Water The Forests: green work, floods, fires, and droughts

Greg Bryant
July 31, 2018
April 22, 2019
May 1, 2019
April 22, 2021
July 15, 2021
July 15, 2022

We primarily need to address the causes of climate change: industrialism, capitalism, inequality, militarism, imperialism, growthism, the institutional destruction of -- and disrespect for -- nature and people ... the list of contributors is long. We need to commit to stopping the bad economy and creating a good and just economy, so our daily efforts aren't continually, undeniably, contributing to the system we're opposed to.

But along with building coöps, democratic community development trusts, replacements for corporate imports, etc. ... we also need to develop a good economy of coping with disaster.

Extreme swings in weather are among the most notable consequences of cataclysmic climate change. 

Today everyone and everything is entangled with a practical question: how can we protect ourselves, and our built and natural environments, from these windy and fiery "new normal" summers and droughts, and their complementary heavy rain and flooding? And how can we do so in a way that helps to reverse climate change, reverse biodiversity and wildlife loss, and helps us to grow a better society in harmony with nature?

How about watering?

Now, I suppose it's predictable that someone living in Oregon -- writing for a publication called 'Rain' -- would ask that question. There's no doubt that in some of our seriously drought-afflicted regions on earth, this sounds gratuitous, because there seems to be no water at all! 

But even though droughts have become so extreme that aquifers are collapsing, we need to remember that there are ancient cultures and indigenous populations that adapted to such conditions. They created oases for themselves in desert conditions, using hand-built infrastructure to capture water. Consider artificial lakes, ponds, and wetlands, as well as qanats, capillary canals, terraces, keylines, swales & berms: ecologically-sensitive infrastructure still in use today. It's not strange to suggest that we should work harder to water plants. They serve as a counter to heat (because they provide shady microclimates) and to floods (because they protect soil from runoff). Where we can, we need to do the equivalent of replacing the season-balancing role of the increasingly rare glaciers and snowpacks, and help the land under climate stress. This water protection will help the regeneration of ecosystems, which will store more carbon, moving us towards a virtuous cycle to reduce global heating.

Certainly we need to do much more than help our ecosystems to find water, based on our local situations. But I want to make one thing clear: this is not a 'geo-engineering' proposal. This is not about building conventional dams and reservoirs.

'Mega-projects' have a poor history. The first principle of any proposed action, large or small, should be to do no harm to people and ecologies, and create incremental improvements using techniques accessible to everyone, so everyone can get involved at a grassroots level. I will not be rushing towards 'big technological solutions', such as massive hydroelectric dams, pipelines, and canals. They are harmful and inequitable, erosive of the environment, and inefficient. Always. We can find more natural routes, which will be more sensitive, coöperative, flexible, and successful.

Our goal is to reduce desertification, wildfires, extreme heat, etc.. So, roughly, we need to retain more winter rain, for use throughout summers and droughts. It's an imposed balance, to correct an anthropogenic atmospheric imbalance that's wiping out the environment we depend upon. 

While doing this, we want to avoid further erosion and damage to our aquifers, lakes, rivers, and coasts. We want to enhance them, and, if appropriate, to stabilize them. In the most abstract sense, we need to keep the excess rainwater out of the ocean, by identifying and preventing the loss of wasted water (stormwater runoff, lost graywater, polluted waters, etc.) and, most importantly, preventing damaging floods. But we also need to be sensitive to the downstream water needs of coastal habitat, and the interactions with aquatic life. 

We don't want to hurt our ocean estuaries. But every year rivers overflow and runoff does them great harm. We can help estuary ecologies to compensate for low river flows through regenerative efforts -- we've been very bad to them in the past, polluting the waters and denuding the shores of plant life. We'll be stabilizing river fluctuations as well -- although not beyond what's healthy -- when we hold onto flood water for the uplands. Although we don't like floods, sometimes they are important, so we need to carefully address these issues. A serious and massive social movement of people, coöperatively engaged in ecological restoration and care, is necessary everywhere.

Hypothetically, retaining floodwaters could also help to reduce sea-level rise. But this will have limits, since the labor for restoring hydrological balance may only be available in places where there are enough people living there to do so. For example, the melting surface ice in areas like Antarctica and Greenland are not surrounded by workers and infrastructure. Even in crowded temperate regions, it will take a great deal of human effort, and reorganization of the economy, to retain water. Water vapor -- increasingly captured in our warming air -- is helping to counter worldwide deglaciation and sea-level rise. But that makes for heavier rain storms, and floods. Anywhere we can prevent runoff, every bit will help, as humans slowly organize the necessary social and economic changes to stop climate change.

