Ahh, winter…as I write a new snowfall is adding to the remains of the 29″ record-setting blizzard from a couple of weeks ago. As the temperature rises and falls, I squelch or crunch across the lawn in my daily walks to the compost bins. The hugelkultur project is on hold for the moment, but I know it will be muddy work once the ground will take a shovel again. But glory be, there is no, repeat no water sluicing off my front hill, carrying precious crumbs of topsoil and minerals with it into the stormwater system. The rudimentary swale, cut-ins, and baby rain-gardens in my front yard are indeed holding the water. First step, achieved!
I’ve been writing a great deal about the what of this ongoing project – the general goals, the tasks – but I haven’t really dealt with the rationale behind it. When conventional wisdom once was – and in some areas still is – to channel stormwater off one’s property and into the municipal stormwater system using pipes, concrete swales, and other high-speed conveyance systems, why am I looking to hold as much of it as possible on my sometimes slurping, squelching, swampy property?
Several reasons….reasons which are becoming more urgent as science discovers more about the planet’s supply of groundwater.
First of all, there’s the environmental impact of stormwater. Because stormwater systems are not filtered, they receive all the pollutants of the surfaces the water crosses: pesticides, herbicides and nutrients from gardens and lawns; salt and oil from parking lots; litter and assorted other debris, the works. It all goes rushing unchecked down into the stormwater system and out into the nearest waterway, often with a massively toxic impact on the aquatic ecosystem. Where several waterways converge, each with its own toxic load, the impact is doubled or tripled.
Case in point: I visited one of my favorite streams after heavy storms, and found it covered with viscous orange sludge from concentrated nutrients in the water…fertilizer that had run off from suburban lawns a mile or more away. And floating in the sludge, a dead frog with ugly skin lesions, overcome by the toxic load. That in itself eloquently illustrated the impact of unfiltered stormwater.
But there’s a larger reason to cherish and manage – partner – the stormwater.
According to a November 2015 article in the CBC News, a new Canadian-led study has found that the groundwater that many people depend upon to supply their aquifers and wells is a non-renewable resource that quite possibly may run out:
In fact, just six per cent of the groundwater around the world is replenished and renewed within a “human lifetime” of 50 years, reports University of Victoria hydrogeologist Tom Gleeson and his collaborators in a new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience today.
You read that right: six percent of the earth’s groundwater is replenished within 50 years. And meanwhile Peabody Coal, Nestle, fracking companies nationwide, and other industrial “harvesters” of water are pumping it out of aquifers and rivers, untold billions of gallons every day. Towns across the U.S. – most famously in California – and elsewhere suffer from drought, while the pumps keep working and the companies deny responsibility to the communities they are victimizing.
And the picture grows bleaker yet: a newly published study, coupled with a pair of NASA studies, indicate that between global warming and growing global demand, the world’s water supply is dropping to dangerous levels.
Quoting the Common Dreams article releasing the news: “The water table is dropping all over the world,” Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at the time. “There’s not an infinite supply of water.”
Grim as the news is, there are answers: stopping clearcuts for development and “resource extraction;” rebuilding ecosystems; managing grazing to restore streams and wetlands; bringing back beaver to their once-native habitat; and capturing and conserving water on urban and suburban properties to minimize runoff.
It’s a secret that’s been known since Greco-Roman times, and has been taught for decades by experts such as Brad Lancaster (urban water conservation) and Craig Sponholtz (rural dryland restoration), and most particularly Michal Kravcik, author of A GLOBAL ACTION PLAN FOR THE RESTORATION OF NATURAL WATER CYCLES AND CLIMATE, which he describes below at the Biodiversity for a Livable Climate conference at Tufts University in November, 2015.
And this is just barely scratching the surface. It’s really a question of managing – yes, partnering – the water, wherever we are, as overabundant as it may seem. Because when the dry days come – whether in the heat of summer, or in the deeper potential of long-term drought hanging over us all – the systems we establish now to conserve our stormwater will become a lifeline.