Willow trees. A puddle ringed by mossy scum. A creek that emerges in a basement. These are just a few of the signs that “water detectives”—a term that journalist Erica Gies uses to refer to innovative water stewards—may seek out in understanding where and how water once moved across a landscape, before it was transformed by humans.
In Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge, now available for pre-order, Gies argues that the under-tapped knowledge of water’s natural movements are key to repairing a planet plagued by both extreme drought and extreme flooding due to climate change. The book comes at a crucially important time, following the release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which details how countries aren’t doing enough to adapt to climate change, especially its impacts on food and water.
“We’re not just having flooding and drought because of climate change. We’re having them because of our development choices.”
As a National Geographic Explorer, Gies traveled across the world—visiting Canada, Iraq, the United Kingdom, India, Peru, China, the Netherlands, Kenya, and Vietnam—to learn from people asking the question, “What does water want?” From there, she writes about the elegant, deeply-researched concept of “slow water”—an idea that captures many of the water projects that work with, rather than against, water’s natural tendencies.
The slow water approach is a sharp departure from infrastructure that aims to control water and prop up unsustainable agriculture practices. One of the many examples Gies points to is California’s nearly $50 billion crop industry, which she describes as a “bounty made possible by tapping groundwater and micromanaging a vast complex of water-engineering projects,” consuming 80 percent of the state’s water.
“We’re not just having flooding and drought because of climate change,” Gies said. “We’re having them because of our development choices.”
Gies spoke with Civil Eats about solutions to the water crisis and those around the world, what it will take to recharge California’s aquifers, and how slow water can be adapted across ecosystems.
To start off, could you describe how you came to the concept of slow water?
In my research, I came to understand the sheer scope of the ways in which we’ve altered natural hydrology. We’ve drained 87 percent of the world’s wetlands, and intervened with dams and diversions on two-thirds of the world’s biggest rivers. We’ve altered 75 percent of the world’s land area. All of these things have been in the pursuit of the control of water. There’s been this attitude in Western development that water is either a commodity or a threat, which leads to things like dams and levees.
When I looked at the control of water, it occurred to me that mostly what we’ve done is erase water’s slow phases: the wetlands, floodplains, grasslands, and high-altitude forests. And so, when I was looking at all these different nature-based solutions around the world, I realized that every single one of them is attempting to slow water in some respect and get it to interact with the underground. There are so many benefits to the hydrological cycle, and so much of what we’ve disturbed is underground because it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”
Slow water [techniques are] seeking ways to hold space for water to linger in as much of an approximation of its natural places as possible, so that means reclaiming, restoring, or mimicking wetlands, floodplains, water towers, wet meadows, and forests. In a city, it might be a bioswale, or something like that.
But slow water also is really, importantly, an attitude shift. Western civilization really has a human supremacist attitude—everything is there for us, and we’re the most important. If you look at older traditions or any Indigenous traditions, there’s a notion of water and other beings in nature as entities with agency. There’s an understanding of the system and how the various pieces interact.
The standard Western development model has been to build dams. But that water has to come from somewhere and there was a really interesting study a few years ago that showed that over a 40-year period, 20 percent of people in the world had gained water from these types of interventions on rivers, but 24 percent of people had lost water. So, it’s really an environmental justice issue.
It sounds like it’s a principle that can be adapted to a number of different ecosystems?
“…floodplains exist to absorb floods. I can’t say that strongly enough.”
Similar to the slow food movement, a slow water solution is specific to a place. It’s not boilerplate. Slow water solutions really have to pay attention to the local geology, ecology, and human community, and they have to be tailored to those specifics.
We have evolved very centralized water management systems, where as an individual you don’t have anything to do with where the water comes from, or how it enters your house. Slow water is kind of like renewable energy. It’s distributed across the landscape. In the same way that a solar panel on every roof adds up to a lot of electricity, if you have these spaces for slow water across the watershed, that adds up to a significant impact.
When you have a distributed system like that, it means regular people are going to be coming in contact with it a lot more. One of the benefits is it teaches people to live within their water means and to be in touch with whether or not there’s sufficient water available. It’s a kind of stewardship.
The first time you saw a truly wild river, you described it as “just one strand of a broad braided system spread languidly across the floodplain, it’s column shifting apart then twining together.” Can you say more about how this differs from most rivers?
