Sandra Postel: Repairing The Water Cycle

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The very deep did rot - Oh Christ!
That ever this should be.
~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

El Niño has been dropping much-needed rain this winter on a parched American West. But it's making little difference to the greater water scarcity issues the US as well as the rest of the world is increasingly facing.

Here to talk about the state of the world situation for fresh water -- arguably the single most important resource to humans on the planet, next to oxygen -- is Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project, author, lecturer, and former National Geographic Fellow. The punch-line to her message: as more and more demands are placed on our finite freshwater supply by human consumption and climate change, intelligent conservation is now an absolute must:

Competition for water that arises when you have increasing scarcity -- competition between cities and farms within the same area, competition between states and provinces within the same country, and then of course, competition and tensions between countries that share rivers. And so these are fundamental concerns going forward: we still have rising population and we pursue economic growth -- all this places rising water demand against a finite supply. And so just navigating that tricky course in the years ahead is a tremendous challenge.

Our water future is being determined by population, consumption and technology. As well as the failure of policy to move us toward a more water efficient set of practices. 

Take agriculture: the fact that we are growing with water in California, water in the Colorado River basin where water is fairly precious, we are growing some very low-value crops and using a lot of water to do that and often doing it inefficiently. A lot of water is used to grow hay and alfalfa. Some of it, a good portion of it, is actually used to grow alfalfa which is then shipped to countries like China to support their dairy industry. So in a sense, we are exporting Colorado River water to China in the form of alfalfa so they can support their dairy industry and have the alfalfa grown here. And again, it's not because farmers are unpatriotic or bad people or anything like that. They are responding to incentives. 

It's very important with water that we begin to create other opportunities for water. If farmers could make as much income by selling water to an urban area or selling water to a conservation organization or a water trust in order to put that water back to depleted ecosystems, they would do that. It is an economic decision. It is up to policy and our public officials that are overseeing our water supplies to make the laws and practices work for the benefit of a sustainable water feature and right now, we are just not doing that. The subsidies are great and the water laws essentially are grounded in something called prior appropriation and beneficial use which means use it or lose it. So if you have a water right, you basically need to show that you are using it or you could risk losing it. And so there is an incentive to use water efficiently in much of the West. State laws are beginning to change that and open it up, but we still have some sort of really crazy practices around water that need reform.

Going forward, we need to ask better questions like: How do we repair the water cycle? How do we make use of natural systems, whether it is flood plains, ground water aquifers, river systems, wet lands, etc to help us become more resilient? I think there is a lot of potential there to do that. We are just coming off of this age of water engineering, you know, the big dams, the big canals, the big dikes to control floods, the big diversion systems to move water around. It has been a very engineering-intensive century but we have really not looked at nature’s work in the way that we could, like the fact that nature is cleaning water whenever it runs through a wetland -- it's absorbing and storing water. Whenever we allow a river to connect to its flood plain, it recharges ground water which we can then tap during times of drought. We have really been substituting civil engineering for ecological engineering -- nature’s engineering -- and in some sense, we have to rebalance that because I think it's nature’s piece that is going to give us the resilience we're going to need to deal with climate impacts. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Sandra Postel (47m:45s)

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Behavioral Modification. As someone with an Engineering background I have a very jaundiced view on behavioral Modification. It is an epidermal beast. Wetware is too plastic. Turn your back for a moment and everyone goes back to doing what they were before. They will drive you mad. Ask Moses.

Elimination.  Pet peeve. Millions of acres of front lawn. Face facts.  We are not English Aristocrats who can afford a hundred acres of beautifully manicured lawn. You are not an Englishman,  you are a peon and you have better things to do with your time than mow the lawn. Leave it alone. 

Engineering  I still don't know the kg carbon/ kg water ratio of reverse osmosis plants.   It must be coming down with the lower pressure membranes. Still don't like it if the film cannot be recycled. 

