In the Santa Cruz and Soquel Water districts, we are faced with a serious challenge. Too much water is being used; our water-consumption levels are not sustainable, either for our own human use or for that of the fish and other animals living here. What should be done? When considering ways to use water responsibly, permaculture principles are helpful. Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies. Four guidelines in particular could help shape our local water plan.
1. We need to envision and work with the natural water cycle.
2. We need to use and store water in ways that spend the least amount of fossil-fuel, what Thom Hartmann calls “ancient sunlight.” By avoiding use of ancient sunlight, we also minimize greenhouse gas emissions that further alter our climate.
3. We need to minimize harm to other creatures and ecosystems and to benefit them when possible.
4. We need to look for local, decentralized ways to handle and store water when feasible, i.e., to employ levels of organization and types of technologies that are appropriate.
By applying these four principles to our plans for using water, we can maximize our community’s resilience in the face of droughts or any other challenges that we may face in the future while being responsible co-inhabitants of our local watersheds.
1.) Work with the Water Cycle to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
Water, as we know, has its own cycle. Water on the earth evaporates, becomes clouds, returns to the earth as rain, and then, running through gutters, streams, and rivers, flows to the lowest level it can find – perhaps staying in a lake, reservoir, or aquifer before evaporating or finding other routes to the ocean. To maximize efficient and effective use of water, we need to slow at least some of the water down before it finds its way back home to the sea. Consider the analogy of a pinball machine: the object of the game is to have the pinball touch as many targets as possible before rolling into the gutter where it’s no longer usable. Similarly, we want to use each drop of water in as many ecologically sensible ways as possible before it rolls into a gutter and back into the ocean. That way, we won’t need to draw as much water from our reservoir and aquifers.
People use more water than needed in many ways: individually, we may leave it running while we brush our teeth or lather our hands, for example, or we may take unnecessarily long showers. However, even if we use only the minimum amount of water needed to rinse our mouths, hands, or bodies (one pinball point), that water then becomes useless unless we have plumbing that redirects it to another purpose, such as flushing a toilet or watering a garden (ding! -- another point).
Collectively, we use more water than needed in still more ways. When we build city or suburban houses with gutters that carry the rooftop water to the street, that water runs downhill, often directly to the ocean – no pinball points there. If instead, we catch and store some of that rooftop water and then use it to irrigate the garden, some of it travels up the roots of plants (one point for helping keep a plant alive); if we or other animals eat the plant or its fruit, the water is traveling into an animal’s body, helping to keep it alive (another point); from there, some of the water becomes living cells (another point), and some of it leaves as urine – that excreted water can be useful all over again if it goes back into the garden for another cycle (another point). And so on. Theoretically, a drop of water that travels from, say, roof to garden to plant to human and back to garden again can be recycled many, many times before finding its way to the ocean.
Most of the water we use to irrigate gardens may not go into our plants, though. But that water can also be useful. It helps keep insects and microorganisms in the soil alive (another point), and, if it doesn’t evaporate, eventually it percolates down into the ground where it can replenish subterranean aquifers (another point).
Not only are rooftops and gutters that dump rainwater onto streets a problem, but the material used to construct our streets – as well as parking lots and nearly all sidewalks – hastens run-off to the ocean. Both asphalt and concrete are impermeable to water, so the rain that falls on them and the water from gutters and elsewhere that run onto them cannot then seep directly into the soil; the little water pinballs roll right downhill, on a mad rush to the sea, with or without a river or stream in between. If we could slow that water down, diverting some of it for our use or allowing it to percolate into the ground, we could score several more points.
2.) Use Current Energy Rather than Ancient Sunlight Whenever Feasible
There are many ways to keep water from running immediately to the sea, and some of those ways of “scoring pinball points” are better than others. The second important principle is to employ methods of both using and conserving water that require the least fossil fuels and other forms of “ancient sunlight.” Thom Hartman, author of several books, including The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, explains that all our technologies – cars, furnaces, stoves, e.g. -- that run on fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) or even wood from very old trees are running on energy from sunlight that has been stored for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years. Fossil fuels are formed when ancient algae and other living matter is compressed for millennia and sometimes heated due to that pressure. Whether as coal, oil, or natural gas, the energy in fossil fuels derives originally from photosynthesis, so it is thanks primarily to the sun that all of this amazingly energy-rich fuel is available for human use. Burning all forms of ancient sunlight releases carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere, and, as discussed elsewhere, running out of easily accessible fossil fuels poses serious challenges.