Most of our rivers have been cut off from their floodplains. Humans, of course, need water and so there was a tendency to settle along rivers. But then, people wanted to be right on top of the river, so that led to building levees and often straightening rivers, so having more of a straight channel rather than an s-curve. People have become used to very industrialized strips of water and they think of them as rivers, but that really does create fast water. Fast water scours out the material sediment. It affects fish and where they can lay their eggs, and it means that the water is leaving the land more quickly.
(In a natural system) the meander of a river distributes sediment—reshaping, reflowing, and moving water underground. But in urban areas utilities have to spend a lot of time and money dredging sediments because of fast water. If it weren’t for fast water the stream would be continually depositing and rebuilding its shape with the sediment, so there would be a lot less maintenance required.
In the West, where I live, people are used to there being no water in streams during the summer. Streams are a winter thing, but they weren’t historically because so much of the water was going into the ground. There were all kinds of ephemeral streams and ponds, supplied with groundwater, that have become basically extinct. So, the West of the past was a wetter place for that reason [along with climate change].
Where flooding is a problem, on the other hand, floodplains exist to absorb floods. I can’t say that strongly enough. A lot of the problems that we have with flooding, especially in our cities, are because we built on top of wetlands and floodplains. And water always wins. The water is going to go where it tends to go. And if we’ve built there, then they’re going to flood.
How do you see those rules applying to agriculture? Are there certain environments where humans shouldn’t be farming anymore?
I would say yes. Living in California, I think there are significant parts of the Central Valley that shouldn’t be farmed any longer. I mean, that’s kind of heresy, right? There’s such a culture of agriculture in California; it was kind of a cornerstone of building the state and the state’s reputation.
“Moving water is actually the largest single use of energy in California. So, from a climate and water perspective, I wonder: Is that the way to go?”
But we don’t have summer water—we’re a Mediterranean climate. We don’t tend to do dryland farming. So, we need irrigation. Our irrigation habit is already kind of coming due. There are parts of the Central Valley that are turning too saline to farm from decades of irrigation. There’s been dramatic contamination of groundwater from too much fertilizer and pesticides, which are also a result of these very extractive industrial practices.
In California, 1-4 percent of the economy is agriculture (depending on what you’re counting), yet it takes 80 percent of human water use in the state. Moving water is actually the largest single use of energy in California. So, from a climate and water perspective, I wonder: Is that the way to go?
That’s not to say that farming should disappear from California, but I think big changes are needed and some land does need to be fallowed. [For example], maybe we should just be growing food for Californians, and, therefore, producing less overall. Some of this [will require] shifting crops as well. Already, there’s a shift away from alfalfa, which is incredibly water-intensive.
I’m talking a lot about California because that’s where I’m from, but there are other places around the world like, like Saudi Arabia, that wanted to be food independent . . . so they planted crops in the desert and depleted their groundwater basins. Now, they’re doing things like buying land in Arizona to grow alfalfa for beef that they’re raising in Saudi Arabia. So, it’s kind of nuts.
Often the conversation around local farming can be more focused on transportation emissions, but not the transportation of water to prop up some of our farming systems. Can you say more about that?
The West was settled by people from the East and people from Europe who were used to summer water. They took an approach to farming that was from somewhere else and tried to put it in the West, whereas places with longer histories of cultivation have more place-appropriate ways to work with water.
I would like to see agriculture much more local and water-appropriate. For example, there are techniques for creating little furrows in the ground, so that when rain comes, more of it soaks in and the soil holds it for longer, or the eris system I wrote about in South India—that was a massive-scale movement of water into the ground to raise the groundwater table and make water available throughout the year. There are ways to farm in seasonally dry places, as long as you are thinking more holistically about the water cycle and hydrology.
This is an important time to be thinking critically about how we use water, both in terms of climate change, but also California is now attempting to regulate groundwater for the first time. What’s at stake as California implements the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SIGMA)?
“Paleo valleys are basically like slow-moving underground rivers, created by the glacial cycles that came to the Sierra Nevada tens of thousands of years ago.”
We’re already seeing the impacts of [groundwater depletion]—there are people in rural areas who already no longer have water in their wells. They’re having to either ship in water or drill deeper wells. And that’s true also of farmers, who rely on groundwater there. There are a lot of farmers in California who do not have any surface water rights and rely exclusively on groundwater.
