Thinking Like a Watershed with Brock Dolman (popup)

Thinking Like a Watershed

by Brock Dolman

Brock Dolman co-directs the Occidental Arts and  Ecology Center (OAEC) WATER InstitutePermaculture Design Program and Wildlands Program. He is a Permaculture teacher and consultant on regenerative project design and implementation internationally in Costa Rica, Ecuador, U.S. Virgin Islands, Spain, Brazil, China, Canada, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba and the U.S. Brock was featured in the award-winning films The 11th Hour by Leonardo DiCaprio, The Call of Life by Species Alliance, and Permaculture: A Quiet Revolution by Vanessa Shultz. For over a decade, he has served as an appointed commissioner on the Sonoma County Fish & Wildlife Commission. This is an edited excerpt from a presentation at a Bioneers produced Water and Agriculture field day at OAEC.

Welcome to Planet Water, where 70% of its surface area is water and where all the white vapor, crystalline liquid and the greenery of the plants are significantly made up of water. Planet Water is the only place in the known universe where life is endemic. 

I love this quote by the late Luna Leopold, emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley and son of Aldo Leopold: “The health of the waters is the principle measure of how we live on the land.”

Basically, the water cycle and the life cycle are the same cycle. People are carbon based life forms; it’s our central atom, but by volume we’re mostly water. The carbon cycle and the water cycle are the fundamental cycles needed to sustain life. The inputs to the photosynthetic cycle are CO2 and H2O. Sunlight enters into chlorophyll and produces oxygen and sugar. The photosynthetic cycle creates the energy that the planet runs on.


There is a global water cycle, but in the permaculture community, we talk a lot about restoring small water cycles. By thinking like a watershed, we’re trying to understand the relationship from the headwaters to the middle reaches down to the delta. How are we living within our basins of relations?  Where are tillage and rangeland agriculture happening? Where is forestry happening? Where are urbanization and human settlement happening in the watershed? And how is all of that in right relationship with the process of the small water cycle?

There is a global movement looking at small water cycles and how we can retrofit the water cycle for resiliency—this is the new water paradigm. Rain for Climate, for example, is one interesting group of folks doing amazing work all over the planet.

Our modern landscapes, for the most part, especially in the Western part of the US, have been paved and piped so that when it rains– the gift of Gaia that comes from the sky– it runs off full of dirt and pollution, instead of slowing, spreading, sinking, storing and sharing it. 

How do we honor the relationship with the water that we get in our watersheds whether it’s fog, rain, or snow? Unlike any other molecule, water comes in some combination of solid, liquid, and vapor simultaneously adjacent to themselves. It’s truly an amazing and completely unique molecule, and yet we don’t honor it.

​The industrial agriculture revolution, known as the Green Revolution, was made possible by a blue revolution. The blue revolution was the electrification of pumps and the extraction of groundwater for irrigation. Over time, farmers in California’s Central Valley extracted water from underground aquifers faster than they can be recharged, which leads to subsidence–the sinking or caving of land. In some places the ground level has dropped 28 feet.

In 2014, California finally passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. California was the last state in the union to regulate groundwater in a significant way to manage public and private use of groundwater and how it affects surface water. 

I witness a lot of people thinking that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is a pain in the ass and government overreach, or it’s going to be yet another impairment to moving the work forward. But I see it as an opportunity to work holistically and collaboratively within the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, which are distributed throughout the local level to figure out how we’re going to develop a regenerative relationship to groundwater and recharge. That means we also have to talk about surface water, and we have to talk about land use, and we have to participate in land-use planning and general plans. In my view, this is the gateway drug to getting us to act and think like a watershed, and we should see it as an opportunity not a hindrance. 

The most important part of the watershed, to start with, is the headwaters, and the most important headwaters to start with is the water in your own head. Mitigating cerebral imperviousness in the headwaters is what we do. The work of the day is ego-system re-story-ation. In other words, changing the egocentric perspective and helping people think like a watershed.

Working Models for Water Conservation

Localizing California Waters, an entity that OAEC co-founded years ago, is a group of water wonks and folks working on policy, on blackwater, graywater, rainwater, roof water, storm water, surface water, groundwater, and even waterless toilets. If we’re not participating in policy, if we’re not rewriting the code, If we don’t legalize sustainability, if we’re not getting elected, then we’ll just continue to be illegal scoff laws who will run into trouble trying to permit our reality.

 Working models that can inform meaningful policies for water conservation and stewardship range in size from the state and regional level to farm-scale and even home-scale. Reuse of urban water is a viable source of water for agriculture. Many cities are having issues dealing with large quantities of wastewater not wanting to send it to the ocean or the rivers. Treating and disinfecting wastewater and sending it to farms for irrigation stacks functions by solving multiple problems for both urban and rural communities. 

The goal is to protect and expand the moisture-storing areas of the landscape instead of the pave it, pipe it, pollute it, make-it-go-away principle.

Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen, CA constructed a wetland fed mostly from water used in production at the winery for cleaning and processing. They run the wastewater through living constructed wetlands that clean it of contamination and then reuse it for irrigation. Suncrest Nurseries in Watsonville, CA captures all irrigation runoff and reuses it in the nursery. Hedgerow Farms in Winters, CA installed a tail water pond that captures irrigation runoff for second use; the pond also serves as habitat for aquatic wildlife. 

At OAEC, we have three buildings that have three different models of compost toilets that we’re currently testing. We are researching how to design integrated systems where we can safely reuse human waste. Our goal is to utilize the resource from our toilet and direct it to the trees and the carbon cycle.

