Some thoughts and ideas on the new style guzzler “the rain catcher”

May 20, 2019

By design there are significant differences from the old style guzzler and the new one. The new design is a purpose built wildlife water source as opposed to the old-style which is essentially an agricultural design. The rain catcher system is designed to fit properly on a flatbed truck or airlifted by helicopter in a proper manner. It is also by intent a low maintenance system that will not suffer freeze damage during the winter. All in all it's been a great success with many examples installed throughout the Southwest. While there is a long list of successful design elements in the rain catcher system in this discussion I want to focus on its overall integration into the environment. This of course encompasses a wide range of topics. One could cover the placement in the habitat, soil conditions necessary for installation, orientation to the sun and so on. The focus of these thoughts will be on the microscopic environment and other health benefits and differences between the old and new system. This discussion will be largely speculative and descriptive with many unanswered questions.

Like so many things in the natural environment it’s hard to know where to start. In this case we will start at the water collection system. The old agricultural system that consists of a tank and float valve systems usually relied on a small dam to backup water in a Canyon or ravine then it directed that water by a pipe to a series of tanks. The new system has what is referred to as a rain mat. This rain mat consists of a heavy gauge rubber that at is approximately 30’ x 100’. The difference between these two systems are significant. The old system would only collect water when there was sufficient rain to have run off. Due to the absorbent quality of most terrain this required a large amount of rain in a short period of time. It also meant that the tanks were filled relatively quickly when they were filled. With water that was from a turbulent flow, thus this water was somewhat opaque when first collected. The new system will put water into the newer tanks even with slightest amount of rain or in a rapid manner depending on the type of rain. So one of the differences that one could consider between the old and new system is that the old system may have provided some useful minerals derived from the strata that the rain has run off from.

So now let’s take a look at the two different types of holding tanks and their effect on the overall type of water these systems system deliver. The old tanks collected water that was somewhat opaque and held this water in almost complete darkness. From years of experience I can tell you that little if any algae grew in these tanks and after the water had settled it was clear enough to see the bottom of the tank. The old tanks of course were above ground and this meant they were subject to variation in temperature. These are most notably seasonal temperature changes. These above ground tanks would get very cold during the winter and during the summer would probably reach temperatures above 90°F. No doubt this has some affect on the microbiology in these tanks. The environment of the newer tanks is quite different the runoff they collect has no contact with rocks soil or sand. The runoff they collect is relatively pure water with the exception that it contains some sheep droppings from sheep walking on the rain mat. No doubt most of the sheep droppings are sterile from their exposure to sunlight and dry air. Without a doubt their are times when fresh droppings are washed into the tank by rainwater. With these fresh droppings there is a representative population of the intestinal microenvironment of the sheep that produced them. What portion of these microscopic life forms can live in the new style tank I believe is currently unknown. Another thing to consider the sterile dry pellets on the rain mat will break down and eventually add some of their biomass of half digested vegetable matter to the underground tank environment. Here they will find an environment that is dark but not completely dark and is temperature stable. The portion of the water that is exposed to sunlight rarely if ever has direct sunlight on it due to the artificial rock designed to provide shade and thus reduce algae growth and evaporation. However this allows enough sunlight for a small amount of algae to grow sometimes along the water’s edge. The fact that these tanks are buried underground allows them to have a very stable thermal environment. Just what the temperature is and whether or not there is a thermocline I don’t know, but I think it is worth investigating. All these things make for two very different microbial environments in these tank systems.

Now let’s consider the way the animals access or drink the water and the effect of this in the two different microbial environments of these tank systems and ultimately the type and quality of water they deliver.

