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Making a Zuni Bowl: Let the Water do the Work

November 4, 2011 | Permaculture Techniques, Resources, Watershed Restoration | 27 comments | Author:

A zuni bowl is a riparian restoration technique involving rocks, water, biology and time. It’s a great way of dealing with a small headcut (or erosion which is about to become a headcut) in order to prevent that headcut continuing up your catchment.

Headcuts are not an uncommon sight in our valley’s many gullies. Many decades of clearing the land and grazing pressure have made the soils very fragile. For a long time, we’ve been scouting around for the best way to deal with them using simple, accessible materials and knowledge. And now we’re starting to find answers.

Zuni Bowl: A headcut control structure composed of rock lined step falls and plunge pools that prevents headcuts from continuing to migrate upstream. Zuni Bowls stabilize actively eroding headcuts by dissipating the energy of falling water at the headcut pour-over and the bed of the channel. The structure converts the single cascade of an eroding headcut into a series of smaller step falls.

Zuni Bowls also serve to maintain soil moisture on the face of the headcut, encouraging the establishment of protective vegetation. Original concept developed by Bill Zeedyk and the people of Zuni Pueblo.

The idea of the zuni bowl came to us via Tamara Gadzia, who was traveling with her husband Kirk Gadzia, the Holistic Management teacher we brought to Australia with RegenAG. Last year when we met Kirk and Tamara, we were introduced to the work of Bill Zeedyk and the Quivira Coalition, and I was blown away.

I’ll go into the Quivira Coalition and Bill Zeedyk’s very fine publication Let the Water do the Work another time, but suffice to say we were very excited about the techniques: simple, effective, adaptive riperian restoration ideas…

So this year when Kirk and Tamara returned, we got into it. We asked Tamara to come and lead a special intern project at our farm for a day, assessing and working with the gully next to our classroom.

We proceeded to tackle two small headcuts in the gully with variations on the zuni bowl technique – slowing the water down, taking the velocity out of it and spreading it out, encouraging biology, stabilizing the remaining soil.

This turned out to be a fabulous team-building exercise – you’d be surprised who turns out to be the best rock-placer! Lots of cross-talk, debating, trying out and cheering, as we created two sets of very particular yet fluid rock structures to help repair this landscape.

Tamara measures our first headcut - the depth defines some aspects of the zuni bowl construction
Evening out the headcut lip to allow for even rockwork and future water flow
Milkwood intern Olivier Sofo places the keyway stones
Bottom layer of rockwork completed
Many hands make light work...
Second course of rockwork laid
Mlkwood intern Adam Shand takes over the rock laying role
More rocks! A big flat one, please!
Just about finished - packing the turf back around the top edge
Tamara Gadzia, riparian restoration queen
Ok, we're done. Let's do another one! We can't get enough of this!
Dan Harris Pascal takes a leading role on our second structure - another version of a Zuni Bowl
Assessing how to deal wit this not-quite headcut erosion feature, before it gets any worse

And completed - a 1 and a half zuni bowl, adapted to the landscape but working on the same principles of fluid dynamics to slow and spread the water...
The mud spattered zuni crew at the end of a fabulous day...

One of the many fantastic resources that the Quivira Coalition make available is this great starter guide. We laminated the pages on Zuni Bowls and took them with us out into the field, which made them much easier to work with:

[scribd id=71251993 key=key-1ctujf9q620zatu9keq1 mode=list]

Many thanks to Tamara + Kirk Gadzia for their time, passion and knowledge in landscape restoration, and in Holistic Management. It was great to have you both at Milkwood Farm…

Riparian Restoration Resources:

Possibly related posts:

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  • Evan November 4, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Reply

    Great work! Who is volunteering to take the photos/video during the bext big rain event?

    Of all of the runoff mitigation structures I built, a series of 3 plunge pools with compacted clay bases are the ones that worked the best and remain unchanged. Next time I modify slightly and will call them Zuni Bowls. Cool name.

    1. milkwoodkirsten November 4, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Reply

      have a look at the instruction in the above doc, Evan, there’s some subtle but quite specific aspects to making a successful zuni bowl – all very do-able, tho! good luck…

  • Phillip Diprose November 4, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Reply

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. We have two ‘headcuts’ in creeks on our place. The first is / was about the same height as the first one in your pictures. It self healed over the space of about 3 years … helped by the grass species that happened to be there and planned grazing … with plenty of time for the grass to recover / grow post grazing. The other is about a metre in height. We put rocks in it to slow the flow but there was no design to what we did and the water found its way between the headcut surface and the rocks … in time continuing to erode. We re-set the rocks and things look to be OK, but if this proves not to be the case we will most certainly create a zuni bowl. Your post makes it really clear how to do this … which is fabulous.

