By Ben Hale, Aesthetic Ecosystems:
In recent news, there has been significant coverage of California’s struggle with its below average precipitation in the past several years. Yes, they call it a drought.
Governor Jerry Brown and California State Water Resources Control Board have come forward with restrictions on water use, primarily in urban and suburban areas.
People are ripping up lawns.
Landscape designers are drooling (not too much) over the opportunity to redesign so many areas for better water conservation. Many are replacing lawns with cookie-cutter designed ‘xeriscapes’ or ‘desertscapes’ such as this one.
Urbanites are pitted against agrarians saying the other is more responsible.
One recent interview on NPR highlights cemetery caretakers wondering “if cemeteries, particularly for veterans, shouldn’t play by different rules than, say, a suburban lawn”?
And now, there’s a struggle between allowing salmon to spawn and the ability of Bay area residents to drink water that doesn’t taste funky.
This is where I follow up with saying, ‘The end is near!’
OK so perhaps I’m making light of the situation a bit. This is a serious situation. But we have gotten ourselves into this mess. We have been deliberately diminishing our water resources in the western US for a long time.
It’s just that the thought of water scarcity is a bit more evident now.
The good news? We’ve gotten ourselves into this mess, and we can get ourselves out. But it won’t be easy and it won’t be painless. Those in California are already beginning to feel the pain.
But change needs to happen. The current system cannot and was not designed to support itself. We have designed our landscapes and buildings in water sensitive areas with little thought to responsible design and responsible water management.
What is the problem?
Is it nature? After all these years of reliability, it has decided to turn its back on us. Really? Come on.
Perhaps it’s a manifestation of ‘climate change’? Is it that humans shouldn’t live there? How about a design problem? Yeah, let’s go with that.
This is a failure of responsible, conscious design.
Since pre-industrial times the area that is now the state of California has encompassed some very water sensitive areas. By this, I mean that there are some areas where water is not freely flowing within close distance nor falling from the sky on a regular basis.
Yet as the population of California grew, we have adapted nature to fit our needs. We dammed rivers to build up huge reservoirs to supply water. We tapped into ever deeper groundwater systems. We built canals, irrigation lines, and pipelines to carry water across miles, and then hundreds of miles.
Such a precious, necessary resource.
And then supply was no longer an issue. We had all these wonderful systems in place – feats of modern engineering. So we built elaborate landscapes to look like the Midwest and the sub-tropic regions. We established endless acres of plantations fed by massive, intricate irrigation systems. And then we became addicted to our landscapes and dependent upon our farms.
And there is the problem.
We have built systems that treat the fresh water of the west as a vast, endless commodity, assuming that there will always be more available.
The snows would always provide new steady melts each year. The groundwater systems would replenish themselves. And the rivers would always flow from greener lands.
But they aren’t vast and endless. We have drained fossil aquifers that won’t refill themselves for unthinkable lifetimes. We have sucked rivers dry.
This is not the first California drought, and it won’t be the last. In fact, official drought conditions occur about every 3-10 years in California, with various levels of severity. So why the big deal now? As I just stated, we have sucked rivers dry, we have drained fossil aquifers. Our reserves to weather these droughts are diminished. That diminished reserve, combined with the increased draw on the water systems gives us our current predicament.
How much longer can we allow this to continue? It appears that we will allow ourselves to continue this process until no longer economically viable. Yes we are seeing California water restrictions put in place by the government, but they are reductive restrictions. In other words, we are moving from chugging our cup to drinking our cup – while it is only being filled by a slow drip. We will eventually reach the point where any further restriction will no longer ease the situation.
There has been significant debate as to where the blame lies in this situation. The current California water restrictions are only being placed on urban areas. This means lawns, showers, washing machines, drinking fountains. Rural areas are out of scope.
There are certainly two sides to this debate. On the one hand our agricultural system in California ‘feeds the nation’ and has commercial importance, while urban areas only use water for lawns and household use. On the other hand, big agriculture has pressured urbanites to take the toll for overuse of the water systems while they continue unabated.