One thing that’s interesting is almost all the groundwater plans [under SIGMA] that have been submitted to the state do have a recharge component—because people want to continue to pump groundwater and recharge is the way that they can do it. It was encouraging to me that state water managers are saying, “We cannot build any more reservoirs. We’ve already dammed all the big rivers, and there’s tons of space underground, and we need to be using the underground for storage.” So, that is a massive shift in approach. I think that’s a good thing.
If you think of the Central Valley, historically, it was a massive floodplain for months out of the year, so that [involved] groundwater moving underground. We’ve erased all that. The extent to which winter water is being put underground, I think can that help to restore the hydrological cycle. I mean, the devil is in the details, but I hope that that will lead to healthier hydrology in the state.
Can you talk about the way that paleo valleys might fit into California’s plans for recharging groundwater? And if you could just describe what those are and how they could be useful?
Paleo valleys are basically like slow-moving underground rivers, created by the glacial cycles that came to the Sierra Nevada tens of thousands of years ago. The water still wants to move through them because they’re filled with this very coarse cobble. If you could find the paleo valleys and make the land above them a conservation recharge zone, then that could be a resource that would allow you to move floodwaters underground quickly—as they’re traveling through this [existing] underground “river.”
The water would more slowly seep into the surrounding clay, and that would raise the groundwater table across the valley and make more water available for plants, reducing wildfire risk because the plants won’t be so desiccated. They also have the potential to make fish populations healthier. You often hear the fish versus farmers narrative, but fish are healthier on the floodplains. So, the water is first benefiting fish and then going downstream to benefit farmers, and they can be potentially using the same water.
Can you say more about how farmers can recharge their groundwater. You point to Don Cameron of Terranova Ranch as somebody who’s ahead of the curve. Can you describe his system and if that’s the system other farmers could turn to?
(Cameron) has no water rights. He relies only on groundwater but he asked his local irrigation district for water in the winter because their members weren’t using it then. He’s basically just moving water onto the land [to recharge the water in his soil and the groundwater below his farm]—fallowed fields or a crop that he’s experimented with and found it can survive with water on its feet for some period of time—sitting on top of the land before it can infiltrate the soil.
If farmers are putting water on the land, they need to be very careful that they’re not doing it shortly after fertilizing, or pesticide applications. Because if you contaminate groundwater, it’s very difficult to clean it.
“If you are seeing other things as less important, then you’re justified in exploiting them for your own use.”
There’s been a fair bit of work—I would say, more in the Midwest—on buffer strips. They are a way to absorb some of the runoff [fertilizer] from crops and give plants a chance to clean the water before it moves into the river, but buffer strips could also be used for recharge. So that’s one approach and that’s where the paleo valleys also could be useful—because if you can find a place where the water moves underground quickly, then you don’t need as big of an area to do that.
And is there already a conversation to incorporate paleo valleys into groundwater management plans?
At the state level, they are aware of the potential but they’re still not a well-understood phenomenon. There have been no pilot projects because only three [valleys] have been discovered.
There is a paleo valley that one of [hydrologist Graham Fogg’s] students found just outside of Sacramento, and he wants to use that as a test to show people how amazing they are—how quickly they can move water underground and how much they can store. There’s a giant reservoir in that area called Folsom Lake and it holds like a million acre-feet of water and Graham says that this particular paleo valley can hold the same amount of water. So, it’s absolutely massive.
There are a lot of obvious co-benefits to these projects. One of them is biophilia, right? I mean, we’re animals and we’re naturally attracted to nature. So, if you have a slow water project in your city, such as restoring a wetland, or a floodplain alongside a river that flows through the city, it’s a beautiful space that smells good and has birds—you know, maybe you see an otter.
You write that “the idea that we can control water has always been a fantasy.” This made me think of California’s historic approach of fire suppression too. Could you talk more about this idea of controlling water and nature in general?
One [facet] is colonialism. You have European people moving around the world, going to places that are foreign to them, and oftentimes suffering because they don’t understand the land. They don’t understand the critters. Maybe they aren’t able to grow enough food, or maybe they’re falling prey to malaria or panthers.
The same kind of attitude that colonizers have brought to Indigenous people of superiority and suppression, I think they’ve brought to the natural world as well.
If you are seeing other things as less important, then you’re justified in exploiting them for your own use. Now, with 75 percent of the land area altered, we’re hitting these limits, where the way that we’ve been doing things has to fundamentally change. There really is a shift needed in our mindset to approaching water—with more of an attitude of collaboration and partnership as opposed to control.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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