“Most modern humans have forgotten that water’s true nature is to flex with the rhythms of the earth, expanding and retreating in an eternal dance upon the land … But when water stalls on the land, that’s when the magic happens, cycling water underground and providing food and habitat for many forms of life, including us. The key to greater resilience, say the water detectives, is to find ways to let water be water, to reclaim space for it to interact with the land.”
For centuries, humans have focussed their efforts on controlling water by redirecting rivers, draining wetlands, and building dams. But we ignored a fundamental principle: water is stronger than any human endeavour – water always wins. We have only to consider the flooding caused by Hurricane Fiona in the Maritimes, heavy rainfall in British Columbia in 2021, flooding in Pakistan, or dams breaking in Kenya and China. There’s a flip side to the coin as well when we consider water shortages in California and recurrent drought on the Prairies.
Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge by Erica Gies visits countries around the world where water detectives are trying to understand what water wants and then working with water to slow it down, store it, and adapt to it. “Water detectives aim to make space for Slow Water across the whole landscape. Their vision is to deploy a series of small projects stitched together, so water moving through them can better function as the living entity it is.”
We have a tendency to push water to move faster and faster. We bury small streams, drain marshy areas, and straighten out rivers. But water that is moving fast has no opportunity to sink into soil, to store excess rainfall, and to replenish groundwater.
Dams may seem like a good way to slow water down, but they’re too big and the water is too deep. “It warms in the sun, harming fish, and is discharged according to people’s timeline for water or electricity – not nature’s cycles of seasonal highs and lows that many species rely on for different parts of their life cycles. Water leaving a reservoir is often moving faster, with greater pressure, than water entering the reservoir” and this causes problems downstream.
A Seattle neighbourhood flooded consistently. Eventually, the city purchased houses and returned the land to nature. The stream was released from its borders and allowed to spread out and flood in season. Simply releasing the water from its banks wasn’t enough. They added logs to slow the water down even further and reintroduced microbes and insects to try and jumpstart the water’s return to a fully functional stream, recognizing that the floor of the stream is as important as the water above it.
In Kenya, farmers are being encouraged to terrace their hillside farmland to slow water down. Their crops are improving as rainfall has a chance to soak into the soil where it can be drawn upon during the dry season. It has also reduced the amount of sediment, improving water quality for those downstream.
We tend to think of surface water and groundwater as two separate entities, but that’s not the case as water flows in both directions. While California exercises some degree of control over who can use surface water, groundwater has been a free for all. As a result, the ground has started to sink and groundwater is becoming scarce. Farmers are beginning to channel excess water onto their fields in winter so it can sink slowly back into the soil and researchers are exploring ways of redirecting flood water into ancient, underground channels.
There are over 53,000 water bodies across southern India. Some are natural, some aren’t, but they form an interconnected network helping the water to move slowly downhill, seeping gradually into the groundwater. Many of these water bodies have been paved over due to urban development, but locals are trying to reclaim them wherever possible through restored marshes, bioswales, vegetated ditches, even temple water tanks. Each patch on its own is insignificant, but together they can make a difference.
The Chinese have introduced the concept of sponge cities, using the landscape to retain and filter water.
Let It Flood
Finding solutions that are in harmony with nature may mean letting water have its way. Pattonsburg, Missouri, flooded 32 times until the community said that was enough and moved to higher ground. Grand Forks, BC, is reappropriating properties in flood-prone areas. Disaster relief funding often only pays people to rebuild in the same location; a wiser approach could be to pay them to relocate.
Sumas Lake was a shallow body of water surrounded by extensive wetlands until it was drained to provide additional land for agriculture in BC’s Fraser Valley. Following extensive flooding in 2021, some are advocating for its return.
Cities such as San Francisco are looking at reintroducing marshlands to address rising sea levels. Innovative solutions, such as houses on buoyant foundations that rise with the water, are also being explored.
Changing our relationship with water brings many side benefits. Marshes are filled with birdsong. Daylighting urban creeks provides new recreational areas and lowers the temperature in our concrete jungles. Wildlife returns.
“A societal shift toward accepting ongoing change in our local environment is also a partial return to when humans lived closer to the land and knew intimately every shift in nature’s mood … In making space for our landscapes to be more flexible, in reacquainting ourselves with how natural systems work and how critical they are in every human endeavor, we lay the groundwork for the most important adaptation: enhancing our ability to go with the flow.”
Federal disaster fund needs to prioritize preparation over recovery, climate expert says [CTV News]
Pricing groundwater will help solve California’s water problems [Knowable Magazine]
What are sponge cities and could they solve China’s water crisis? [EuroNews Green]
Port of San Francisco, Army Corps of Engineers Planning for Rising Sea Levels [Planetizen]
Desalinating seawater sounds easy, but there are cheaper and more sustainable ways to meet people’s water needs [The Conversation]
Geographer Mark Wang: ‘Don’t overestimate water diversion under extreme weather’ [China Dialogue]
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/apmckinlay/43880435055
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