One of the easiest and most efficient approaches to water retention -- incremental, again to avoid slow and expensive mega-projects -- is to save winter-water on the local level: in the home, farm, village, neighborhood, city, and rural district.

Again, new big dams would be too expensive to build and maintain, and too ecologically destructive, but as a start, if the populace was to draw off more water in the winter, when it's plentiful, through existing infrastructure, they could store the necessary-yet-wasteful dam-overflow-prevention releases in the winter. Many dam drawdowns are purposeful and annual, to allow for fish mobility. This water could be drained into much smaller, and hopefully less harmful, secondary reservoirs. Care must be taken that these storage systems are ecologically respectful, and don't block waterways ... a plethora of small river dams are just as harmful as one big river dam.

What would this local water storage be like? Many small off-stream reservoirs, ponds, swales, keyline streams, restored aquifers, tanks, cisterns ... Do we already have enough infrastructure to store and use this extra water properly? Nowhere near enough yet. We will need to consider hydrological distribution and storage strategies, the volume equivalent of a gradient of lakes and rivers, as if we were building 'sprinkler systems' throughout our urban, rural, and wild forests.

A feedback effect of this watering will also lower CO2 in the atmosphere. The more we water and restore plant ecologies, the more CO2 they can withdraw. And the O2 they provide is very helpful for us animals.

The biggest risks emerge when these watering systems fail. In these increasingly dry summers, when more vegetation has grown in the wet season, or through our watering, these regions will be more vulnerable to wildfire, if the vegetation then dries out.  So ... we need to keep wild ecosystems wet and healthy.

That's hard, but what is the alternative? An increasingly hot, desertified world. We need to start getting good at integrating water-retention and watering strategies with our artificial, landscaped, and wild natural environments.

As a stopgap measure, we can sometimes use traditional techniques to remove some dry plant material -- flocks of sheep and goats can do this quite well. 

It's all labor intensive. But, as it turns out, we have a vast population of mis-employed, underemployed, and unemployed people, many of whom feel quite rightly that they're currently wasting their lives and their abilities as wages-slaves ... for a machine that is destroying the earth and the possibilities for genuine personal fulfillment. Instead, they could work creatively and coöperatively, with everyone doing their share, to solve these problems. We need to find a way to mobilize our transnational global population -- and for this, community organizing is the key.

Still, even with a social revolution, I know the prospect of 'watering our way' out of this crisis seems unlikely. Look at, for example, the browning of Europe (which obviously lacks this imagined water distribution) in one year's time (from NASA):

 Even to those of us who assiduously continue to garden in this weather, that looks like a lot of watering! And when you consider that aquifers are collapsing in these vast areas, the prospects seem even more dire.

So let's do some first-order calculations.

Denmark, above, has a land mass of 2.2 million square kilometers.

Let's assume that 100% of this needs to be watered.

5.7 million people live in Denmark.

So each person in Denmark would be responsible for watering 0.45 kilometers of land -- saving water in the winter, distributing it in the summer.

That's 45 hectares of land. Or 111 acres. This is enough land for a productive export farm for several families.

But let's assume that, somehow, with enough collaboration, water, swales, and channels, this level of responsibility is possible. Or, at least, enough of it to make a difference.

How much water would it take?

How much are we starting with?

The average annual precipitation in Copenhagen is 525mm. If you could capture all of that and balance it throughout the year, that's 1.43 milimeters of water each day. 

That works. There's not much need to go further with the first-order approximation. 1.43mm of water on a hot summer's day doesn't sound like a lot to keep even some natural grassland green. However, that's water that will end up in self-organizing plant ecologies, along with carbon pulled from the atmosphere, to cool the local environment. It will make microclimates that can induce rain, and make the world more tolerable for us and our fellow creatures. It will involve people in activities that will make them fight against a world of climate injustice and carbon-emitters. It's the beginning of several virtuous feedback loops. 

I'm skipping over all the other good practices of ecological conservation and restoration, and thoughtful, careful enriching of our urban, agricultural, and wild areas. Soils need to be alive to retain water -- which will otherwise just evaporate while the soil erodes. Many cultures, and locally the permaculture practitioners among others, have compiled good principles and techniques to help with naturally efficient enrichment. These have become more broadly understood by agricultural scientists in recent decades. These can help compensate for deficits in our first-order estimates. Additionally, low-cost sensible technology from indigenous peoples all over the world, who needed to survive hot climates without modern air-conditioning, need to be carefully studied, reproduced, and adapted. Water stays cool in vessels kept out of radiant heat, and there are countless other cooling system strategies. The way we cool ourselves today -- with air conditioning that burns carbon fuel and directly heats the outside -- is of course not sustainable. 