Administrative controls.  Bring in sensible building codes. So how much embodied water is in that cement, roofing iron?  Change the building code to reflect reality. Bascillus pasterurii anyone?  I feel as though I am talking to the lumpen, but there are better ways of doing things.

Mycelia  Take a handful of soil. Smell it. Can you smell that rich aroma,  almost good enough to eat with a spoon? That is  Mycelia. Mushrooms.

I elected to grow trees in very depleted ex wheat belt, fully mined out beach sand. I put 10ha of drip irrigation in.  The result?  The water sat on top of the soil  sand. After 10 odd years the mycelia came back. And the soil could absorb moisture again. Moral: Don't plow the soil.You cannot hear it screaming in agony. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. 

This one observation alone could revolutionize water conservation. 

Putin observes that Russia has plenty of water and can export clean food.

Just like you and me water wishes for a long life. Similar to cradle to grave, from cloud condensation to ocean, the more interesting side ventures water can take will improve all. And one of it's favorites is thru us. Along life means a good life for you, a short one and things get destructive quickly. So go out and do what you can to slow that water down, easiest thing you can do today is not allowing it to go into tradition waste management. That is a straight shot to the oceans. 

Dr. Huber of Purdue on GMO:

I beg you to write your political representatives to ban GMO and associated GM products.  There is no chance to change current policy regarding GMO without massive political pressure.

  – Dan

Easy links to Ms. Postel's site.  Thank you for the informative podcast, critically important.  Well done.

AK GrannyWGrit

  1. The number one water issue, like most everything, is human populations. However, it isn't just a question of how many mouths there are, it is primarily about resource use intensity, so one more American (Australian) added is much more problematic than the next African or Indian.
The U.S. had the world's highest per capita water footprint, at 2,842 cubic meters per annum. Meat consumption accounts for 30 percent of the American figure, and sugar consumption is responsible for another 15 percent, Hoekstra says. In India, where few people consume much meat, the individual footprint is only 1,089 cubic meters a year. The global annual average per capita is 1,385 cubic meters. (link)
2. Privatization of water. A singularly bad idea for humanity but a preferred strategy of predators everywhere. If you control the waterholes in nature you can easily prey on all life since everything needs to come for the resource you are holding. Capitalism is fine for many things but it fails spectacularly for management of public goods. How would you feel if you had to buy your air (oxygen) from "name your private company". Buy or die. If you think the Rothchild's apocryphal quote ""Give me control of a nation's money and I care not who makes it's laws" illustrates a bad idea then just substitute the word 'water' for 'money' and you see the same premise on steroids. Everyone should shudder in horror at the idea.

Holding control of water is the ultimate extortion power over society, corrupting any real management of the resource and exacerbating everything that is wrong with current maldistribution of wealth and power. 'For profit' water use means that the incentive is always to use more water and extract as much cost for it at the same time.

  1. Slow it down. As Sandra Postel mentioned, climate change from a warming planet effectively accelerates the water cycle. In general the rich (in water) get richer and the poor (in water) get poorer. More heat means more evaporation and so more water goes up and must therefore subsequently come down. Across the planet this is increasingly becoming evident as experiencing fewer days with rain (precipitation) but of higher intensity when it comes. Less drizzle, more raining cats and dogs deluges. The extremes get accentuated and so we get more droughts and more floods with less happy mediums. Think feast or famine in terms of water.

When the rain comes in dry regions (yeah!) it often comes down so fast that most of it simply runs off, eroding soils and not sinking into the ground to nurture plants or recharge aquifers. What we need to be doing is adjusting how we manage water on landscapes, not just its use (e.g. drip irrigation) but also its residence time. Arthur illustrated that concept excellently with his soils management process. One of the best things we can do in many of these regions is to reforest lands, especially mountains. Trees protect and build soils. When they are there, water is retained where it falls for much longer. Instead of getting flash floods, followed by dry rivers, a region gets more predictable and manageable river flows that last longer into a season, if not year round.

