The key to healthy regulation of earth's eco and climate systems.
Slow water is a path. Slow water is a clue, a pointer, a key, an injunction to how we can bring earth’s natural systems back to equilibrium. Slow is a directive, an abbreviation of the “slow it, sink it, spread it’ maxim of how we can work with rainfall once it hits land, to help it to infiltrate into the soil. The slowing of the water helps activate earth’s self-regulatory systems, helps increase the health of feedback loops that maintain the climatic conditions for life on earth - the small water cycle, the large water cycle, the groundwater-surface connection, and the vegetation-evapotranspiration thermostat mechanism. The enhancement of these feedback loops can lessen droughts, fires, floods and heatwaves, increase vegetation and biodiversity, and help guide the world out of water scarcity. Slow water is an anthem, a song of eco and climate restoration.
Slow water practices around the world
In Al Baydha, Saudia Arabia, where the vegetation had been destroyed by mismanaged grazing and firewood cutting, where rare rains come in flash floods that problematically rush off the land, villagers have been digging wide shallow swales and building traditional, granitoid-rock, check dams to slow the path of the rainfall on the land. The rain can then infiltrate into the land, and help grasses, mycelia, and acacia trees to once again flourish in the region.
In Niger, where the land is arid and sparse, villagers dig demi-lunes, semi-circle swales in the sloped ground, to slow and catch the rainwater. Into these they have been planting sorghum, millet and gao trees which are beginning to revegetate the region.
In India, where the long months of the dry season have been destroying the crops, villagers have taken to digging johads (small ponds) and swales to slow and catch the rain in the monsoon season to irrigate the crops into the dry season. These ponds also slowly seep the water into aquifers below to replenish them, which in turn both provides more well water, and helps keep rivers running year round. Thousands of villages have been reinvigorated as they learn the art of slowing rainwater.
On the Mississippi, where a century of levee building to protect against floods, has led to counterintuitively, the river speeding up, and at times, bigger floods happening, river engineers are now starting to use slow water methods to prevent floods. In the Louisiana Mississippi basin, 17 miles of levees have been taken down to allow the river water to overflow onto the floodplains, where it can decelerate amidst the replanted cypress oak and ash.
In China, where logging along the Yangtze river, and deforestration along the Nenjing and the Songhua rivers, has led to floods that have affected 200 million people, the government has been reforesting river-side land, and unveiling its sponge city program in 30 pilot cities to soak and slow the stormwaters. Rivers are being re-curved and re-vegetated, so they can better slow the water. Rain gardens, road bio-swales and wetlands are being created. People and businesses are being moved off floodplains, and the land depaved there, to allow the original absorbent state of the earth to return to soak up the water.
In Borneo, 5000 acres of rainforest was replanted by the local community. The rainforest slows down the rain as it flows through its underbrush so it can better soak into the soil. That water then evapotranspires to form rain that can fall in the local area again. The forests slows the water vapor and accompanying air as it blows by, so that the water molecules have a better chance to nucleate into rain. The small water cycle is thus increased. With the restoration of the rainforest, cloud cover has increased, and rain has increased by 20%.
Around the agricultural world, amidst the prevalence of industrial practices which degrade the soil, regenerative agriculture has been making a comeback. Regenerative agriculture with its polycropping, no-tilling, companion planting, cover cropping, compost teas, mycelia innoculation, perennial trees, and ecological succession helps restore the soil, facilitating the microbes, fungi, and organic matter to multiply, and creating air pores in the soil into which rainwater can seep. Each one percent increase in organic matter in the soil enables the soil to absorb 20,000 gallons more water per acre.
The amount of water on a continent - a museum analogy
Slowing water is the key to making progress to solving our water scarcity, environmental, and climatic issues. Lets look at a metaphor to understand more why this is. Imagine an art museum where a patron walks in every minute. The museum will have a lot more people if people walk slowly through the museum spending more time there, than if people walk briskly through the museum spending less time there. If we substitute water for people, and the continent for the museum, this analogy can help us understand how we retain more water on our continents. Water blows in from the ocean, spends time on the continent, then flows back out to the ocean. We can define a quantity called water path time for how long this takes. There will be increase in water on a continent if the water path time increases.