The work of growing a sustainable hydrological infrastructure itself will need to be done with the lowest possible carbon footprint. Gangs of firetrucks, jumbo jets and helicopters carrying water are great in an emergency, but if we're doing fire-prevention work -- which like preventative medicine is intended to avoid emergencies -- it needs to be done as subtly and efficiently as possible. Otherwise we're not creating a sustainable economy and society around ecological water management.

Even this work will require breaking the chains of the modern economy, which is currently structured towards, and focusing our lives upon, the accumulation of money and power for the few. We must erode this terrible system, and the difficulties and debts it burdens people with, as we build the good. And we can only do it together. No single 'climate idea' will have an effect as long as people are trapped in the the establishment's current anti-climate system.

I imagine starting with volunteers and community-supported organizers: enthusiastic, grassroots 'social hydrology' camps and brigades. They would provide a grand opportunity to grow a coöperative society. Living lightly throughout nature, independent but coöperating and connected to each other and cities, we can create an interactive relationship with nature and ourselves as we try to, ironically, save the wild. It is reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s, when organic farming slowly became a way of life and coöp tree-planters like the Hoedads took on environmental issues, or the 1990s, when youth in the northwest put their lives on the line with tree-sitting, in a kind of precursor to the occupy movement in the 2010s. While I was writing this, I found a T-shirt created by the late Rain illustrator Paul Ollswang, which could have been an organizing tool for these initial 'social hydrology brigades'. On the back was Gary Snyder's Smokey the Bear Sutra, and on the front was Ollswang's illustration of that sutra:

"Let's get organized": that's my 'hot take' on this 'climate summer'. If communities at the grassroots work to resolve these disasters themselves, if everyone pitches in to do what's necessary, then it will be possible to force governments to help.

Update April 22, 2019:

The extra heat of the climate crisis has created more extremes that, on the one hand, we need to cope with, but on the other hand, we have the responsibility to use for the benefit of reversing climate change. We need to be the negative feedback loops that combat the positive feedback loops that we previously set in motion. I'll use the 'we' here even though there's an active fight between those who want to battle the climate crisis, and those who want this not to effect their lives, profits, or power.

In the spring we have worsening extreme rain and flooding events, because the extra heat leads to the air holding more moisture. But these downpours provide resources we can use to 1) protect ourselves from the drought later in the year, and 2) regenerate the ecosystems that have been directly and indirectly ravaged by our actions.

Look at this reservoir map of Oregon:

Who knows how much water was lost this spring? The dams were overflowing, requiring such high levels of continual release (to prevent structural damage) that we were producing artificial flooding for weeks. This eroded the soil, damaged public infrastructure, destroyed private property, killed wildlife, and hurt ecosystems.

We could have done so much with that water. Specifically, we could have used it to protect wildlife during the drought we know is due to come for the next 8-9 months! During the drought, our forests and will dry up, stressing and destroying an ecosystem of thousands of plants, animals, and fungi working hard to save the planet by storing carbon and regenerating life.

We owe our ecosystems everything. And we won't survive without them. We can't allow this waste to continue.

Does the government want to help people with decent employment? How about this 'shovel-ready project': send anyone available to the forest this summer, to carefully dig and hand-build networks of hillside swales, keypoint ponds, cachements, streams, and qanats, in the woods upstream from these dams. That will slow the spring flooding, provide badly needed work, and provide water to the forests throughout next year's drought. During which we'll need to do that again. Because we should.

These are regenerative and rewilding efforts -- the revival of local pond ecosystems through the construction of pond cachements is among the lowest-cost and best-outcome approaches to carbon sequestration.

Will the cost of saving ourselves and nature be too high? Practically, where does a state find the money for a 'low-tech' project like this?

It's often said that state governments can't print money. But that's simply incorrect. The state has land, and can facilitate the building of eco-housing communities, which can provide people a full, socially rich, stable lifestyle in exchange for their work. That's just like printing money! Actually, cities, counties -- even non-profits and co-ops -- can do the same thing.

Along with these positive things, we also need to stop the bad stuff. 

