(Perma)Culture and Sanity


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Permaculture and Water in the Arid Southwest

Water Shortages—Real or Imagined?

Often the single most limiting factor concerning any resource is simply our limited way of thinking about that resource.

Regarding water, we can make great positive changes in the amount available to us simply by deciding to think of water as a valuable resource instead of as an engineering problem (or worse, as a convenient toxic waste disposal medium).

Turning a Resource into Pollution—Rube Goldberg on Drugs

For instance, viewing water as an engineering/disposal problem, we use guttering on our roofs to direct it away from our homes and into storm sewers or nearby streams (where it causes problems with excessive flow). Then—remembering too late that it is also a resource essential to life—we build elaborate systems to pump water back toward the same homes for consumption.

We use great quantities of water, polluting it in the process, then release it back into rivers where it will be used by towns downstream... or we use leach fields to soak it into the groundwater that we then (expensively) pump back into our own houses to drink! A country friend of mine referred to this type of activity as "shittin' in our own mess kit" (a 'mess kit' is a set of cooking utensils)—a humorous and crude way of putting it, but also quite literally accurate.

Rainwater Can Be Used Productively

Gift From Heaven

4,000 gallon thin-shell ferro-cement cistern built for $160 in 1998.

Instead of treating rainwater as a disposal problem, we can choose to see it as a gift and accept it graciously.

A simple way to do this is to use guttering and earth shaping (i.e., diversion ditches, dams, swales, etc.) as harvesting devices to gather valuable rainwater and runoff into storage in cisterns, ponds or in the soil.

The very pure water that falls in quantity on the roofs of buildings can be collected, stored in cisterns and used to supply those same buildings with water.

Water, Water Everywhere

In fact, 9,000 gallons per year fall on a 1,000 square foot roof with 15 inches of rainfall (400,000+ gallons per acre annually).

Even after it falls onto the ground, rainwater runoff moving over the soil's surface can be captured by swales (long, shallow on-contour ditches) to feed plantings of useful and/or ornamental trees. Swales also help replenish underground aquifers to help keep creeks and wells flowing. Rainwater runoff diverted into ponds can be used for irrigation, growing fish or even simply for enjoying the beauty that water embodies.

A Drink for the Soul

Cistern turned lily pond

Enough Water For All (If Used Wisely)

A common misconception is that if everyone caught the water from their roofs and properties, waterways might dry up. Under natural conditions however, thick organic mulches slow runoff water's movement so that most of the water is allowed to soak into the soil, feeding trees and replenishing groundwater. Healthy runoff rates are below 20% of rainfall, as opposed to the 85% or higher runoff rates prevalent across much of the Southwest today.

Under today's degraded conditions, rainwater unimpeded by mulch rushes across the surface of bare ground, eroding and carrying away large amounts of soil. Then it courses under flood conditions down our waterways, causing bank erosion and filling riverbeds with silt. Little soaks into the ground, and waterways face alternating flooding and desiccation.

In environments where everyone harvests water, total rain infiltration can go from under 20% to over 80%. Trees and other plants receive much more water, which they then transpire back into the atmosphere (contributing to more rain). Slower-moving runoff enters creeks and rivers over the course of days instead of hours, springs reappear and even when it's not raining waterways are fed by plentiful groundwater.

Respect Means Responsibility

Floating Cistern Garden

Floating cistern garden made with bottom-perforated kiddie pool.

Hand in hand with respecting all sources of water by their considerate collection and use (and favoring least elaborate systems, i.e., on-site rainwater collection over deep aquifer drilling and city-wide distribution systems) we must also stop or minimize the practice of polluting clean water once it is in our homes.

Whenever fresh water is used for carrying household wastes, the resulting effluent can, and should be, cleaned and reused.

'Constructed Wetlands' Clean Water Naturally at Low Cost

Water can be cleaned simply and inexpensively using 'constructed wetlands,' biological systems that mimic the powerful water-cleansing effects of natural marsh ecosystems.

Built as slightly underground, gravel-filled canals capped with soil and ornamental plantings (at their simplest), constructed wetlands can quickly and inexpensively produce very clean water from household effluent (as well as watering and fertilizing trees or other plantings while it is being cleaned). Once established, constructed wetlands require very little maintenance, largely operating completely on their own.

"We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us" *

Reusing biologically-cleaned water in the home is not yet allowed by health codes. At the same time, U.S. health codes do allow using river water polluted by upstream cities with who-knows-what chemicals and wastes. This is water that has been 'cleaned' not by removing pollutants but by adding more pollutants (including chlorine, aluminum, biocides and numerous other chemicals)!

Speaking of pollutants, pound for pound and as a whole U.S. households release far more toxins into the environment than do U.S. industries. The air inside a typical well sealed home is higher in volatile organics and particulate matter than allowable in an OSHA-regulated workplace; OSHA rates Housewife as one of the most toxic of occupations.

According to one study, 3 of the 4 substances causing the most problems in California waterways were not industrial but household in origin, these being soaps, detergents and chlorine bleach. The fourth was roadway runoff carrying motor oil, heavy metals (from engine wear), tire dust, gasoline additives and combustion byproducts.

Careless Use of Toxins

Other household toxins continually being released into the environment include various kitchen and bathroom cleaners, indoor and outdoor pesticide sprays and powders, automotive oil changes spilled or poured onto the ground, air 'fresheners' (another curious case of 'cleaning' something by dousing it with noxious chemicals), ammonia, painting and cleaning solvents, fingernail polish remover (acetone), hair and body sprays, etc.

All these chemicals are harmful to the environment (as well as to the people who breathe them in their homes) and should under no circumstances be introduced into water supplies or the atmosphere. In our current system, however, they are used and discarded in spectacular quantities.

Interestingly, all these chemicals are replaceable by safe alternatives or—in the case of used motor oil—treated as a toxic material and regulated (this is slowly beginning to happen).

Walt Kelley's Pogo Possum

Pogo 'Possum

We Have to Think Sanely Before We Can Act Sanely

If we want our waterways and other ecosystems to survive, we have to take responsibility for where substances and things go after we use them (and what they do when they get there). We have to ask questions such as, "Given a finite planet, what do such euphemistic phrases as 'discarded,' 'disposed of,' etc. really mean?"

Having answered these questions, we then owe it to ourselves and future generations to begin changing the way we do things. We as individuals have much more power—and responsibility—than we care to admit.



(Walt Kelly's cartoon character Pogo, paraphrasing General MacArthur's (or John Paul Jones' or Oliver Hazard Perry's, depending on your reference) famous line, "We have met the enemy, and he is ours."

Pogo's phrasing is far more accurate. Any time we perceive an enemy—or any other problem—as outside ourselves or our way of thinking, we are likely mistaken. Our mistakeness may not be a certainty, but as Ring Lardner said, "The race isn't always to the swiftest, nor the battle to the strong—but that's the way to bet.")

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Reprinted from (Perma) Culture and Sanity Website