  • purejuice November 6, 2011 at 11:23 am | Reply

    hi, what is a headcut? as you may or may not know, native american water management structures — their history, archaeology, astrophysics etc. are a burgeoning academic field here in the u.s.. fascinating to see them used in post modern life.

    1. milkwoodkirsten November 6, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Reply

      from Wikipedia: Head Cut (Stream Geomorphology) is an erosional feature of some intermittent streams and perennial streams where an abrupt vertical drop in the stream bed occurs. Head cuts resemble a small waterfall or, when not flowing, the head cut will resemble a very short cliff or bluff. A small plunge pool may be present at the base of the head cut due to the high energy of falling water. Groundwater seeps and springs are sometimes found along the face, sides, or base of a head cut.

  • […] Read more […]

  • Lauren November 9, 2011 at 12:57 am | Reply

    Finally, a solution to an issue that’s affected us for a few years. Will have some help out here later this month and this would be a good project.

    Just a few more weeks to go to finish up my first permaculture class here in Texas. Here’s to more compassionate co-existing with our land!

  • […] Making a Zuni Bowl: let the water do the work Share this:MoreEmailDiggPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was written by milkwoodkirsten, posted on November 12, 2011 at 6:00 am, filed under permaculture, video and tagged pattern, permaculture. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « Welcoming Asylum Seekers to Milkwood […]

  • […] Making a Zuni Bowl: Let the Water do the Work […]

  • […] There will be a bit of tweaking we need to do (as with any organic structure), but it’s great to see the zuni bowls slowing the water down, preventing further headcuts in this gully and letting the water do the work. Here’s how and why we made these zuni bowls. […]

  • rose January 16, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply

    Fanastasic concept! Just wondered if this would work for a 5m head cut? And do you use any grass seed? Thanks in advance.

    1. milkwoodkirsten January 16, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Reply

      Rose I would refer to the quivira guides on what would work best for a 5m headcut? we did sprinkle seed, and part of it is packing in the clods around the top lip. all seed spreading of appropriate species would be encouraged…

  • […] means (amongst many other rain-related things, most of them good) that our erosion control Zuni bowls are consistently full of water. And they make fabulous tiny oceans for setting […]

  • […] Building Zuni Bowl anti-erosion rockwork at Milkwood Farm […]

  • […] Building Zuni Bowl anti-erosion rockwork at Milkwood Farm […]

  • Frances February 25, 2012 at 11:32 am | Reply

    Is there a way to make the zuni bowls hold water, like lining with clay? Does this happen automatically/

    1. milkwoodkirsten February 29, 2012 at 10:15 am | Reply

      Hi Frances, well they hold water pretty well, actually… but its more about slowing erosion than storage…

  • […] Gadzia, zuni bowl builder and wrangler of The Quivira […]

  • […] site may be this headcut which is in a much steeper gully, just uphill from the site of our first zuni bowl erosion repair which we did with Tamara Gadzia in November 2011. This headcut is a bigger project, but would be […]

  • […] a whole year since we made our first Zuni Bowl at Milkwood Farm to combat an erosive gully headcut, and time has proved the benefits of this […]

  • Nerida November 2, 2012 at 9:27 am | Reply

    Wow – I have a few of these on my property at Blakney Creek and was contemplating how to approach them now the NSW Soil Conservation guys have completed the dams I can do this with the rest

    1. milkwoodkirsten November 2, 2012 at 11:30 am | Reply

      highly recommend checking out the resources in this post Nerida: and also Bill ZeDyk’s book on the subject – powerful smple stuff, the CMA’s are getting into it to which is great!

  • shapeofthingstoni November 2, 2012 at 11:40 am | Reply

    Brilliantly simple hydraulic solution! I love it.

  • Michelle November 4, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Reply

    VERY useful post thank you Kirsten and milkwood gang!

  • Nick Ritar December 10, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply

    We just got forwarded an email about this articel from Dr John Field from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University.

    He made some good points about the importance of restricting livestock access to the erosion zone and the addition of copious quantities gypsum if your soils are dispersive.

    Both things that we did, but failed to mention in the article. :)

    Thanks Dr John

  • Paul Priems May 19, 2013 at 8:26 am | Reply

    Wonder if that would work using wood ie. logs cut to size

    1. milkwoodkirsten May 19, 2013 at 9:13 am | Reply

      There’s other structures Paul that do use logs… Search on quivira coalition for their how-to guides…


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