses on them, “We had an old caliche pit. We weren’t using it and it was just sitting there. We brought in some top soil and spread it over that old pit and planted grass.” As we look at the area, the grass is like the grass on other areas of the ranch, strong with a deep green color. Ironically, the water line for the city runs right through their ranch, “The city got the land via Eminent Domain and put in that water line,” Dunn points out.
Dunn says that the couple also donated 21 acres to the Los Arroyos Gun Club, “We donated it on the condition that they allow the 4H to use it as well as allowing the police department to use it for half the rate.”
Dunn is 69 years old, a Vietnam veteran who served with Charlie company, 187 Airborne and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. He’s a member of the Rotary club and chairman of the board for the appraisal district. The Dunn family continues to work and keep the ranch cleared of brush and undergrowth. The recent rains coupled with their water conservation efforts over the last few years mean that the Los Arroyos ranch will have water for a long time. They will face the next inevitable west Texas drought already ahead of the game.