Water, Water

I used to love the days in late winter when the warming sun would melt the ice and snow in the alley behind our house and send little rivers of water down the hill.  My friends and I would make ice dams.  They didn’t last long, but it was fun.  When I got a little older, I would go down to Lake Michigan.  My favorite places were the little beaches in Grant and Warnimont Parks.  I like the Lake in all its moods and majesty, but I was always attracted to the little rivulets the poured down the hills.   I can still sit for hours by a stream just watching and listening to the water flow.  

Below is Genito Creek, which runs through our land in Brunswick County.  Notice the river birch and the natural levies.  The river water naturally deposits soil along the river edge. Heavy rain will take it over the banks to flood the forests and the levies trap it on the inside making temporary ponds. This enriches soils, replenishes ground water and provides habitat for wildlife, especially amphibians.   Flooding is good.  It is only a problem when we develop and build on places best left to the natural riparian environment.  Flooding is predictable.  If you need expensive flood insurance, you probably should not have built your house where you did.

We camp near flowing streams and build our cities next to rivers.  Where we don’t have these things near enough, we construct fountains in urban squares.  Even people who don’t like to swim like to sit near a pool.  Love of flowing water is something primeval and instinctive in humans. 

Peter Glieck of the Pacific Institute gave me some interesting insights.   Here is the link to his talk at the Wilson Center.  He focused on the ecological disaster unfolding in China.  I will let you read about that at the link if you want.  It is scary.  They have destroyed 80% of their wetland in N. China, sucked dry many streams and rivers and exhausted or polluted most of the easy accessible groundwater.   But I want to concentrate on some of the general ideas.

We can never run out of water, but we can run out of water that you can afford to get or water we can get w/o destroying local ecosystems.  Dr. Glieck explained it that water uniquely exhibits characteristics of both a non-renewable stock resource and a renewable flow resource.   It is renewable, but can be used up locally. 

Regions can and do exhaust or destroy their accessible water supply and some stocks are essentially non-renewable.  We call them “fossil water.”  Examples include the Ogallala aquifer under the American Great Plains.  Water is not a global resource. It is too difficult and expensive to move worldwide in large enough quantities.  You can move bottles of drinking water over the oceans, but you cannot base your general water needs on sources that are too far away.   (BTW – tap water in most of the U.S. is excellent, often better than what you get in bottles.)  In fact, the story exhausted water often goes with the fall of civilizations.

Water and energy are connected.  Energy production uses and often pollutes water.  It takes water to grow biofuels, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.  Moving water consumes a great deal of energy.   The single biggest consumption of energy in California comes from pumping water from Northern to Southern parts of the state.   Water is reused an infinite number of times.  Cleaning it and pumping it around is what takes the resources. 

Below shallow temporary ponds are created at new construction sites to catch the runnoff and protect surface waters from silting.  If left alone, this would become a vernal pond and provide a home to amphibians, as well as all sorts of bugs – good and not.

Rain Gardens

There are lots of rain gardens popping up around Washington.  I found some up near the Capitol and there is a whole complex of them at the EPA.   I didn’t take a picture since there was little to see in the winter.    But I did read all about it on the placards nearby.   Please follow this link to the information about them.

Below is a vernal pond on our CP land.  You can see why people might call them unattractive.  It greens up by April and this part is mostly dry by August.

Below is what the same place looks like in October. You can hear the water, but cannot see it unless you push through the plants.

A rain garden is sort of a fancy name for a vernal pond, which is itself a fancy name for a temporary pond, a fancy name for a big mud puddle.  You have to change some names.  Swamps become wetlands; jungles become rainforests.  The old names have developed negative connotations that stand in the way of understanding.  Vernal ponds are really important but under appreciated.  They used to be common, mostly because of neglect.  Water just pooled up and nobody did anything about it.  They form with the spring rains and/or melt water and disappear with the heat and dryness of summer and/or when growing vegetation sucks up the surface water.  But as our landscaping “improved,” people filled in or drained many of the ponds.  Who cares?  We should.

Below is one of our streams.  It flows and floods depending on recent weather conditions.  It always flows across the surface where I took the picture, but it goes underground and reemerges at other points.

Vernal ponds are important to water quality.  They allow water to soak into the ground and they slow the flow to allow nutrients and silt to settle out.   As importantly, vernal ponds provide places for amphibians to breed.    Key characteristics of vernal ponds are their impermanence and stagnancy, precisely the things that make them unpopular with grounds maintenance crews and home owners.   If the pond is permanent enough to support fish, they tend to eat the amphibian eggs and if the water flows it washes them down.