From drought to deluge: an ecological approach to California’s water crisis

November 8, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Dry creek bed in California. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change is the greatest threat to human civilization and a major driver of droughts, floods, fires, food system collapse and economic destabilization. Basing our infrastructure on fossil fuel technology that is imposed upon rather than in harmony with the natural environment, we have created and exacerbated all of these crises. Most importantly, while we need to reduce consumption, we also need to fundamentally change the way we interact with each other and our planet. It is imperative to realign the needs of civilization with the sustainable management and regeneration of Earth’s natural processes.

Water is one of the greatest indicators of how far we’ve strayed from designing so much of what we build and shape to be regenerative of our environment.

In California we especially need to rectify our relationship to water. The state has been experiencing one of the greatest droughts in its history. The agricultural industry is at risk, and groundwater and public water supply regulations now affect millions of people throughout the state.

While the media focuses on larger-scale challenges, small-scale, implementable solutions seem absent from the discussion. Small-scale solutions are beautiful because they often address both drought and flood problems. With one of the strongest El Niños on record developing in the Pacific, California may see a massive deluge this winter. It could be damaging if we don’t prepare now. On the heels of a multi-year drought, flash floods and the inundation of dry, crusty soils will be especially damaging.

A sensible relationship with water is a key factor that has been missing from the management of our landscapes over the last 100+ years. The development industry thought of water as a negative that needed to be drained away lest it destroy our structures and cause flooding. This mindset must end.

We need to think about the water crisis within the context of runoff. Since we have built towns and cities with a "drain away" design, we have created our own drought. If we crunched the numbers about how much storm-water drains away from buildings, roads and farmlands, we’d be shocked by the volume of water we cause to flow away from where we need it most – water that, as it runs off, actually increases the risk of flooding.

Managing storm-water in ways that maximize its infiltration potential within our landscapes is the key to all of this.

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Rain gardens filled with storm water infiltrating into landscape where we need it most. Photo: Erik Ohlsen.

Putting it into perspective, last year in Sonoma County (where I live), we had about 20 inches of rain, or roughly half the average rain we get in a “normal” year. But 20 inches is still a lot of water! One inch of rain over 1 acre is about 27,000 gallons. One inch on 1,000 ft.² of roof yields approximately 635 gallons. In a 20-inch year I still have tens of thousands of gallons of water coming off the roof of my house, and we still have millions of gallons flowing through our rural, suburban and urban communities. We can use this water. 

Water-Catchment and Flood-Mitigation Planning  

Here is a step-by-step process for designing water-catchment and flood-mitigation plans for your property.

  1. Assess your drainage needs – Identify areas where you need to drain water away. Water can damage houses, roads, pathways and other built structures, which all need good drainage.

  2. Design your storage system – Decide if catchment is right for you and identify the best locations for tanks, ponds or cisterns. Once drainage and storage locations are identified, they become the basis for your entire water management plan.

  3. Develop a water infiltration plan – dentify opportunities to allow water to sink into the soil. Think of the side of roads, in landscapes, farmlands, pastures, forests, parks, and other areas where there is no danger to structures. Usually there are more places to let water infiltrate than we realize.

  4. Be smart about your design – Be purposeful when planning infiltration systems in the landscape or on the farm. The best ideas are usually those that integrate other needs like food production. Strategically locating elements where they can perform more than one function and work in symbiotic relationship with other elements will increase energy use and yields. Successful design needs to adapt to the constraints of your soil, climate and topography.

 Water needs to be the first element designed into any system. By integrating water into all our developments and all future planning, human and ecological systems will thrive.

The best place to put water is into the soil, which has a phenomenal capacity to store it. Think of soil as a water “battery.” It can hold an incredible charge. We just need to charge it up safely. We can immediately implement solutions that will store literally millions of gallons of water per year. You can do it too! 

Water infiltration techniques that manage water across landscapes – often called “earthworks” – offer a variety of ways to shape and grade the soil to fulfill multiple functions and uses. Whether its contour swales, rain gardens or terraces, the appropriate technique needs to reflect the ultimate goals and design of the space to achieve good function, stability, safety, environmental health and aesthetics.

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Water harvesting swale intercepts surface water flow and spreads it across the land on contour. Photo: Erik Olsen.

Harvesting water is vital, but we have to design for flood protection too, and that requires a smart drainage system.

A big source of flooding is the enormous amount of manageable stormwater running off our landscapes, houses, roadways and agricultural soils. This quickly inundates low-lying land because it has nowhere to infiltrate. With no water being absorbed in the upper reaches of the watershed, an enormous volume of water floods into our creeks and rivers.

We need to turn our built environments and our agricultural lands into water-catchment, water-absorbing systems. With an ecological design approach, we can actually drought-proof our communities and reduce the threat of devastating floods at the same time.

Water is the basis for life. So let us ensure that the waters of our planet run free and clear for all living things. If we want a viable future for our children and grandchildren and security for ourselves in the here-and-now, we must fundamentaly change our relationship to water.

Erik Ohlsen

Erik Ohlsen is a licensed contractor, Founder and owner of Permaculture Artisans (Ecological farm and landscape company) in Sonoma County, California.

Tags: California, California drought, drought, water