First let’s consider the end results of the old agricultural style guzzler. When the sheep would drink from what is known as the drinker box it would added it’s saliva to what could best be described as a dead bee soup. As far as I know all of these drinker boxes ended up with hundreds if not thousands of dead bees rotting away in this small volume of water. Of course the new drinker system also attracts bees but far fewer die in that water. When the sheep would take a drink from the drinker box it would lower the water level enough that the float valve would allow the water under pressure from the tanks to enter and refill the drinker box with water filled with whatever mineral nutrients came off the land. Depending on the season this water may be very cold or very warm. So it is these drinker boxes had their own very active microscopic environment that is separate from the tanks, “the water storage”. The effects of this is unknown except to say that I have never heard of any negative or catastrophic situation derived from this source. Just what effect it had in the internal biology of the bighorn sheep that drink from it is also unknown. Though it could affect fertility the choice of plants used for food, or perhaps quality of winter coat and so on. All of these could swing 10 or 20% to the positive or negative and we would never know it, given the state of our understanding.

Now let’s discuss the situation with the new style guzzler, “the rain catcher”. Of course like the old agricultural system when the sheep drinks the water it delivers a certain amount of it’s saliva to that water. In the new rain catcher system however whatever microorganisms that are delivered to the drinking water from this saliva can access the entire water storage system. The water in this system is different in that it doesn’t have any the minerals that the old agricultural system might have had but it does have the biomass from the few sheep pellets that wash into it from the rain mat. In effect it has a micro biological exposure from both ends of the sheep. Delivered into a temperature stable environment with a limited exposure to sunlight all this in a way that can affect the entire water storage.

While there are many questions that need to be answered about the rain catcher system it is vastly superior to the old agricultural system such that nobody that knows these two systems would ever think of going back to the tank and float valve system. Indeed I believe that the rain catcher system has attributes that are yet to be recognized utilized and explored. At first I thought the introduction of fecal matter into the drinking water would been categorically a bad thing, however modern science is showing otherwise. Indeed there are medical procedures even done on humans where fecal matter is transferred from one person to another to cure diseases. The microscopic population in the intestinal system is complex with thousands of different microbes that can determine the overall health of the person or animal that they live in. We have in the rain catcher system something that we can conduct experiments with and gain knowledge.

Here are a few ideas that might be considered. One of the unique elements of the rain catcher design is it is usually installed in pairs. This allows a very unique situation where you can have a side-by-side comparison of the drinking habits and preferences of the desert bighorn sheep. For instance if we divided the rain mat and fenced off one of them the sheep could stand on one and not the other. So one tank would be free of fecal matter and the other would have it. In all likelihood the sheep would be able to smell and taste the difference between these two different water sources. The use of trail cameras and satellite telemetry would leave no guesswork as to their preference if they had one. We can also test the water and see what was is difference if any in the microscopic environment.

Another possible side-by-side experiment that could be done is to have one side unfenced allowing for fecal matter to enter the system. Then fence in the other rain catcher and add commercially available minerals formulated for sheep and goats which usually has selenium and copper in them. Another possible experiment to consider is that many swimming pools these days use salt to stop algae growth as opposed to chlorine. So it may be possible to come up with a recipe of salts and minerals that will sterilize or mitigate the fecal matter issue all the while providing valuable mineral to that sheep population. There are places where sheep are all already drinking from swimming pools the effects of this type of water should be looked into. Even with a fenced rain mat some fecal matter may still get into the system because the animals drink their water on a ramp that will allow from time to time some fecal matter to get into the water. With such an experiment we can see the effects the water with or without minerals and with or without fecal matter had on the desert bighorn sheep’s preferences and well-being. This would give us greater insight into the preferences and benefits of natural water sources. And perhaps shed some light on the survival and distribution of various meta-populations. The

One of the possible outcomes of these experiments is utilizing the rain catcher system in places that seem to have plenty of water but not the kind of water the rain catcher system can provide. Sheep populations that live in habitat that have clean cold running streams and crystal-clear springs may lack the minerals and microbiology that the rain catcher system can provide. Another thing to consider is the fact that the rain catcher has a growing popularity and is installed to benefit other species so the knowledge acquired about the microscopic environment that the rain catcher provides to desert bighorn sheep could be of enormous benefit to other species. While much of this is speculative and unknown we have the ability to acquire this knowledge, and knowledge is power.