Water and me. And you.

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garlic chives and pear tree

Water woz ere. A clearly hydrated landscape thanks to good hydrological design at Strathcona Community Garden, Vancouver Canada

We’re all becoming acutely aware of the value of water. And so we should, as water’s role in our lives and in the planets’ cycles cannot really be understated. When designing and planning a Permaculture system, it’s top of the list – the order goes: Water, Access, Structure. Design and sort out your water catchments and systems before you design anything else. Give them priority. Water is not an optional extra. Without water, you’re stuffed.

So it’s very strange to consider that, in most temperate and dryland urban biospheres (and, god help us, many rural ones), water is not top of the list in terms of how living systems are designed, and therefore how our lives are led. Designing water into our landscape is still seen by many as an optional extra in terms of habitat and urban design. Because worst case scenario, you can just turn on a tap. Or a drill a hole down to the shrinking ground water. Water is still seen as someone else’s problem, or something we deserve to be handed on a plate with no conditions or responsibilities.

And if we do feel a tweak of guilt or responsibility, we can install a half-flush on our drinking-water grade toilet. Or get a more efficient showerhead. Put in a tank if there’s room down the side. Maybe plant some succulents instead of dahlias this year. All very cosy. But there is soooooooo much more we can do to harvest, retain and re-use water within our habitats, which will result in more fecundity, more home-grown veggies, and less reliance on water coming from somewhere far away. And it’s not just the domain of those who are building from scratch, or have enough cash and/or space to re-design their entire surroundings. All that water falling out of the sky needs to be put to work back through a natural system as quickly and completely as possible. And letting what doesn’t fall directly on your roof or said succulents all skid down the gutter and into the stormwater drain does not count.

water harvesting

A landscape on the wasteful path to water scarcity / A landscape on the stewardship path to hydrated abundance
From Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands Vol II by Brad Lancaster

There are many good books around that help you take responsibility for the rainwater in your habitat, regardless of whether you’re in drylands or in a more temperate environment. An interesting read that I came across recently is Dam Nation – stories from the water underground, which focuses on grassroots water activism, but also the practicalities of greywater re-use. The politics of water is gathering steam, and films such as Flow are starting to articulate just where the future of water could be headed.

Here at Milkwood water has always been a priority, right from the word go. In fact, the reason we still live at Basecamp and not in a lovely passive solar cottage just yet is because we prioritized water-harvesting earthworks over building our home when implementing our initial water design for Milkwood. And now, as we’re building our cottage, we have multiple dams and swales that feed and water various plantings all over Milkwood in a completely passive way… which means that now, while we’re busy building, Milkwood’s forests and pastures are busy growing – establishing biomass, making  soil and slowly, quietly building up a biosphere that couldn’t otherwise occur without so much residual, passively harvested moisture.

milkwood swale

Synchronicity – a just-built swale at Milkwood after a big rainstorm. Water is held in the swale until it percolates into the soil on the downhill side – a process which in this instance took about 24 hours. That’s a lot of water ending up in the soil instead of rushing off downhill, taking our topsoil with it… After this photo was taken, the downhill side of the swale was planted out with various trees to take full advantage of all that passively-harvested moisture.

Considering how utterly important water is, it’s very good to know that there are some very good resources on water harvesting for both the urban and rural sectors. There are many good strains of writing on water-harvesting earthworks – there’s people like P.A. Yeomans, an Australian farmer who developed the Keyline system of farming in western Sydney in the 1940-1950’s and put out Water for every Farm, which is seriously funky stuff and far reaching for the carbon farmers end of things, among others. There’s classic Permaculture earthworks, as outlined in Bill Mollison’s magnus opus Permaculture: A designer’s manual. There’s also folk like Peter Andrews who’se natural sequence farming basically incorporates aspects of both Keyline and Permaculture techniques by another name with a focus on bioremediation and watercourse re-shaping. All these resources lean towards, but are not exclusive to, water harvesting on properties and larger areas, which is why this strain of thing is sometimes called Designing Water into Landscape.

P.A.Yeomans’ property ‘Yobarnie’ in Western Sydney, a property emblematic of Keyline Design. Plenty of water designed into this landscape…

However there are now some resources that really truly span the urban and rural sectors when it comes to harvesting rainwater. Two hotspots of this sort of info that spring to mind (heh) are the websites of writers Art Ludwig (He of titles such as Creating an Oasis with Greywater) and also Brad Lancaster (He of the really rather brilliant Rainwater Harvesting website).

Brad Lancaster in particular has some great books out at the moment, the Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands series – I recently reviewed Volumes I and II and you can read the book review I did here. What I like so much about Brad’s work is that his stuff truly straddles both urban and rural environments, and his books outline intelligent, do-able solutions for rainwater and greywater use on both the large and the small scale. Finally, both volumes are finally available in Australia, so you can figure out how to get your hands on a copy over on our Bookshelf. Yay for access to good information.

If you want to continue learning and thinking about rainwater harvesting, you could do worse than having a look at Brad talking Rainwater Harvesting on YouTube. Or you could go outside next time it rains and get a feel for just how much water is slucing off your property and into the gutter / roadside ditch / neighbour’s paddock, and have a think about what you might do to keep that water in place, so that you can use it to create general fecundity.

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