Against a current
Aguirre has spent more than a decade of his civil engineering career using modern stormwater management methods. His textbooks and his degree from the University of Illinois taught him how to manage water with a pipe, a channel and a hole in the ground. He described his career as “intrinsically connected to the land”, and this connection, along with his agrarian roots, led to many deliberations in the back of his mind. He felt responsible for leaving the land he worked with better than he found it.
In August 2010, he became a father and these deliberations came to the forefront of his mind.
Aguirre imagined a conversation 15 years in the future in which his son asks him if he benefited from being able to do something about the degrading environment.
“Looking at the designs I had, which are now being built, and the impact they have on the environment,” Aguirre said, “I didn’t like the answers I was giving…for this conversation with my son.”
Aguirre relegated his knowledge of textbooks and turned to another teacher: Mother Nature. He studied how nature configured the water cycle and how humans existed and were part of mineral cycles, eating and drinking from the earth and returning nutrients as wild animals do today, before the onset of the industrial revolution in the 1700s.
“So with this discovery, I realized that we were going 180 degrees against the tide,” Aguirre said. “And the more we fight the principles of nature, the more degradation we create.”
In his research, Aguirre discovered holistic land management, which uses controlled grazing techniques to work cooperatively with ecosystem processes. It was started by Allan Savory, founder of the Sale Institutewho grew up in South Africa loving the environment and despising livestock because he believed grazing damaged the land.
As a young biologist in Africa, he worked to set aside land to become national parks. In the 1950s, the conservation lands he surveyed in Zimbabwe continued to deteriorate and he concluded that there were too many elephants for the land to support. His superiors confirmed his research.
“Over the next few years we shot and killed 40,000 elephants in an attempt to stop the damage,” Savory said in a statement. TED Conference 2013. “And it got worse, not better.”
He described it as “the saddest and biggest mistake” of his life.
Savory was determined to find solutions. He traveled to the western United States, where livestock had been removed from the land to demonstrate how it would stop desertification. But he said he found the opposite.
Savory came to understand that the vegetation lost in these expanding deserts had developed over thousands of years and adapted to the large herds of grazing animals migrating across the landscape.
Aguirre attempts to address these same issues in the southwest, explaining that land degradation has been caused by the lack of migratory animals caused by urban expansion that reduces and limits animal populations.
When a fence is erected, said Grant Tims, the Aguirre ranch manager, the land is left unused.
“So in arid climates, it’s the rest that’s the problem,” Aguirre said, as Savory witnessed in Africa. “Where most people think it’s overgrazing.”
Aguirre connects “the health of the land to the health of the human body”, comparing land degradation to muscle atrophy in people: a sedentary lifestyle will cause the body to deteriorate.
“You don’t stress the earth with hoof action, you don’t stress the earth with animal impact,” he said. “That stress will actually cause a positive response.”
Aguirre approached the Savory Institute after the 2013 TED talk with a new concept for connecting civil engineering and holistic land management. In 2014 he traveled to Zimbabwe to see Savory’s work for himself.
Aguirre visited a small stream with big implications. For the past few decades, the creek had been ephemeral, meaning it only flows after the rains, but local villagers had transformed the creek through holistic land management.
“For me, as a drainage engineer,” Aguirre said, “it just amazed me that seven out of nine villagers who signed up for this program were able to restore watershed function to the extent that the streams were functioning. again, on a perennial level, and reversed 40 years of fleeting flux.
Soon after, Aguirre became the director of his own Savory Hub in Arizona, now called the Drylands Alliance for Addressing Water Needs, where he teaches holistic land management practices. His goal is to transform his desertifying homeland, halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.
“It’s…my personal BHAG (Big Bold and Hairy Goal) as a drainage engineer is to bring that level of watershed function back to the Arizona and Southwestern watersheds and beyond” , did he declare.
Aguirre presented the idea of using land management instead of concrete and steel to address water resources to WEST Consultants, who welcomed the idea.