In our museum example, its also possible that people can walk around the building twice, doubling their walk path time. This results in a more packed museum. Analogously, on a continent water can go around twice or more. It can rain down, evapotranspire back up, and then rain down again, in a process known as the small water cycle or precipitation recycling. The more times the water goes around the more water there will be on the continent. Globally about 65% of our rain comes from the small water cycle, and 35% comes from the large water cycle. The large water cycle is water coming from the ocean and and then flowing back. The amount of water in the small water cycle depends on how we tend to the land. If the land is able to slow the water, and guide it into the soil and vegetation to then subsequently evapotranspire, then the small water cycle increases, and the amount of water on our continents increases. The small water cycle is nature’s act of recursive genius in terrestrial hydration.
Another way for the water to extend its water path time, is by sinking down into the aquifers, and then months later, be sucked back up through tree roots and spread around to the neighboring soil via mycelia, in a process called hydraulic redistribution. In the Amazon tree roots bring the water down low during wet season, then they bring the water back up during the dry season. This is the groundwater-surface connection. In the museum analogy, it is as if there was a basement in the museum, where patrons could go chill for a while, and then come back up to continue looking at the art. This increases the number of patrons inside the museum. Analagously, it increases the continental water supply in South America.
All over the world there are water scarcity crises, tense water debates, and water-induced political turmoil. Water has been re-allocated, and over-allocated; local and national governments are scrambling to make sure their constituents can get water. Increasing the amount of water on the land would help with these issues significantly. To do this we need to slow the path of water, and increase the amount of water moving through the small water cycle and groundwater-surface connections.
Lets look at California through the paradigm of continental water amount, water path time, and water velocity. Water from the Californian Sierra Nevada mountain range is caught in dams and then piped along aqueducts to Southern California cities where it is used once and then quickly drained out to the ocean. In our museum analogy this would be as if we corralled the museum patrons into one room, funnelled them to another room to see just one piece of art, and then guided them to quickly leave the museum. Fast tracking people through the museum equates to less people in the building. Fast tracking water through California means less water path time, and less continental water.
There is enough rain falling on Los Angeles to supply half the population. Unfortunately most of that rain is currently funneled via storm drainage straight out to the ocean. The solution is for Los Angeles to become more of a sponge city and recycle its own rain, thus extending the water path time. Stormwater can be guided to slow and settle into wetlands, filter down into the aquifers, and then be brought up again when needed, to be used by the city’s residents (see the future Rory Shaw wetlands park and other future LA wetland projects). In this way LA could supply a lot of its own water, and would not need as much water from up north.
If significantly less water is piped to Southern California, then dams could be removed, and more snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas can be allowed to flow down and turn into Central Valley wetlands. A quarter of the land in Central Valley was once wetlands until farmers and settlers drained them. The valley would naturally return to that state if man-made interventions were removed. The valley can increase the amount of temporary wetlands created through the practice of flooding farm fields with excess winter rains. Concrete jungle cities like Fresno and Bakersfield can once again have wetlands. Aquaculture wetlands can be adopted on some farms. All these wetlands would help refill the aquifers and increase the groundwater-surface water connection. The wetlands would help humidify the dry, hot, fire-causing, mountain-headed winds that blow across them, and lessen wildfire risk. 30%-50% of California’s water comes in sudden huge atmospheric river downpours. A lot of this water is then lost to sea without being used. With more wetlands, more trees, and more organic soil, a lot more of that water can be slowed, absorbed, and utilized.
With these changes California would find the total amount of water it had begin to increase. It would have less water scarcity issues that so currently beset it. The landscape throughout would be more hydrated, have less wildfires, and flourish more vegetation and biodiversity.
