Although California, and specifically Los Angeles, has been in a major drought for the last 3 years (and in reality, much longer than that), it is only recently that government agencies and the public itself has stepped up efforts to manage water in a sustainable way. The problem has been portrayed as simple problem of supply and demand: California has only so much water, and we are using too much of it. Of course, the reality is much more complex and nuanced. Luckily for us, however, the solution is quite simple: for California to truly become water sustainable, we must first focus on regenerating our water ethic and our water ecology.
To understand where we are now, we must also understand where we have been. In the last 100 years, California’s water landscape has changed dramatically. California today has over 1,400 dams on its rivers, impeding the natural flow of its waters. Large canals and aqueducts have changed the course of water flows by thousands of miles. Rivers & streams in urban areas have been laid over with concrete and converted into storm drains designed to move water out of our cities as quickly as possible. Most drastically, Californians have lost their connection with water. Ask the average Angeleno where their water comes from, and rarely will you find someone who knows that LA receives water from three major sources: Northern California rivers, the Colorado River, and the Owens Lake (now completely dry). These vast water infrastructures allow Californians to consume immense quantities of water, but more devastatingly, prevent water from re-entering our ecosystems and refilling our aquifers.
This extractive water landscape contrasts greatly with the landscape of California prior to European invasion. Indigenous Californians, of which there were hundreds of thousands, consciously managed their natural resources, so that their civilizations could flourish for the 20 millenia that they did. In their civilizations, water was honored and respected, as many European invaders would recount later, such that life would flourish in their midst. Early European invaders marveled at the life of California, where flocks of bird would “rise in a dense cloud with the noise of a hurricane” and herds of 200 & more antelopes would browse the meadows. The richness and diversity of California’s ecology and culture sustained a tremendous density of life, which is why California is considered a World Biodiversity hotspot today (California is home to nearly 3,500 species of plants, 60% of which are found nowhere else on Earth).
To restore California to water (and cultural, spiritual, & economic ) abundance we must reach back to the Water Ethic of the Indigenous Californians, but apply it in modern and relevant ways. To start with, we must understand a few basic concepts:
– water is necessary for all life
– water is always borrowed, never owned
– water loves to flow
– water increases with use
– unused water flows down
Water is very dynamic, powerful, and graceful. In ecosystems, all life depends on water for diverse uses. Water is used for hydration, cleansing, digestion, elimination, formation, and more. In all of these transformations water is flowing. Water loves to flow. When water stops, it stagnates, rots, and putrefies. Counter to modern thought, the more water is used, the more abundant it becomes. In today’s dry water world, water is used very little. Think about the water in your shower. That water flows down from the Sierra Nevada range, where it is then stored behind a dam. From their, it will travel hundreds of miles to LA, after being pumped over the Grape Vine using as much energy as a nuclear power plants produces. Once over the mountains, it will travel to your home and to your shower. Before the shower water gets hot, several gallons will be poured directly into the drain, along with what is used for showering. From your shower the same water will then travel dozens of miles to a sewage plant near Venice Beach, where after being processed in a very energy intensive way, it will be ejected into the ocean. Ironically in this system, large amounts of water are consumed, but very little water is used.
In contrast, water in an ecosystem is used hundreds, if not thousands of times every mile it travels. Rain falls to the ground and collects into a pond. A plant in the pond soaks up the water and gets eaten by an animal, who later urinates on a tree. The tree transpires the water into condensate which then falls back to the ground as rain, where it is soaked up by fungi, which feed it back to a tree. Each use slows the water down, preventing it from reaching the final destination of the ocean. Each slowing allows water to accumulate, to become more abundant. As more water accumulates, more life can be supported, which increases waters use (which increases its abundance,), and so on.
For modern civilization to become sustainable, our communities must mimic the systems of nature as communities of indigenous people once did. Instead of unthinkingly and disrespectfully consuming water, we must begin to utilize it to the maximum. Imagine your shower once again. What if the water from that shower came from rain harvested from your roof (or your neighbors roof)? What if that shower water, now enriched with organic soap, then flowed out to a garden, where it fertilized a fruit tree? What if that fruit tree was planted in your front yard where you and your neighbors could share its harvest?
Water is a beautiful resource. It can be as generous as it can be harsh, and it is up to us to bring that generosity out. All we need to do is develop the correct Water Ethic: the understanding and humility to use it with respect.
How do we then translate this Water Ethic into practical solutions for our homes and communities?
