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Water…

January 4, 2012

Well, the next month I will be in proposal mode for the farm’s water supply. And, holy moly, am I struggling to find a way to summarize what I think will be, by far, the most important issue humans will face in the next hundred years: the water crisis. Energy, food, it all means zilch without water. We lose our water supply either to depletion or contamination, that’s it, we dry up. Life, as we know it, cannot exist.

THE PROBLEM

Our Earth isn’t drying up you say. It still rains and we are capable of replenishing the groundwater that is being lost. Yes and no. Do we get rain? Some places get plenty of it. True.  Does that rain replenish the ground water at the rate we consume it? No. Why? Think cement, roofs, and asphalt. When the rain hits these materials, it creates run-off. Instead of that water absorbing into the ground and back into the ground water supply, it “runs off,” into a storm drain if you are urban or a creek or river if you are rural. And when it is hot (as in the summer), much of the water evaporates before it even hits the ground as precipitation or irrigation. This latter reason greatly concerns agricultural practices and the rate and amount we consume of the ground water which I will get to later.  Also, some aquifers are so bad they cannot be replenished even if we drastically changed course like sinking all the rain back into the ground and decreasing our water use exponentially. Not to mention factoring in geology and global climate change which is melting glaciers at an exponential rate and drastically changing snow pack levels.

In places such as the Plains’ states (which all depend on ONE aquifer) and the San Joaquin Valley in California, ground water is dropping fast and some scientists say it is only 25-60 years before these supplies are gone. It’s already an extreme crisis in places like Texas, New Mexico, and globally in villages in India and China. But it blows me away about how little the discussion goes on elsewhere, from politicians, conservationists, farmers, or  just the mainstream media and public. If the Ogollala aquifer dries up or gets contaminated beyond use for agricultural (see one of the reasons why many DON’T think the XL Pipeline is in our “Nation’s best interest”), then the US loses 20% of its total US agricultural harvest.  People are starting to pick up on the idea of knowing where their food comes from, but that concept applied to the water they drink is still a mystery. Most of us still act like that tube that carries water underneath the ground (called an aquifer) that we walk on will be their indefinitely and we can, just as we do with other natural resources, exploit, waste, and treat it like it’s are a never-ending right we as a race have at our will. Well, I challenge that assumption. Just ask this farmer or this school district. It’s not just the aquifer that is having dry spells, the rivers and creeks we take from are suffering as well. And, it’s not necessarily that we take from them that is the problem, it’s the sheer volume and the rate at which we take from them that just isn’t sustainable. Uh oh, I used the word “sustainable.” And what does “sustainable” mean here? It means the rate at which you consume or use water cannot be greater than the rate at which the water can replenish itself.

Ok, Ok, enough of outlining the problem. After reading this post, I don’t want you to feel useless or overwhelmed or feel like you, doing a small part, cannot make any difference in the world. DON”T start thinking that! Just keep reading.

CURRENT NATIONAL IDEAS FOR SOLUTIONS (What THEY Say – interpret at will or perhaps I’ll interpret for you – the 1%)

Use technology to drill wells deeper, drill more often, drill in areas our nation has protected, dam more rivers, etc, etc. How do we pay for this? Tax payer money to subsidize the technology and engineering giants and the corporate, industrial farmer. Most lose money, very few make a whole bunch of money, and in the end, we are back to the same problem plus more environmental destruction: over-consumption. Doesn’t this have a striking resemblance to another natural resource we extract?

I am particularly hard on these ideas, it’s true, because I just don’t think they move us forward. They are very circular, are temporary, are too costly, do not deal with the root of the problem, and profit only the very few.

To be a bit more fair, however, the government is trying to encourage use of water conservation practices by the farmers. Some cities and towns have put in ordinances for restricted water use during severe weather. But very little incentives or subsidies are going to preventative and sustainable measures, the bulk is still going to the corporate, industrial, out-dated, ineffective ways of the past.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS (or at least ways you can help) for BETTER SUSTAINABILITY

I don’t claim to have all the solutions. Not even close really. These problems at both the local and global levels are complex and, for me, overwhelming. What I do have control over, however, are my actions and contributions to helping move us forward to a world (or, at least, a community) which has an increased awareness of our impact on the resources we use, a better connection to the land around us, a greater empathy for all life on this Earth, and cooperative actions to reduce these impacts to a more sustainable level. Tall order, yeah, but necessary.

ONward, one step at a time. Step one: awareness. Step two: courage. Step three: action.

Step three has many steps of its own. Down to the details, which is a bit harder for me since I seem to think big picture the majority of the time. I’m coming back to the land, back to Oregon City, back to finding a solution for the water issue I have at hand. I’m convinced I can find a way to water an acre of vegetables while having a reduced footprint on my water consumption. I’ll be handling this issue in these three ways:

1. Rain Water Catchment Systems

This is the biggy in all aspects of the term “biggy.”  If you haven’t heard of it yet, time to become aware. This is probably the best way YOU can make a reduced impact and help return water back into the ground, especially in the Pacific Northwest where rain is plentiful. But, it’s even more important in Texas, AZ, and NM now too. As I was digging into the research, I found some pretty creative systems that folks use in the Southwest.