The federal government has been badly 'managing' forests in Oregon for years, in order to help corporations: not to help people, not to help nature. We need to stop clearcuts, which destroy the forest ecosystem, and we need to stop log exports, which both fund the clearcutting and destroy the local jobs that depend on keeping the wood here. We need to stop the encroachment on wild areas of modern 'development': concrete, asphalt, chemicals, glass, and steel. We need to provide jobs in wood reclamation -- we're throwing good wood away all the time, and frankly wasting our buildings themselves through chronic habits of disrepair, which fund slumlord, developer, and finance-industry profits, whenever buildings are torn down and replaced. We need jobs in restoration, repair, maintenance, and improvement of buildings -- and re-integration with wild areas -- not in their wholesale destruction and reconstruction. We need to create more efficient, non-carbon cooling and heating systems, with an emphasis on negawatts, and integrated human-driven, passive climate control.

There is so much to do, the fact that anyone is unemployed or homeless is just another example of a top-down system that utterly fails, to the misery of all. The scarcity of work is totally artificial: enforced by the idealogues of our economic system. These failures motivate initiatives like the green new deal and the leap manifesto, protests and grassroots assemblies like earth first, occupy, and extinction rebellion. We can make 'civilization' work, but we all have to do it together. Luckily, when people do work together, face-to-face, they get along better. Luckily again, we have a great deal of face-to-face work we need to do, to survive!

Update May 1, 2019

How do we do this? Well, here's:

One Possible Green Scenario

One too-sunny late summer's day in 2019, a group of young people arrange, with the staff at one of their local wild conservation areas, to build earthen works. 

They weren't certain exactly how this would work. The idea was that earthworks against a hill would hold rainwater in a system of small interconnected reservoirs, which would fill during the snows and heavy rains in the winter and spring. Somehow, this earthwork system, almost certainly with human intervention, would distribute this stored water downhill to the most needy wild areas protected by the preserve, during the following summer's drought. 

The droughts were becoming so intense that watering from these reservoirs became increasingly necessary, just to meet the goals of the wildlife conservation area. Ecosystems change over time, but preserving these ecosystems and keeping them from destruction through desertification was necessary, to reduce the local and global effects of the climate crisis. Saving our wild areas, increasing them, protecting them, is both morally right and a matter of community self-preservation.

With local press coverage of their efforts, more volunteers arrived, allowing the hand-building of more earthworks, making the success of the project more likely, because more water would be cached for the following summer's release. With new people, there were more ideas, more group-to-group sharing of findings, and it was possible to test more engineering approaches, and build better irrigation systems.

A basic rule: this must be done with local materials. In the case of these water-works, this means rock, dirt, and clay, available on the sites, and baked into bricks by the sun.

As part of this effort to build with local material, we also wanted to care for, preserve, and rewilding any adjacent areas. We looked at this extraction as a wild-area repair project from the beginning, rather than something to do afterwards.

As more volunteers came to do the work, their well-being, and minimizing their negative impact on the landscape, became increasingly important. Whole crews were dedicated to minimizing the effects on wildlife of this massive effort of hydrological construction. Some members of the group were assigned to do further research, and others volunteered to record the entire process of building a self-sustaining, low-impact, rewilding grassroots construction process.

But the next question, which everyone understood from the outset, was: how are we going to do this for the quarter-of-a-million square kilometers in Oregon that needs these irrigation earthen works? 

We had started small, and in our own backyard, which was a great first step.

Our community's answer was an ancient one. People would need to develop the required wildcare skills, and resettle Oregon as self-sustaining, integrated 'helpers of nature', in order to take care of the ecology, and regenerate the wild areas under the greatest threat.

Luckily, many people were looking for work, looking for housing, and looking for meaningful community roles. People were tired of being treated like cogs in a machine, or disposable robots. They wanted respect, an opportunity for self-actualization, a sense of purpose, and a sense that what they were doing was truly important. They wanted to be treated like real people, with genuine interests, who would get equal footing, equal rights, and equal respect in a democratic work environment. 

Everyone was tired of a system that forced people into the role of managers, bureaucrats, technocrats, soldiers, precarious wage-slaves, the unemployed, the sick, the dying, the overworked, and the indebted. Everyone was tired of the unnecessary and wasteful stress that this system imposed on their lives. The same system that was destroying the planet, and the local natural environment, was destroying the souls of people.