For example, there is passionate debate around almonds and how much water they use (supposedly 1.1 gallons per nut), with heated defense about how many by-products almond trees produce and how agriculture is the fuel for California’s economy.
Before any tempers get heated here, let’s take a step back.
In rural areas, we have wide open fields where water is pumped – often through open ditches or old irrigation pipes – to massive open wind-prone fields with high solar exposure. There, the evaporation rate is high, and the possibility of runoff is also high. Nut plantations and orchards have trees spaced evenly in isolated row formations with bare, exposed earth between. The irrigation demand for such trees is incredibly high in conventional agricultural design.
Agriculture utilizes 80% of the state’s water supply, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Look, the number speaks for itself. No need to cast blame. Instead, let’s look at this from another perspective. Our agricultural system has a severe dependency on imported water. This is clearly evident for our farmers in California.
Rather than continuing to fight for diminishing resources, we should instead build resilient agricultural systems that can thrive in any climate.
Simply because urban areas only account for the remaining 20% of the state water supply doesn’t mean they’re absolved of responsibility. Not blame. Responsibility. We have lawns in California that are irrigated to look pretty. And then we cut them so they look good. Don’t get me started. Likewise, many plantings are established that are not adapted to the low water conditions of the site. Our in-house water systems are designed for single use before exiting the house to a sewer and treatment system.
If we as a society operated with more foresight and long term consideration, we would realize we are destroying the future of our children and their children for our own benefit today. Sound crazy?
Think of the hurt we’re in now. Now think what it would be like in 40 years if we continue on this same path: you tell your grandchild how you used to eat strawberries and carrots year round from California and Mexico. They ask you where all the water came from. You tell them they used to pump it from the ground and that there used to be a river that filled up a bunch of lakes. Where did it go they ask? Well we grew a lot of food with it. ‘Why didn’t you save any for me?’ …’I don’t know, dear, I don’t know.’
We’re stealing the water from our neighbors and children for our own benefit today.
Altogether, we have a massive opportunity here more than a problem. Sometimes it takes a little discomfort or pain before the need is fully understood. Well consider this our pain. It is now time to redesign the way we live and thrive in water sensitive regions.
So let’s talk solutions.
One word could summarize the solutions proposed here: responsibility.
With more responsible management of our lifestyles, we can not only preserve water resources for future generations, but also rebuild the resources we have taken to yield a system of abundance.
As agriculture is the primary drain on the water resources, let’s first look at solutions with the California agricultural system.
Large-scale agriculture with row cropping of giant monocrops and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is dead. It’s antiquated and naïve. Many just don’t know it yet. Industrial agriculture is being pumped full of support by big ag suppliers as the solution to feed the world, while we massively deplete our soils and water resources. It provides inferior quality foods with poor nutrient content from weak, disease prone plants. It’s a natural biological system being treated as an inert chemical system.
Think of growing a plant like the human body.
We have been treating the human body in a similar way over the past century, looking into drugs that have been sold to us as a universal cure. Take antibiotics for example. First, they were touted as this great and wonderful thing. And they did work wonders for a while. Then they’re overused. Then we begin to realize that the body and the microorganisms living within the body may be very important to overall function. And those antibiotics can greatly disrupt the productivity and balance between the human body and its microbial community.
Similarly, agricultural systems are living systems that are a reflection of the systems they grow within. Derived from a natural state, plants and soils are evolved to live in diverse communities with each other. When you isolate plants from their natural system and disrupt their connection with healthy soils, you end up with disease-prone systems that require heavy inputs to produce a yield. This is our so-called advanced modern system.
There are several sustainable agriculture practices and systems that have been developed over the past fifty years and many others that are rooted in ancient cultures.
“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”
Permaculture is a design science and philosophy that focuses on designing regenerative systems with minimum long term inputs and maximum sufficiency and yield. It is more of a mindset and a systems understanding rather than specific tools and tactics.