I was out at the farm on Saturday and had the pleasure of taking a stroll around the land with Clair Klock, Portland’s own rain water catchment extraordinaire and a congenial, jolly good soul as well. Just Google Clair Klock and rain water harvesting, and you’ll see just what kind of fun I had on Saturday. After two hours of brainstorming ideas, informing us of resources, and giving us an exhaustive list of options, I think Michael and I were a wee bit overwhelmed.  The potential for this is inspiring, the initial cost for this poses the largest barrier for small farmers. And, the government incentives just aren’t in place for this. Their money is still going to the drill deeper, corporate-controlled Empire. So, until this changes, the small farmers, the environmentally-just farmers, need creativeness. Which returns me to the beginning statement I made: proposal mode for the next month.

A very quick introduction to rain water harvesting practices starts with a structure that you can “catch” the rain off of, filtering and piping it into some sort of storage container.  The containers range from large ponds lined with a plastic sheeting to 300, 000 gallon silo containers to under ground cistern tanks to 50 gallon rain barrels. The farm has a large barn on it with the potential to capture all the rain needed to run a one  (even several acres) acre plot of vegetable production, not to mention live stock production too. In the plans for the proposal: a 30-40,000 gallon silo, above ground system and a 30 x 40 x 12 ft pond which can store up to 150, 000 gallons of rain water throughout the season.  All of this water will be captured from a 4500 sf roof. And who said I’d never use my math skills. Just to clue in those that might be the least bit mathematically curious:

1 cf can hold 7.48gal water

1 sf can capture .623 gal of water for every 1″ of rain

Oregon City’s average rainfall is 45″

I’m going all in like this because if we get the funding, this setup would be enough to run a couple of acres of veggie production, plus all the livestock needs. It would be the best option for the land owner (and myself) for the longer term. I’ll talk about the ways I plan to fund the project in another post.

More information on rain water harvesting (especially geared toward residential folks) can be found here. And ways to combat run-off in urban areas: combine catchment with the slow-release of the water into something called a rain garden.

Only answer to the water crisis? Definitely not. An effective and simple way you can help conserve water, replenish aquifers, and reduce your impact. YES!

2. Drip Irrigation Systems

Using an effective drip system can reduce your water use up to 90%! I will be designing the most efficient system that I can in the most cost efficient manner. This too poses up front cost. Producing an acre of vegetables does not mean watering an acre of land (which is ~42,000 sf). With the drip system I’m designing, I am reducing the watered area to 11,000 sf and hopefully less than that with the water release from the tubing being staggered.

3. Multiple Sites

Lastly, I need to hedge my bets. Don’t put all my eggs in one basket, if you catch my drift. Diversify not only production, but place of production. Mama Tee’s Farmstead is going to have multiple locations. I am going to set up a greenhouse (more like a large hoop house) at my house and grow all my starts there. I am also talking with a couple of folks about using their backyards within the Portland vicinity. This means the water I use in these cases will be coming from Portland’s water supply. Portland’s water reservoirs are filled from diverted river water behind two dams in the Bull Run Watershed. In fact, this 100 square mile watershed, that has an average rainfall of 130″ and lies in a protected area on the SW flank of Mt. Hood, supplies 25% of Oregon folks their drinking water.

I am not going to get into a long discussion about the controversy of dams here. They have both benefits and high costs. The fact of the matter is, the West would not be settled without them.  Because of them, we have lost a great majority of the majestic salmon and have damaged the ecology of river systems severely. The solutions go back to the “current” and “possible” sections in this post. There, done.

My goal with running this farm isn’t to have any impact at all. The impact is inevitable. The goal of running this farm is to reduce the farm’s negative impact on the environment as much as possible and practical, while giving back to the environment (which includes humans here) as much or more than I am taking. I could figure out how much water we waste on lawn (grass) care in these backyards and compare it to my vegetable production use, but I am not.

Do I wish Portland would develop rain water catchment systems on every building in downtown and start diverting that into their reservoirs? Yes, yes I do (just think of the jobs it would create :)). But I know that it takes time and advocacy and, ultimately, ends in politics. And, you know what? I have seeds to order, hoop houses to build, and veggies to grow. I know others are working hard to lead us in a more sustainable way when it comes to water. I have much gratitude for this. Thank you. The farm will do its part and support the cause every step of the way.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2012 9:40 pm

    Hey Mama Tee’s! Enjoying your blog and thanks for signing up for mine. I would like to come visit your farm someday, sounds like we have quite a bit in common.

    Zenger farm has a water catchment system in place similar to the one you are describing (sans pond) if you are looking for a local example. I don’t know if they are using it on the crops or just for water needs for the house, but it is pretty cool nonetheless.

    cheers,
    Laura of spudlust

  2. January 11, 2012 12:40 am

    Thanks Laura!
    I was over at Zenger on Sunday and saw their setup. I heard it’s just for the building uses. I plan on chatting with someone about it soon.
    Hey, since you have a love of all things spuds, I’m hoping to find a good potato seed for planting here in the PNW. Any suggestions?

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