In Spain, rain has been gradually disappearing over the past few decades. Hydroclimatologist Millan Millan discovered that this is because vegetation loss, land degradation, and the paving over of the land, meant that the rainwaters are not slowed and infiltrated into the soil as much, resulting in less evapotranspiration and less water vapor to create rain. The size of the small water cycle thus has been decreasing. Much of the water vapor carrying ocean winds blow in from the Pacific into Spain, and then exits towards the Mediterranean sea, without first being able to form rain on the land, because humidity levels fail to reach the dew point without the addition of enough evapotranspiration, and because there is not enough forests creating friction to slow the winds to enable water vapor molecules to nucleate into clouds. To use the museum analogy, this would be like as if most of the patrons are walking in through the front door, and then marching straight out the back door, with only some of them staying to walk around the museum multiple times. The water path time is thus less, and the total amount of water in Spain is less, impacting Spain’s current water scarcity issues. To try and rectify this, the country has been working on various reforestration efforts.
Slow water cools
Slowing water also helps the vegetation-evapotranspiration thermostat. When temperatures rise, vegetation evapotranspires more water to cool the land, in a similar way to how humans sweat to cool themselves. The continent is like a large swamp cooler, which cools the air by evaporating the water in its container. If the swamp cooler though, does not have enough water then it can only cool the air so much. If a continent does not have enough water it can only cool the land so much. Slow water turns into more continental water. Slow water thus cools.
Forests also use this continental water to evapotranspire and create low hanging clouds. Princeton researchers found these low hanging clouds then reduce the solar energy hitting the earth’s surface, and reduce global warming.
Slow water and the large water cycle
Slowing water aids the large water cycle, which is where the oceans vapor blows inland, falls as rain, and then flows back out along rivers to the sea. We need the rivers to be flowing fully into the ocean year round, otherwise salt water will intrude onto the continent, and affect our drinking water and farmlands. This can be achieved with two techniques. One, by slowing and absorbing the rainfall into the soil, where some of it can sink down, and inch along underground until it comes out again in dry season to keep the rivers flowing then. Two, by unchannelizing many of the world’s altered rivers so that the water does not just fast track out all the way to the ocean in the wet season. Facilitating rivers to meander again, to form oxbows and snake-like curves, helping willows and other riparian vegetation to regrow, reintroducing beavers (in North America and Europe) to create small dams, will slow the river waters so that it can continue flowing out to the ocean all year. In the museum analogy, it is as if the goal is to get people coming out of the museum 24 hours a day, and yet patrons only entered during the day. To do this we have to slow the path of the patrons.
Complex systems, feedback loops, and regulation
Complex systems synchronize through rhythms. If the rhythm changes, functioning can be impaired. If one’s heart beats too fast then one can get lightheaded, shortness of breath, and oxygen deprived. The earth is a complex system with geophysiological rhythms. Changing the circulatory speed of planetary water can impair functioning (as water has to be slow enough to infiltrate the soil). It will impact the ability of the carbon and water cycle to couple. Changing the circulatory speed will influence the creation and self-replication of complex chains of carbon in the form of flora and fauna. This in turn impacts how much carbon is drawn down from the atmosphere, and the degree of global greenhouse warming.
The earth is a self-regulating system with many feedback loops. The Gaia hypothesis, first espoused by James Lovelock in the 1970s and subsequently developed by many others, proposed that biology on earth regulated the environment, and created climatological and biochemical conditions that are amenable to life. Organisms created the oxygen in our atmosphere, and vegetation evolved in ways that reflected the influence of albedo on climate.
Water forms multiple key feedback loops in the terrestrial regulatory system - the small water cycle, the vegetation-evapotranspiration thermostat (which is intertwined with the small water cycle), the large water cycle, and the groundwater-surface water connection. In each case, biology regulates the size of the feedback loop in a Gaian way. And each depends on the slowing of the water, and the amount of vegetation. If these regulatory systems get weakened, then we get more extreme weather, more drought, more large storms, more floods, and more heatwaves. Slowing water and increasing vegetation would strengthen the regulatory systems again.
