Think Like a Watershed
“Healthy ecosystems function by slowing, spreading, sinking, storing and sharing water.”
“Think like a watershed” is a concept developed by The WATER Institute, a program of The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center directed by Brock Dolman and Kate Lundquist. This section is informed by the work of the Institute, which organizes communities around watershed literacy and activism and promotes science-based solutions for water security and climate resilience. For more info, read “Basin of Relations: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting and Restoring our Watersheds” from the WATER Institute.
A watershed encompasses all the land surface that collects and drains water down to a single exit point such as a stream or river. Watersheds can be as large as the Mississippi basin, which is the third largest in the world and drains 41% of the lower 48 U.S. states into the Gulf of Mexico. Or, they can be as small as all the land in your neighborhood where rainwater flows from your yard, roof, driveway, and streets to the storm drain and out to your local creek or lake.
Designs that Mimic the Way Watersheds Work
Tempered by the patience of evolution, healthy ecosystems are not in a rush. They create many opportunities for water to soak into sponge-like soil and hydrate the botanical and microbial life within it. Water that moves slowly through ecosystems nourishes critical riparian zones and replenishes aquifers while water that flows quickly off hard surfaces erodes the landscape and impoverishes soils. The wrong-headed modern view of rainwater has somehow taken our most valuable asset and turned it into a “problem.”
The cheapest, most energy-efficient water is rainwater, but modern engineering has largely viewed precipitation in the built environment as a problem to get rid of. Impervious hardscaping such as sidewalks and roads are designed for water to run off quickly.
“Our modern landscapes, for the most part, especially in the Western U.S., have been paved over and piped; when it rains, water runs off carrying eroded soil and pollution into waterways. The opportunity of deep soil hydration and the gift of water is wasted.”
Harnessing rainwater entails completely redesigning and managing our built environments. Brock Dolman says that water should mimic, “How healthy ecosystems function, by slowing, spreading, sinking, storing and sharing water.”
Dolman understands that water security goes beyond looking at water as an isolated element and advocates “thinking like a watershed” to understand all the interrelationships and activities from the headwaters of a stream or river to its middle reaches and down to its delta.
Seven Strategies for Water Conservation
Scroll through to explore strategies
While systematic issues plague our water planning and infrastructure, the truth is that there are actionable approaches that individuals and households can take that lead to meaningful improvements. The growing movement to choose low-water native landscaping in arid climates, for example, has both a direct effect on water consumption as well as cultural impact, educating friends and neighbors about the importance of thinking from a watershed perspective.
As drought conditions continue, communities have transformed their regulatory perspectives on many of the following strategies, from legalizing greywater systems to providing subsidies and incentives. Check with your local water utility to see what is available in your community. (Adapted from “Basin of Relations: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting and Restoring our Watersheds” from the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center’s WATER Institute)
Choose Not to Use
Every gallon of water you choose not to use equals one gallon not taken from your river or aquifer. It means the system does not need that gallon’s worth of electricity to pump it, nor the chemicals to make it potable. It means that one gallon is not being degraded into “waste” water, which would require additional electricity to pump it again, treat it, and dispose of it in our environment. Choosing not to use water saves water quantity and quality. It saves energy and money. It helps reduce demands on our watersheds. And it helps to mitigate climate change-induced water stresses by reducing the collective water footprint of humankind.
Retrofit Wasteful Fixtures and Inefficient Appliances
Numerous studies and reports have conclusively demonstrated that the most cost-effective and water-conservative action you can take over time is to retrofit your home with modern water-and energy-saving fixtures and appliances. Municipalities all over the country offer programs to subsidize or provide low-flow or dual-flush toilets, low-flow shower heads, water/energy-efficient washing machines, water heaters, dishwashers, etc.
Use Waterless Composting Toilets to Save Water and Return Carbon to the Soil
Waterless composting toilets can save billions of gallons of water annually and help cities comply with mandatory conservation measures for drought. These toilets safely process pathogens and ensure public health. They can improve water quality by decreasing the pollution of drinking water. Waterless composting toilets are a great replacement for failing septic systems and outdated wastewater infrastructure and help meet greenhouse gas reduction goals by reducing energy used for water transport and treatment. These affordable, natural alternatives to chemical “porta-potties” build topsoil through nutrient capture and application of clean compost to living soil ecosystems. These systems sequester carbon and help mitigate climate change.
Harvest Rainwater to Reduce Dependence on Off-Site Sources
Another opportunity to augment your water budget is to think of your roof as an “above-ground” well. You can harvest significant amounts of water from your roof. One way to estimate this is to consider that for every inch of rainfall on 100 square feet of roof surface, your “above-ground” well yields approximately 55 gallons of water. Safe roofing materials, storage tank size and type, location, conveyance, filtration, and overall costs require careful consideration for this technology to work well. Yet, in most climates it is possible to actually capture, store and provide for all or most of your potable water needs from the high-quality rain that falls directly on your roof for free.
Set up On-Site Residential Greywater rather than Irrigating with potable water
Use of residential greywater generated on-site is legal in California, although each county and city has its own permitting process. Whether you use a laundry-to-landscape or branched drain system, on-site greywater irrigation reduces the demand on potable water for irrigation. It also reduces the overall amount of wastewater and the electricity needed to pump it away for centralized treatment and then pump it back to you as “recycled wastewater” in a purple pipe.
Reduce Lawn Size and Choose Drought-Tolerant Xeriscapes
During the dry season over 50% of the potable water used by the typical California home is for outdoor use, primarily irrigation for landscapes. Reducing landscape water demand provides a critical opportunity for home water conservation. The best place to start is by reducing the total area of lawn in your landscape. Just the right amount of lawn is great for small-scale lounging and play areas, but as a general groundcover, lawns are highly wasteful. Lawn care requires exorbitant amounts of irrigation water, energy, surface water-polluting nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides, air-and sound-polluting equipment, and significant maintenance time and money. Instead, select winter rain-and summer drought-adapted and native plants for your beautiful new water-saving, edible, butterfly-and hummingbird-friendly xeriscape. Choose and maintain a highly efficient drip irrigation system for those plants that need some supplemental irrigation.
Build Rain Gardens and Bioswales
Think of your home and yard as your own watershed. Numerous opportunities exist in your landscape to design and implement stormwater harvesting systems—known as rain gardens, bioswales, contour infiltration ditches, natural drainage networks, and so forth. The use of these structures will allow you to offset the impact of impervious surfaces on your land. After your roof water cistern, the best place to store water is in the soil. If your soils are not appropriate for infiltration, a biofiltration design will ensure that the water leaving your yard will not be a source of pollution or contribute to flood flows. The stormwater harvesting structures should be designed to store winter rain in the soils, so that it is available in the dry season as subsurface irrigation for your native, wildlife-friendly, edible landscape. In the long term it will be ideal to not only live and eat within your edible landscape, but also to live and drink within your potable landscape.
Thinking Like a Watershed
A concept of conservation hydrology that embraces receiving, recharging, retaining and releasing water in a reverential retrofit for a rehydration revolution
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