We start by observing. During the next decent rain, put on some warm clothes, grab an umbrella and step outside (a camera might be helpful too). Witness the flow of water on the land. Look at your paved surfaces and notice the direction the water flows as in runs into these dense surfaces. Go into your garden and see how water is acting with your soil. Is there runoff over your soil? Dig down into the earth and see how far the water is soaking in. Remember that any water you can see flowing down is not being used. It is moving on to a different space to see where it can be useful.
Walk around your house and look up to your roof. Do you have gutters? Where do those gutters lead? Are there drains moving free, pure rainwater off of your property and into the street?
Look for areas where water is pooling. These are low spots in the landscape where water is getting trapped. If the pool is occurring in a hardscaped area, you will want to figure out how to prevent the water from reaching that low spot. If the pool is occurring in soil, that is a good indication that the soil in that area is compact and not letting water soak in.
All the water you have just observed is being underutilized. Now that you have observed the flows of water on your land, you can take steps to retain that water and bring it back into the flow of your home ecosystem.
Now it’s time to introduce you to some of the tools for water consciousness. This will just be an overview of a few basic tools, of which we will go in to more depth in later articles. Remember when using any of these tools, that water is a very powerful force and should not be taken lightly. If you are dealing with large quantities of water or run-off, you will likely need professional guidance to ensure safety.
Soil is the number one tool for the water harvester. When soil health is poor, it is usually compact and hydrophobic (meaning it repels water). However, when soil health is high, soil becomes water’s lover. Rich soil accepts and soaks in water that would otherwise run off. Once water is in rich soil, rich soil holds onto water longer in dry periods. Rich soil slows down the movement of water, keeping water’s flow long and healthy and creating water abundance. Rich soil also contains the Earth’s natural irrigation system: fungi. Fungi can move water from moist areas to dry areas (and nutrients along with it).
Improving soil health is not difficult but can take time. When working to improve soil health, it is best to look to nature for the proper methods. Imagine a forest: tall trees, small bushes, a variety of animals, insects crawling, and microbes inhabiting the soil. How does this forest improve the health of soil? Trees drop their dead leaves and also shade the soil from above to conserve moisture. Animals of every kind eat foliage and convert it to microbe and nutrient rich manure. Deep rooted plants break up compact soil and open up channels for water to move down. Insects eat leaves and other insects and their manure falls to the ground. At the smallest level, microbes break down all materials to their smallest portions and feed them back to plants.
Imitating these natural processes will lead to a soil as healthy as that of a forest. At The Growing Home, we make use of abundant materials such as municipal tree trimmings, horse stable bedding, and manure from our own animals to create fertility. We also plant a variety of flowers and large seed-producing plants which attract bugs and birds who bring free manure into our garden. Each year our soil becomes healthier and healthier.
Anytime soil is exposed to sunlight, it heats up and water in the soil starts to evaporate. To keep water in soil, water harvester’s use an insulating layer called a mulch. Mulch is any material that is laid down on top of soil to keep water in and build health in the soil over time. Wood chips are the most common mulch material (and they are also freely available in urban areas), but other materials such as straw, wood shavings, compost, and gravel can also be used. Laying down a wood chip mulch 3 to 4 inches deep over all garden pathways will prevent evaporation and build up soil health steadily over time. When the wood chips have decomposed and the soil is visible again, refresh with another 3-4 inches.
Remember those areas where you found water pooling during your water observation? Those existing depressions are points where water is already collecting, and you can increase the effectiveness of these areas to harvest water by creating an infiltration ditch. An infiltration ditch is exactly what is sounds like: a hole in the ground where water can collect and soak into the soil. Practically speaking, it wouldn’t be very nice to have holes all over the garden, so instead we fill those holes with materials that will allow water in while also building up the soil. A simple method is to fill the hole with trimmed tree branches and then top the hole off with wood chips.
Swales are one of the most powerful tools in a water harvesters toolset. A swale is simply a long narrow ditch which is totally level along its length. Swales are used to capture and distribute water in a landscape, allowing that water to soak slowly into the ground. Swales are best used in areas with large amounts of runoff, such as a large slope, a concrete patio area, or a rooftop. These large hard surfaces don’t absorb any water, and shed it off to downhill areas. These areas are where swales are best used. Determining the location, depth and length of a swale can be a little complicated, so we’ll save that for a later article.
Water is one of our many mothers on this Earth. She cools us, cleans us, and nurtures us in many ways. If we can learn her ways and learn to respect her, we can restore life and vibrancy to our homes, our lives, and our planet.