The Carson Slough once drained Ash Meadows like the Mississippi drains the Midwest. It wound about on a curvy, tortuous course, forming oxbows and overflow areas, which in turn created marshlands. This caused Ash Meadows to be the largest wetland in Southern Nevada, at 5,600 acres.
Tens of thousands of migratory birds stopped, rested, and refueled at these wetlands, every year for eons. And over those eons, these wetlands also created tons and tons of peat.
Peat forms in swamps, bogs, marshes, fens, and other wetlands, where water doesn’t drain efficiently away. The stagnant water deprives dead plants of oxygen, and this keeps them from decomposing completely.
Suppose you put a dead guy named Pete in a hermetically sealed, plastic bag. Oxygen would not be able to reach his corpse, and poor old Pete would never decay properly. That’s what peat is.
Sphagnum moss is one of the most common components of peat, which anyone can appreciate. After all, moss is one of the most common plants we see growing in swamps. But any plant will do, as long is it can’t completely deteriorate, due to a lack of oxygen.
Because peat consists of old, dead, non-decayed plants, it makes an excellent fuel. Human beans have been harvesting peat for hundreds of years, and burning it just like coal. In fact, peat is often the first stage in the formation of coal.
Back in the 1960’s a rancher drained the Carson Slough for the purpose of getting to all the peat that had formed for millennia. He mined the peat and sold it to those who wanted to burn it for fuel. And this is how one of the greatest, lushest, wetlands in the American West was destroyed, for peat’s sake.
After he’d mined all the peat out, he sold his now desiccated land to Spring Meadows, Inc. They filled in the empty peat bottoms, by bulldozing nearby sand dunes into them. They then used their bulldozers to straighten out Carson Slough, converting the ancient winding streams into straight, concrete ditches. And they also constructed several reservoirs in Ash Meadows, called Crystal Reservoir and Peterson Reservoir.
Spring Meadows, Inc used this newly-created irrigation system for large-scale ranching and farming. But in the process, they reversed hundreds of thousands of years of wetland formation, by straightening out Carson Slough and its adjoining tributaries. Now very little wetland remained for migratory birds that relied upon this oasis on their journeys south and north.
Today, only a small fraction of the birds that once frequented this area, bother to stop by. The ecological devastation is mind-numbing, and we are left with only our imaginations, when we wonder how Ash Meadows appeared for most of its long life.
This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 12: New City. Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.