Extract: The U.S. Border Patrol agent was positioned behind a rust-colored vehicle barrier, on the other side of the international boundary line. He stopped when he saw me, bent down and taking a picture of grass. I was examining a tuft of sacaton, one of the several varieties of native grasses brought back to life by one of the largest ecological restoration projects on the U.S.-Mexico border, at the San Bernardino Ranch, located about 12 miles east of Agua Prieta/Douglas.
Juan Manuel Perez, dressed in jeans and a white cowboy hat, wasn’t fazed. Perez, who is originally from Chihuahua, is the foreman of the organization Cuenca Los Ojos (CLO) and in charge of 45,000 acres of restoration projects spread throughout the region. We walked away from the vehicle and into a nearby wash, called Silver Creek, where Perez showed me what was at the heart of Cuenca Los Ojos (which means “watershed of springs” in English) restoration on San Bernardino: an ancient technique of strategically piling rocks to slow down the flow of water across land. After years of mechanized farming, cattle production, and now drought, this once parched and barren landscape could begin to drink again—could again absorb this precious water.
Since the 1990s, the restoration project has embedded galvanized wire cages, called gabions, on the banks and beds of washes. These gabions are filled to the brim with rocks and go as far as 18 feet deep into the ground. At first glance, they have the striking appearance of an intricate stone wall, a contrast to the border barrier just 100 yards away. But instead of keeping people out, they were built to be sponges shaped to the contour of the stream bed and riverbank, slowing the water and replenishing the soil with life. Before they were built, rushing water from monsoon storms would take topsoil and leave cutting erosion. Now, there is water year-round.