The solution, Hartmann explains, is to stop relying on ancient sunlight; instead, we should use currently produced sunlight whenever possible. Where water use involves mechanical pumping, use of solar, wind, and the power of water running downhill makes our community more resilient.The potential (or stored kinetic) energy in gravity is an excellent form of energy to use. So, for example, when we can redirect some water from its headlong path to the ocean by diverting it into a reservoir, swale, percolation pond, or aquifer, we’ve used the free energy of gravity to help store that water. When a pipe carries water from the North Coast into Santa Cruz, for example, gravity is doing that work for us.
3.) Minimize Damage to Other Creatures and Ecosystems and Benefit Them When Feasible
All animals, insects, plants, and microorganisms need water to live. When humans build massive dams to produce electricity or control water so that it flows only to cities or agricultural fields, we sacrifice untold numbers of other creatures and entire ecosystems for our own needs. When we fill our swimming pools, wash our cars, or use water for any purpose, we are taking water that is then unavailable to cougars, earthworms, salmon, and red-tail hawks. Most of the time, our lack of attention to the way our lifestyle impacts other creatures is due not to callousness toward them, however, but simply to lack of awareness. “Out of sight, out of mind,” and we rarely see how other creatures struggle and often die from lack of water. But when we realize, for example, that our overuse of water from North Coast streams and the San Lorenzo River threatens to extirpate (cause to go locally extinct) native fish populations, we want to avoid that result; then we are willing to make the changes needed not only to replenish the native fish populations but also to benefit other wildlife.
When we make choices about how to manage, conserve, and use our water, we need to consider the impacts of our choices both immediately and in the long run on other creatures who share this watershed with us. When we work with the natural water cycle to keep rainwater recycling through several land-based systems rather than gushing through gutters and down streets into the ocean, we nourish local plants, animals, insects, and soil microorganisms and the ecosystems they are a part of. Minimizing our use of ancient sunlight also helps all other creatures, both locally and even globally, because we are reducing greenhouse gas production. The final guiding principle can also benefit other creatures, while contributing to our human community’s resilience.
4.) Use Appropriate Technologies and Levels of Complexity -- Prefer Decentralized, Local Solutions when Feasible to Increase Resiliency
In today’s society, we rely on many crucial systems that are centralized – i.e., run by government agencies or large corporations. We have a national postal system, and our highways and telecommunications cross state lines. Our water and sewer systems are usually built and managed by municipal or county governments. This all makes sense, of course – an individual person could hardly deliver her own mail from Santa Cruz to New York and get home in time to finish building a cell phone or installing a water pipe up the nearest hill. Many systems and human activities – often, those we pay taxes to support – are and should be run and operated by a single entity. Here in the U.S., these systems generally work so well that it can be tempting to assume that centralized systems always provide the best answers to our communities’ problems. So, for example, when communities such as ours are faced with water shortages due to droughts and increased consumption, we may be tempted to assume that our water department and local government know best how to address the shortage.
Although these agencies do have a tremendous amount of expertise, knowledge, and power to help communities conserve water, precisely because government officials are accustomed to thinking in terms of centralized solutions, they may overlook some decentralized solutions that could complement – sometimes even be preferable to – their own recommendations. As Australian researcher Geoff Syme concluded after many years of studying community attitudes to water: “given a facilitative environment, the community is often prepared to make choices which are decidedly more innovative than those currently being made on their behalf.”2
Governmental officials may also be inclined to think in terms of large public-works projects – after all, governmental agencies are the only ones who have access to the large sums of money and the political power to build dams, water and sewer systems, or municipal facilities such as desalination plants. As discussed above, some such projects are essential for cities and other communities to function. Other massive public-works projects, like dams, may benefit humans but be devastating to countless ecosystems and the creatures in them. Generally speaking, the larger the human-built system, the more likely it is to be harmful to other-than-human creatures. Still speaking generally (there are exceptions, of course), smaller-scale constructions tend to have a smaller carbon footprint as well as a smaller spatial one.
The question of how to meet our water needs both now and in the future without jeopardizing other-than-human members of our San Lorenzo and Soquel Creek watersheds does not have one simple answer. Both centralized and decentralized approaches should work together smoothly to maximize community resilience. So long as we apply all four permaculture principles as we make decisions about water use, we will be using water responsibly and maximize our community’s resilience.
2 Geoff Syme, “Sustainability in Urban Water Futures ,” in Troubled Waters: Confronting the Water Crisis in Australia’s Cities, ed. by Patrick Troy. ANU E Press, 2008, p. 104.