So, we needed to build a new economy, one geared equally towards survival and repair; in tune with nature with an eye to reversing our global problems. One that provided leisure, encouraged individuality but not individualism, greed, self-aggrandizement, or snobbery. One that took advantage of the individual and group's ability to self-manage at a level of quality and effectiveness far greater than that of a tyrannical, top-down organization. This was peaceful, natural, highly-discussed, coöperative, democratic anarchy.

But we didn't want to impose these solutions on anyone. Different communities of 'nature workers' worked somewhat differently, but met regularly with other communities to share improvements in understanding and technique. In the forests of Oregon, they were committed to helping the communities that were already there, and many people from those communities began to appreciate it, and joined them in their campaign to live lightly and integrate with nature.

One forest area at a time, with careful planning and evaluation, we petitioned local governments to let us form these settlements. We started in groups of about 10 - 30 people with varying backgrounds, accompanied by the most experienced re-wilders and eco-hydrologists, and they would build some shelter for themselves and a "builder's yard" or workshops which could act as logistical centers for the earth-work construction. Communities would work hard to become self-sustaining at the same time, picking areas for forest gardening, and contributing to the general understanding of how to re-wild communities. It's been long understood that the so-called 'productivity' of monoculture agriculture is only for profit and export, whose financial success hides a lack of variety. The variety, the small-scale agricultural diversity, provides better nutrition and better ecosystem health. With good planning and hard work, and a group of people who are motivated to live well, learn well, and stop a catastrophe, one hillside pond at a time, anything good is possible.

Update April 22, 2021 (Earth Day)

In the aftermath of countless fires, taking place in areas of terrific rainfall and snowfall, we need to more seriously consider watering the forests. Looking at the destruction here in Oregon, over barely a handful of weeks, it's not hard to imagine that we could lose our forests and all of nature. And, as we did, we would be losing the ultimate battle against the climate crisis, because the active carbon removal performed by the forests, which helps to balance our carbon emissions, would cease, and greenhouse gases would continue to accumulate.

So let's take a moment to look at what we need to deploy. 

The idea regarding swales and low-impact, packed-earth, for-watering-only reservoirs, is key. 

The 2020 Holiday Farm fire near Eugene took place in the dry valleys between Cougar reservoir and the McKenzie reservoir. None of that water was used to keep the valley itself moist -- it is used to service a city with electricity and drinking water. Much further downstream from the McKenzie reservoir, the land is wetter, and the fire services have easier access. This doesn't imply that we need to develop a forest to save it. We need to promote no-impact development, ecological development, with no concrete or electrical and mechanical infrastructure. We need to create, in every valley, a packed-earth hydrological infrastructure that can water the forest for a season. We need to use handmade rock-lined packed-earth canals and ponds to reach every hillside and valley downhill from the eco-reservoir. We need these gravity-driven canals to be kept clear and maintained by well-distributed, self-managed teams, supported by all of us.

The technology mentioned is quite straightforward. The reservoirs fill in the rainy season and slowly empty in the dry season. The fire threat is eliminated; the ecosystems are saved; carbon removal and water-retention continues; and more work is created, maintaining our valuable connection with nature, as we work to reverse course and become an ecological civilization.

Community engagement with the water cycle

July 15, 2021

The extreme events that the local wildlife and people all want to avoid: rising oceans, increased carbon in the atmosphere, worsening floods and weather, worsening wildfires ... all require that we work hard to 1) stop the damage we've done, 2) reverse the damage we've done, 3) engage positively with the cycles of nature. 

A regenerative and local approach to engaging with the water cycle can solve many immediate problems: 1) we need to build natural reservoirs, to make water available for nature and fire prevention, and to curtail flooding when we have extreme rain or melt-off, 2) we need to focus on nurturing the forests and other wildlands, and having the water reserves on hand to prevent uncontrolled fires, 3) reserving water on land also stops water (not all water, just rain and snowfall) from adding to the crises in our oceans, of nutrient pollution which removes oxygen for sea creatures, and of sea level rise which destroys coastal cities and habitat.

This can best be achieved on a local level, but because of the structure of politics and money in the world today, we need a much higher level of priority from nations, making their financial and legal instruments available.

Update July 15, 2022

Forest managers in Germany are beginning to realize they need to help the forest stay watered .... that is, help the forest to retain water that would normally runoff.  This is to prevent desertification, fire, tree loss, biodiversity loss, carbon emissions,  and flash flooding:


Update September 2, 2022

Ponds can save our farms:


Rewilding our rivers can stop floods and droughts:


Or, we could just allow beavers to do this work: