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Look to the Soil for Water Supply Answers

In her new book, author Judith Schwartz argues that fixing land management problems and restoring native wildlife species are, in reality, water supply projects.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
A herd of mule deer in the Sierra Valley, north of Truckee, Calif. Author Judith Schwartz says the land disturbance caused by trampling herds such as these can actually boost water supplies by helping the soil absorb more water.Sara Holm, CA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife

Throughout the ongoing drought, millions of Californians have lifted eyes skyward, yearning for rain. But Judith Schwartz believes we should spend just as much energy puzzling over the ground at our feet.

In her new book, “Water in Plain Sight,” Schwartz argues that the amount of rain that falls is less important than what happens to the rain, how fast it moves across the land and where it goes. Soil health, land management and wildlife diversity all figure into the results.

Schwartz, a journalist who lives in Vermont, previously wrote “Cows Save the Planet” in 2013. In that book, she argued that restoring soil–in part through restorative livestock grazing practices–can play an important role in reversing climate change.

The new book takes that notion a step further, asserting that by restoring biodiversity to the soil and the landscape, we could boost water supplies and improve water quality. Schwartz takes a number of examples from California to make her case.

The problem at hand is that our soils have been so depleted by development and intensive agriculture that the dirt simply can’t soak up water like it once did. Instead, water rushes off too fast, leaving creeks and aquifers depleted, contributing to water quality problems. But the spongy, thirsty soil that once existed can be brought back, she says, if we change farming and grazing practices.

Schwartz also takes a fresh look at the water cycle, that concept we all learned about in grade school. In doing so, she introduces new ways to make the most of the water we do have, and explains how restoring healthy wildlife populations can also boost water supplies.

Water Deeply recently spoke with Schwartz about these concepts.

Water Deeply: One of your main points in the book is that the soil under our feet is key to our water supplies. Why were you drawn to this connection?

Judith Schwartz: Often when we talk about our challenges we kind of compartmentalize. We talk about climate change over here and biodiversity over there and our water problems over there. So everything’s separate. But how do they all interact? By understanding that, and understanding the processes that connect all of these concerns – all these aspects of life on our planet – we can address our challenges. And more often than not, by addressing one problem, we can address them all.

When we take a perspective that addresses how they’re connected, then we’re better able to deal with all these challenges instead of looking at everything with a lens that just gives us a very narrow perspective.

Water Deeply: Is that what we’ve been doing with water historically?

Schwartz: In many ways, yes. Many of our efforts to deal with water have had the effect of severing the connection between rainwater and the land. Because, as we develop cities, the goal was to whisk water away.

It’s kind of extraordinary when you start to look at the Los Angeles area, for example. We think of it as this mass of concrete and buildings and freeways. But that whole area was full of estuaries and floodplains and the river. It was this whole functioning, living, breathing system. When we put human-built borders along the coast and imposed our human-built infrastructure, then all of that changed. We no longer had all the things that happen at the water’s edge the wetlands, the estuaries and all of those systems.

But we can’t really talk about water without looking at the land. In terms of drought, we’re always just looking to the sky, as we say. Certainly drought has a lot to do with what does or doesn’t come down from the sky. But it also has to do with how the land is managed, so that we are either keeping water on the land or not.

There are places where you will have drought even if it rains because the soil is so depleted, so lacking in carbon, lacking life, that it cannot hold the water. That’s essentially what happens on our impermeable surfaces – the rooftops, the asphalt, the concrete. It doesn’t function. It’s not living. So the rain doesn’t stay there.

There are ways to keep it there, and that’s where I believe that we can start having some useful and productive conversations. But we need to see it that way. One of the things about the book that I tried to incorporate, as I was writing it and articulating to myself, is that it’s looking at water not as if it were a noun but as if it were a verb.

Water Deeply: Tell me more about what you mean by that.

Schwartz: When we look at it as a noun, it’s like this thing: Water is good, we want more. But thinking about water as a verb, it becomes about how does it move, how does it function, how does it stream across the landscape, how does it move across the atmosphere. Water is doing all these things. It’s such a different way of thinking about water compared to what we usually do.

Water Deeply: You write about thinking of soil as part of our water infrastructure. Why is that important?

Schwartz: It’s important to really stress the value of biology in dealing with water. The infrastructure is there. It’s up to us to recognize it and to be aware that there are land practices that are beneficial to the water cycle and those that aren’t. There are those that maintain and build soil aggregates, and practices that are detrimental to that water infrastructure, like excessive land tillage and chemicals use.