For those of you that may think it isn’t practical, profitable, or applicable to California – think again. This is a proven system in more climates than conventional agriculture. Regenerative systems have been established in some places for thousands of years, providing a yield year after year. And permaculture models are in place for profit already.
Permaculture systems are built to work with the land, ecosystems, and soil.
Rather than being a system of extraction, permaculture builds resilience. Resilience builds diversity. Diversity yields abundance. Abundance yields surplus. There is always a return into the system to allow it to regenerate and rebuild. Such systems have been established in nearly every climate, from cold climate to desert climate. So if you’re thinking we can’t grow without irrigation in California, think again.
For an example of cold climate systems, check out the work of Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design in Vermont. In short seasons, he has produced large abundance. More info here, and this TEDx talk:
Permaculture agricultural systems have been built for profit here in the US. The key is diversity and multiple systems of yield. Check out the work of Mark Shepard of New Forest Farms in Wisconsin. Mark has multiple yields each year. To name only a few: chestnuts, grass-fed beef, pastured pork, apples, mushrooms, cut flowers, peppers, and hazelnuts.
From a 2012 interview with Grist news site: “[Shepard] believes this approach will be crucial for farmers facing the unpredictable, potentially destructive weather of the future. ‘This summer was the driest on record in our part of Wisconsin and we had the finest cattle and hogs we’ve ever had,’ he says.”
But California’s dry. There’s no way that would work in California.
Check out these swale systems implemented by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s outside Tucson, AZ, where the average yearly precipitation is 11.8 inches:
These swales are passive earthworks that increase water absorption into landscapes and support soil health and plant growth. Here is a view of these same earthworks in Google maps, compared to the surrounding landscape. Swales are just one tool that, if used properly, can help form the backbone of a well-designed and water-conscious system.
Permaculture teacher and designer Geoff Lawton has proven time and again that permaculture can build resilient agricultural systems in incredibly harsh landscapes. Geoff designed one project in Jordan, one of the most water stressed regions in the world, with less than 4 inches of rain annually in this location. If abundance can be achieved here, it can be achieved in California.
Here is a video teaser on the results of Geoff’s Jordan project:
These systems are proven, they are abundant, and such system design is ready for widespread implementation. We must educate ourselves, think long term, and build resilience into our agricultural systems.
Agriculture in California will eventually die without regenerative systems design.
Here’s what will happen if we don’t change how we produce food in California and other water stressed areas:
- Fossil aquifers will continue to be drained until they cannot be used again for hundreds of years or more.
- Rivers will continue to be sucked dry in the region.
- Water will be pumped over hundreds of miles at great expense.
- Water rights will become a major politically and economically divisive issue.
- It will no longer be economically viable to support conventional agriculture in California
- Farmers will look elsewhere or we will become dependent on foreign systems.
- The land will be stripped bare, salted, and desertified.
And here’s what will happen if we do change to a resilient permaculture model of agriculture:
- Water will become less of a scarcity issue and a more available resource
- Natural systems will be returned to the land, including rivers
- Farms will produce a wide variety of perennial and annual yields for greater year-to-year stability
- Systems will be designed to fit the needs of the region, not the other way around
- We will become less dependent on the high labor and highly variable yields of annual crops
- We will become more supported by low input and steady yields of diverse perennial and annual systems.
- Soils will become healthy and support higher nutrition in harvested crops
- Pest problems will be reduced
- We will become less dependent or independent of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides
- Erosion will be reduced
You get the picture.
Permaculture requires thoughtful design up front, coupled with initial work to implement systems appropriately. The long term payoff is witnessed in the above examples and resources. By Ben Hale, Aesthetic Ecosystems
40 million people, including the folks in Los Angeles, depend on its water. Read… Water Crisis: Lake Mead, Largest US Reservoir, Faces Federal “Water Emergency,” Forced Rationing
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