[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.”
Read more about Mark’s farm here and here.
But California’s dry – way drier than Vermont and Wisconsin. 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
I think 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.
As we solve the design challenges of modern agriculture, we can also look to our cities for responsible water-conscious redesign.
Across much of the United States the majority of homes, buildings, and properties are designed poorly from a water and energy efficiency perspective. Here, we’ll just be focusing on the water efficiency.
I have already written on the benefits of responsible stormwater management in previous posts. These posts contain a wealth of information on this subject that I would recommend reading if you haven’t already had the opportunity. I will try not to duplicate too much here for the sake of reducing your eye strain.
Step 1: Building interior.
The interior of most buildings are designed with the expectation that water will always be available. That is, they were designed with modern central plumbing entering the building at one location, and a sewage plumbing line exiting the structure at another. It is a one-way system with one entry and one exit point, just like a human digestive tract. Clean stuff in, dirty stuff out.
Such a design obviously has its hygienic benefits and rightly so. However, this design is also predicated on the assumption that water is abundant and expendable. Not always so, as we are seeing.
So how do we adjust our design process to better preserve our water resources without compromising hygiene, utility, or convenience?
An example of a greywater system: Sink drain water is used to flush urinals
First, we utilize water as many times as possible in our systems. Any water that goes through a faucet often needs to be as clean as possible if there is potential for it to be consumed. But beyond the sink, we can design systems that take once-used, relatively clean water and recycle it for bathing or toilet use.
After passing through the dish drain or shower drain, the water is drained into a receptacle for toilet use. Care would need to be taken that large particulates do not enter the drain, but otherwise this effluent should be able to fill toilets through gravity feed or pump pressure. This stage of the reuse cycle has already been successfully implemented in many households across the world.
The reuse of previously used water to flush toilets can save a significant amount of water in a structure. This reuse of a lightly used water for another purpose is often referred to as ‘greywater.’
With our chlorinated municipal waters, it is quite possible for us to look into other ways to repurpose once-used water in the household. If it is used for general handwashing, what is the risk to use the same lightly soiled, lightly soapy water for showering or dishwashing?
Think about it. We pipe clean, drinkable water into a device. Into this device, we drop our depth charges, follow with some TP, and add some liquid ammonia. Then we send the wonderful mix on its way to a treatment plant (if it doesn’t overflow into a creek – yes that really happens in storm events).
Yeah. It’s gross. But let’s face it. Even if you’re in a region where there’s 40” of precipitation per year, this is kind of a waste. Right? Come on. But we also do the same thing where there’s 10” of precipitation per year. So what can we do?
I think it’s time we get creative here and come up with some robust, simple designs for handling sewage and processing it into something beneficial for the environment. I’m not claiming to have the end game solution here with this, but I think it’s possible.
We can safely land on the moon. I’m sure we can safely land a deuce into something other than water.
One of many types of composting toilets
My first thought here is the composting toilet. They have come a long way in the past few decades. I’ve used one before. They may take a bit of getting used to, but they work. And with some the end product is clean enough to throw in your garden.
I know, eewwwwww.
Now that it’s out of our system, let’s think practical.
Composting is the process of breaking down organic material into reduced, bioavailable nutrients. Hot composting eliminates pathogens. This would of course be imperative in a system where the composted human waste were used as an end product on the property.
Again, I don’t think we’re quite there with composting toilets for widespread and safe use, but I think we are getting close.
Next step, we can use collected rainwater for use inside the building. For households, this water can be used for showering, handwashing, or toilet use. Pretty much anything except ingestion. Of course this rainwater could even be ingested with appropriate treatment.
The beauty of an outdoor shower can be natural or refined, open or enclosed
In California, we have the advantage of a warm climate for outdoor shower use. These outdoor showers can use collected rainwater that can even be heated with a passive solar water heater. Once used, the shower water percolates into the responsibly designed landscape to nourish the local plants and replenish the local aquifer.
In large multi-story buildings we can also use such water to our advantage. Because of the additional height, when water is collected at the top of the building we have built-in water towers that can feed into the plumbing at lower levels.
Using greywater in the landscape is already a common practice that has been well developed and accepted. This Old House even aired an episode is San Francisco back in 2012 where they installed a greywater laundry system with slow drip irrigation (skip to 2:35). In my book, if This Old House airs it, it must be official.
The most beneficial systems for the landscape have staging areas in the landscape that help filter any toxins or foreign materials before entering the main landscape area. For example, greywater still has trace chlorine from the city supply which is toxic to plants. There are small particles of synthetic fibers from laundry, and leached toxins from fabrics. All of these can be filtered by certain plants that are especially adapted and resilient.
Large buildings can also use greywater to feed the surrounding landscape. The installation of such systems is worth the initial design input by allowing a passive irrigation to the landscape.
Step 2: Building Exterior
The building exterior does not exactly require the use of water, but can be an asset for the collection of water and percolation of water into the landscape.
Similar to the interior plumbing, exterior surfaces of a building are designed with the assumption that water is abundant and endlessly available. What I mean is that buildings are designed with the intent of protecting the interior from the elements and shedding water away from the building as quickly as possible.
Instead, we need to design our buildings in a way to utilize their advantages. Built structures have a large footprint where plants do not grow. Thus, they have a large surface area where water can be collected and sent to the areas where plants do grow.
Again, much of this was already covered in previous posts – look at the urban stormwater mitigation post – so I won’t cover it in too much detail here. This article is already way longer than I anticipated.
The roof can serve two functions.
First, it can be used to collect rainwater and hold it high, where it will retain potential energy and have increased water pressure at lower levels. This water can be used for the plumbing, as mentioned already, or can be used to irrigate the landscape.
Rather than allowing the water to run into the landscape or sewer as quickly as possible during a rain event, its kinetic energy is turned into potential energy and allowed to percolate more slowly to maximize intake and efficiency.
The second option is to install a vegetative roof or ‘green roof.’ These systems likewise allow retention of rainwater and reduce overflows from the landscape – maximizing absorption. Green roofs also have added benefits to the building by providing a cooling effect in warm weather and an insulating effect in cold weather.
Additionally in some areas, building roofs are being converted to green retreats – designed as an aesthetic getaway area or as a vegetable garden area. These designs add an additional function of a pleasant experience to a formerly unused space.