Dry farming is another water conserving strategy. Frogs Leap, the first organic vineyard in the Napa Valley, produces indisputably high-quality wine from grapes that are dry farmed. Dry farming is a set of soil management practices that optimize water harvesting by preparing soils to hold the winter rain-water so it’s available to the vines in the summer when it’s dry. Dry farming is a form of rainwater harvesting based on soil management, tilth and organic matter. 

The goal is to protect and expand the moisture-storing areas of the landscape instead of the pave it, pipe it, pollute it, make-it-go-away principle. To do that, we have to stabilize erosion and stop putting dirt in the creek. We need to figure out how to disperse flows and increase infiltration so we don’t get so much water running off that it becomes erosive and generates sediment. We’ve got to keep the dirt on the land and turn it into fertile soil; it’s a valuable resource. We need restorative plant communities that build carbon in the soil; we need to be using carbon farming and regenerative agriculture practices. 

The solutions are custom site-specific solutions that use natural processes. Every piece of ground is custom; the geology is custom; the hydrology is custom; the biology is custom. 

There are many examples of degenerative disturbance. How do we bring in regenerative disturbance? Holistic management is the utilization of animals as vectors of disturbance in a regenerative relationship within the ecosystem.  

These examples are kind of like skipping stones over deep water. If you really want to trip out on a big picture watershed, integrated top to bottom relational idea that comes out of Australia from the ‘40s and ‘50s, check out the concept of Keyline design in the book Water for Every Farm

The system utilizes a different kind of plow that cuts through the sod. It’s not an inversion plow; it’s not a tillage plow. It’s like taking a series of sharp knives and combing through the soil in a strategic way following the orientation of the contour of a slope to manage how water moves through the landscape. It’s a water-holding, soil-building, pasture and rangeland improvement technique.

Roads and Rooves

What are some other areas to think about in the hydrological cycle that need more attention? There is a lot of work that needs to be done on designing roads and their relationship to water. Roads need to be designed to be water harvesting structures rather than dewatering structures. A good resource on that topic is The Handbook for Forest, Ranch and Rural Roads by Danny Hagens, Eileen Weppner and William Weaver of the Pacific Watershed Associates. 

Another component of the hydrological cycle that we can pay more attention to is rooves. Some of us think of rooves as above-ground wells. The OAEC Water Institute, which Kate Lundquist and I are Directors, received funding to look at the obstacles and opportunities of roof water harvesting in California. We’ve been doing a number of various types of roof water projects. In our case, we capture rainwater from the roof in a tank that gravity feeds water down to our chickens and ducks. There’s no electricity, there’s no groundwater pumping, it’s just an onsite resource. Super low tech. 

It can get higher tech and bigger scale. The town of Bodega, CA, which is in the Salmon Creek watershed, is a water scarce area both in ground water and surface water. In order to protect sufficient flow levels for the endangered Coho salmon survival, we collaborated with local groups, state and federal agencies and other NGOs to install rainwater catchment systems. A 35,000-gallon tank was installed at the Bodega Fire Department. Rainwater harvesting systems, ranging from 9,000 gallons to 35,000 gallons, were installed on residential properties.

We’re not water scarce, we’re storage scarce.

We also worked with the agricultural community. The Gilardi Ranch is a heifer replacement dairy operation in Bodega. A 240,000-gallon tank system was installed underground at the Gilardi Ranch. 100% of the water supply for the entire dairy is now coming off of the roof. Previously, that water was bleeding onto the land and creating a head-cut gully and dumping erosion into the creek killing salmon. Now Dennis Gilardi has better water quality with less fecal contaminants because he’s pulling it off of the roof instead of the creek that the cows were shitting in. They fenced out the cows from the creek and the creek’s now running perennially in that section. He is now making more money because the vet bills are lower due to the better health of the cows. His operation is now certified organic. 

Two other dairies in Bodega are also harvesting rainwater from their rooves. They have cleaned out their old manure lagoons and are now dry composting manure to reduce methane emissions. The compost is applied to the soil as part of the carbon farm plan. What used to be funky anaerobic lagoons emitting methane have been lined and are now used for rainwater storage. One holds 1.4 million gallons of roof rainwater and the other holds 1.8 million gallons. 

The whole valley, from the fire department to the Bodega residents to the three big dairies are now living on stored roof water. West Sonoma County gets a lot of rain, but in a really short period. These projects help fill the demand for water in the dry season. We’re not water scarce, we’re storage scarce.

Bring Back the Beavers

Another strategy to improve water quantity and quality is the Bring Back the Beaver Campaign that Kate Lundquist and I are running in California. There is a number of studies, observations and papers about on how beaver dams help recharge groundwater. They can slow the flow and increase the recharge, especially during heavy rains or flooding. They improve the availability of water in the dry season and increase a landscape’s resillance against fire by increasing the moisture levels. Beavers are an important and natural part of the broader landscape nexus of earth, air, fire and water.

The rangeland folks, more than the tillage agriculture folks, see how beavers enhance water quality, water quantity, ecosystem resilience and how all of that that benefits their cattle and helps the economics of their operation. 

John Griggs is a ranch manager in Maggie Creek Ranch in Elko, Nevada, an extremely arid region. He adjusted the ranching practices to stop overgrazing in the dry season, kept the cattle away from the riparian zone and stopped killing beavers. As a result, the valleys were wetted again, the creeks are perennial again, and the fish are coming back. Thanks to the beaver dams, the groundwater is recharging, and sediment is aggrading. The fact is they would be out of business in a drought if it wasn’t for the beavers who create subsurface irrigation that keeps the forage alive during dry times. 

We are working to shift the thinking and practices of farmers and ranchers to think like a watershed with a more integrated approach. Our concept of conservation hydrology embraces receiving, recharging, retaining and releasing water in a reverential retrofit for a rehydration revolution.

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