Planet Water - By Brock Dolman

The dynamic processes of water - the evaporation, condensation, transpiration and precipitation that drive the hydrological cycle - are nothing short of magic. Imagine a substance that can be a solid ice, floating on its liquid self, which in turn can evaporate into the atmosphere as a vaporous distilled gas, and then can return again to earth as either a solid snow or liquid rain. Without water there would likely be no life on Planet Earth. From this perspective it may be more fitting, as suggested by Lynn Margulis, to refer to our Gaian home as Planet Water.

Availability of fresh water has always been the prime determinant of human settlement patterns, and in the coming decades and centuries this aqueous determinism will increasingly impact our lives. As with all finite resources on the planet, the problem of over-consumption and degradation of water resources by human communities is exacerbated by expanding water demands worldwide. According to the International Forum on Globalization's Report Blue Gold: "Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of population growth." The United Nations estimates that over one billion people lack access to fresh drinking water. Yet the commodification and privatization of the world's water supplies by transnational corporations - such as the Vivendi SA, Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, SAUR, Bechtel and Enron corporations - is expanding at an unprecedented rate. Sound far-fetched? Ask the people who depend on the Albion and Gualala rivers on the north coast of California what they think of Alaska Water Export Corporation's current proposal to ship their water to San Diego for a profit. Access to pure water is a basic human right and our common wealth, and must not be for sale to the highest bidder.

The need for hydro-literacy is dramatically evident in watersheds worldwide as they suffer from deforestation, pollution, dams, siltation and species extinctions. How is your hydro-literacy? Where do you get your water? What do you use water for? How safe do you believe your water supply to be? How long have you been dependent on bottled water? What watershed does your water come from and what watershed do you live in? Can you trace the surface water runoff from your home to its return to the ocean?

Let us consider water in budgetary terms. Successful business owners have accounting systems to monitor the profitability of their ventures. How many cities, counties or watershed communities actually have accurate income and expense budget projections for their water resources? In simple fiscal terms most municipalities are operating deeply in the red with ecologically damaging hydrological deficits. The demand, or expense side of their water budgets far exceeds their income streams. Direct deposits from above of freshly distilled rain, snow and fog are the only real supply side income sources on Planet Water.

Human development increases the imperviousness of watershed surfaces. This results in excessive runoff that impinges on the ability to make bank deposits that recharge storage savings accounts. Ever increasing reliance on already overtaxed groundwater reserves is tantamount to leaving our grandchildren with unrecoverable and undrinkable debts as our watersheds verge on hydrological bankruptcy. Unlike the Enron Corporation, our watersheds cannot file Chapter 11. All life forms are shareholders with an interest in ensuring that our watershed economies continue to operate in the Blue.

Water is precious and trustworthy. Unfortunately, the dominant paradigm of engineering-based surface water management has treated stormwater as a problem. Expensive water management systems are typically designed to rid a site of its surface water as quickly as possible. This same hydrologically illiterate frame of mind leads to the paving and plowing over of pervious forests, wetlands and prairies, increasing the intensity and frequency of flooding. These trends, along with dangerously lowering ground water tables, rising numbers of endangered species and increasing water pollution, demonstrate the clear need for new approaches to stormwater management.

We need to think differently about water resources and water use. We can start by considering the age-old dialogue between geological and hydrological forces which have molded all landscapes into distinct drainage areas, watersheds, or "Basins of Relations." From the micro-scale to the macro-scale there always exists a series of linking relations that can be sub-divided like a nested series of fractals. For example, starting with the roughly H square mile of headwater drainages that collectively drain the land of OAEC, we can expand outward into the 12 square mile Dutch Bill Creek watershed, then on to the 1500 square mile Russian River basin, andultimately out to the Pacific Ocean.

By studying an aerial image one can observe that some of OAEC's sub-watersheds originate entirely on the property while others have their headwaters on adjacent lands upstream. For those creeks that originate off property, OAEC has less control of flows - especially those that enter the land via erosive culverts from ditches on Coleman Valley Road. Most of OAEC's seasonal creeks are considered Class 3 waterways, which means they do not support perennial aquatic life, but they can deliver sediment to the anadromous fish-bearing Dutch Bill Creek. Although not a fish-bearing creek, Calypso Creek is OAEC's largest seasonal creek and is considered a Class 2 waterway due the perennial presence of aquatic organisms. As prudent caregivers of OAEC's land, our knowledge of the actual boundaries of each distinct "Basin of Relation" helps us develop surface water management plans.

Historically most concerns about stormwater flows have been focused on active creeks or streams. This myopic bias towards waterways has led to the situation where many suffer from the "can't see the watershed for the creeks" syndrome. Impaired waterways are indicators of a lack of understanding that watersheds function as a whole system. In the past century most development of water resources has been based on the exploitation of perceived water rights. In this new millennium, as we consider the dramatic state of impairment of most surface waters in North America, the need for exercising water responsibilities is clearly more pressing than ever. We devote considerable OAEC staff resources to our restoration efforts, a privilege most landowners don't have. On every property, however, some basic yet critically important watershed restoration practices can be implemented with a modest investment of time and little or no financial cost. We start this process at OAEC by defining each of the sub-watersheds on the property and evaluating the conditions unique to each. We then use two primary strategies to enhance the current health of our sub-watersheds.

The first strategy is to use short-term, or symptom-based responses. These work directly in a given drainage channel to mitigate further head-cutting or bank failures resulting from excessive flows due to poor upland management. The second strategy is to employ longer-term, or root-cause responses which focus on increasing the perviousness and stormwater retention capacity of these uplands. We work to slow down and spread out concentrated runoff from impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots and roofs. Simple "water bars" cut into roads and parking lots can divert flows to contour swales or ephemeral ponds resulting in the mitigation of excessive runoff. This technique also catches sediment, enhances the net volume of water available for groundwater recharge, and can create habitat. Some measures of success can include attenuated flood volumes, increased base-spring flows, and observance of higher water quality as evaluated at each of the nine exit points on the property.

Water, the element of life, is the solution not the problem. Development strategies that are designed to spread-out water and rehydrate the land are the first steps to small scale watershed restoration. Water security is social security. Considering the importance of water, involving oneself in the politics of water resources is critically important. Do you know the members of your local, city, county or regional water board? How do they make decisions? Did you know that Sonoma County is undergoing a 20 year update of its General Plan? OAEC staff are actively involved in promoting a new Water Resources Element to this General Plan. Through local activism of this kind we can all help restore and care-take our precious water resources. How is your community investing in its blue gold?