Agrichemicals are basically undermining not only the system that ultimately generates food, but also undermining the land’s capacity to deal with water efficiently. Basically, when we’re using a lot of chemicals in agriculture, you need to use more water. Which, in turn, decreases the land’s ability to hold water. Another is the plants, the crops themselves, are not functioning in an optimal way when you load them up with chemicals. The healthier the plant, the more efficient its photosynthesis and its ability to hold water.

Water Deeply: And there’s also an important climate change connection here, right?

Schwartz: The opportunity is to build more carbon in the soil. People are using all different combinations of ways. In the soil-building world, North Dakota is really hot. I visited the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District. They’re a group of people in the Bismarck area who are doing a lot of experimenting with building soil carbon, mostly using no-till cover crops, and they are doing amazing stuff.

The basic thing is to keep the ground covered. In a lot of our farmland in this country, farmers just take the crop off and leave it, and the ground is left bare and you have these “sunshine spills” all over the continent. What they’re finding is, you can use a combination of cover crops that create synergies that pull up different minerals so it’s really good for growing crops. Also, those synergies help draw down carbon deeper in the soil so it’s more stable and you’re building humus, which is a more stable form of soil carbon. That’s one way.

By increasing soil organic carbon by just 1 percent, that represents the ability to hold about 20,000 gallons of water per acre. So for every bit of carbon that’s lost, you’re also losing that water because you can’t hold it in the soil. That means that water then has to be imported, whether from rain or from a pipeline.

Water Deeply: You also argue that biodiversity has a role that having a variety of native species doing their thing on the landscape can actually boost water supplies.

Schwartz: What I found compelling there is that, sure, it makes sense that when you have a healthy, functioning water cycle, that supports biodiversity. But what’s equally true is that biodiversity supports the water cycle. All these different species are contributing in a way that treats water differently.

For example, beavers. There were so many in Northern California at one time, and they were helping keep water in the landscape. Then we altered the biodiversity by killing beavers, either because they were a nuisance or because of their fabulous fur.

One thing I also talk about is our short memories. It’s just a human tendency to think things have always been the way they are. The reason I really think it’s important to challenge that and try to look back and use our imaginations is that we have no idea how lush and rich our landscapes can be, because we’ve lost that memory. We think that it’s always been this way.

Water Deeply: That’s kind of sad.

Schwartz: Sad, but again, it’s also an opportunity if we open up to the possibilities.

Water Deeply: Allan Savory is a key figure in this new book, as he was in your last book. What’s the essence of his work?

Schwartz: He asked the important question: How does land function? He came to understand that grasslands co-evolved with these huge herds of herbivores moving across the landscape. So he started asking: What is it about the movement of those animals that maintains the land? Because the land was beautiful when there was all this incredible life.

He understood the herbivores were being kept on the move by predators, and when a predator came into the picture, the grazing animals would bunch up and then flee. And that created a disturbance as the land and plants were trampled by the fleeing herds.

We think that land is going to be better if we don’t disturb it at all. But actually the disturbances kickstart a number of important things. The trampling was creating little holes for water to pool. It was pressing seeds into the soil so that there’s greater biodiversity.

But Allan Savory was really focused on what happens when the plants die and then decay. If we just leave the grasses to die and we don’t do anything with them, those grasses are, first of all, oxidizing: They’re drying out, they’re blocking new growth and becoming fodder for fire. So it’s really important to reintegrate that material into the soil. And grazing animals do this by trampling the vegetation into the soil. It enriches the soil, keeps it vibrant, the seeds get pressed in and get a chance to germinate. The more plants there are, the more it holds the soil and you get less erosion. And it holds the water because it creates a more carbon-rich soil.

Water Deeply: Are you hopeful these concepts can be put into place on a large scale in the U.S.?

Schwartz: Actually, I’m really hopeful because once we open up our thinking, the shifts can happen on a large scale. I’m hopeful because I’m seeing this happen so fast. When I was writing “Cows Save the Planet,” it was a really weird experience because I felt alone. It was me sitting in my chair in Vermont talking to different sources, but all these sources weren’t connected.

Since that book came out, there is this whole growing movement. There are like five organizations focused on soil health now. And they’re all interacting with each other and it’s great. So it’s just a matter of really bringing all these solutions to light and encouraging us to think about our environmental challenges, including water, in more of a whole-system way. Because the answers are there.

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