In our modern water infrastructure, water moves fast. Rain rushes over degraded landscapes, runs off asphalt, and is funnelled via storm drains into the ocean. Water is aqueducted to different places, where its used once and inefficiently before its dumped to the sea. Water does not have as many wetlands as it used to where it can rest and cleanse. It is not able to soak as well into the less organic soil, where it can better nurture microbial and mycelial life. The equation of fast water does not add up, it does not correlate with our societal water needs.
Its time for a new equation that takes into account the amount of continental water, water path time, and self-regulatory feedback loops. Its time for a new and ancient song, the slow water song, where the water slowed down, can once again, connect more deeply with the earth. Millions of years of evolution has guided the terrestrial environment and the atmospheric climate to harmonize in a water song that beats to a slower metronome. We can guide it back to this original rhythm. The slow water movement will involve permaculturists, agroforesters, backyard gardeners, water practitioners, greywater installers, landscape managers, government officials, ecologists, soil scientists, hydroclimatologists, hydrogeologists, bioregional groups, green businesses, environmental organizations and climate groups. It will have its slow water legislation, slow water hydrologists, slow water engineers, and slow water urban designers. With the slowing of water, our cities and rural communities, tense with water scarcity concerns, braced against extreme weather, may find a path to a more locally resilient and climatically calmer future that’s in tune with the ancient wisdom of the earth.
Brock Dolman, a permaculturist and biologist, co-director of the Water Institute, a pioneer of greywater and beaver initiatives in California, and coiner of the phrase “Slow it, sink it, spread it” proposed creating a Slow Water movement back in the 2000’s. See this article from 2006 .
Erica Gies, author of the recently published “Water Always Wins” , proposed a Slow Water movement in her book and website
She initiated the use of the hashtag #slowwater.
A number of us have been discussing and strategizing how to launch the #slowwater hashtag and movement further.
We would like to invite you to help us spread the usage of the #slowwater hashtag. You can post articles about different methods of slowing water like swales, johads, sponge cities, beavers, carbon soil sponge, wetlands, forests, grasslands, greywater, curb cuts with the hashtag. You can post links to your slow water projects, slow water related eco-restoration efforts, slow water related organizations, slow water related climate information, or your slow water landscape architecture businesses.
The hashtag is a way for us to find each other and coordinate and connect. You can search for the #slowwater on different social media and like, comment and repost articles. We’ve started using the hashtag a bit on linkedin so far, we would like to increase that, and also spread it to other social media platforms.
We’ve talked about creating Slow Water chapters, and coordinating it with the Slow Food and Slow Money movements. Slow Money activates communities to invest in local projects. Slow Money could help invest in local slow water projects.
If you like in the comments below your ideas about the slow water movement, and any ideas for growing it.
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Slow water and dams
There is some subtlety here about the axiom of slowness in regards to large man-made dams. Dams ostensibly slow water at first glance. However there are problems with this perspective. When huge atmospheric rivers of rain approach, many dams have to release their water, so they have an appropriate buffer. That water then rushes out at high velocity along the river to the ocean. To use our museum analogy, it is as if museum patrons were corralled into one room, and then all of sudden were escorted quickly to the exit.
Another problem of thinking of dams as slow water is that large amounts of dam water is being funnelled to cities who use the water once and then flush it out the ocean, so that water is also fast tracked out. In the museum analogy, it is as if the patrons are kept in one room and then guided to see one painting and then escorted out of the museum.
Man-made dams are also not in tune with the environment. If the dam water was instead distributed amongst many wetlands, they would be growing microbes and vegetation, and getting naturally cleansed by them . Man-made dams also destroy ecosystem habitat, block the flow of fish and mussels, and impede sediment redistribution.