Other ways to adapt to the new reality in the hydrologic cycle is to re-establish wetlands which are probably the biggest net positive for all things water and life imaginable. These areas retain water pulses and slow water losses, act like a liver to cleanse water passing through them, and are like coral reefs for wildlife. "Build it and they will come", Nature's field of dreams.

Wetlands, retention ponds and other measures that keep the water on the land for longer times also act to help recharge underlying aquifers by allowing fresh water the sink down before it runs off to the oceans.

By all means we have to become more efficient is our water use but that is woefully insufficient to effectively managing our water issues. Anything we can do to slow down local/regional water cycles and gain multiple uses of water as it passes though (e.g. retention pond/reservoir to gray water to irrigation to wetland…) is what is necessary to adjust, adapt and more than survive, perhaps even thrive, in these changing times.

To follow up on Mark's great post, Ben Falk talks about the benefits of slowing, spreading and sinking water starting at approximately 14:20 of this video.

Some ideas to reduce water use: 1) make food more nutritious so less is eaten and grown; 2) reduce amount of thrown out food (currently ~30%) using various incentives; 3) eliminate GM farm products to restore micro bacterial health of the soil which will reduce required water and increase soil nutrients; 4) ban artificial watering of golf courses; 5) do not not allow non-succulent plants in arid regions of USA.
Glyphosate is potent anti-bacterial so it not only plays havoc in our guts but also in our soil and with animals that interact with soil (e.g. bees)!

Re-posting from today's Daily Digest:

Many plants go dormant under water stress, especially grasses. Maybe the golf courses need to consider a more aesthetic approach to human foibles:

I encourage anyone who was wondering just how dangerous glyphosate and gmo crops are to watch the interview with Prof. Huber that Kugs posted above.
To this layman it beggars belief that the population of N. America is being subjected to sort of clinical testing on the long-term health effects of a gmo/glyphosate-laced diet all in the name of corporate greed.

Chris, given his academic background, would be doing the PP community a great favour if he could weigh in on this topic!

Some ideas to reduce water use:

  1. stop watering lawns in arid climates (hard stop)

  2. stop population growth in arid climates - why was this even allowed?

  3. keep water in its natural watershed - why was shipping water 100's of miles even allowed?



If there were 3 or even 4 billion humans on the planet, instead of 7.3 billion, this conversation would not be taking place. Heck, this website would not likely exist.
Saying that countries with a high population growth rate like Africa aren't as much of a problem as countries like the US because of different water footprints is a simplified picture.  It's a small planet now.  US Citizens adopt foreign children and bring the to the US, transforming their consumption patterns.  People from all over, but especially China and India are living in the US in large numbers.

We are already seeing mass refugee migrations, likely due as much to living conditions as fighting.  As things get more difficult, more people will uproot looking for a solution to their resource dilemmas.

Sure, we can be more conservative in our water footprint and should be.  But don't forget that we are doing it because we refused to be more conservative in our procreation activities.

We had a choice to control our population at a point where adequate resources would be available.  We didn't, so now we get to try to make an untenable situation workable.

Population growth is required for the global fiat fraud money system to enable interest payments and money laundering.

I was glad to see Colgate run an advert for saving water during the Super Bowl.  Having a concern  for the environment (or at least appearing to) is becoming more and more necessary for corporations.  I am not sure that the net effect is good.  Some I've talked to are quick to be happy that at least some one else is concerned and they feel better without making any personal changes themselves.  This ad was very direct and hopefully will make those who heard it make a real change even if turning off the water is more an awareness building exercise.

It is upon this sort of behaviour that my cynicism rests.
What do you do when you don't want to spend money, but you want to look good?  Why, make an advert.! Then everyone will think you are on the side of the angels.  

Talk is cheap.

I was fired from my last job for pointing this out forcefully. It was all Safety this,  Safety that, so long as it cost nothing. I was right, they were wrong. Didn't help me much though. 

So tell me, what is fundamentally wrong with putting $100 reversing cameras on heavy machinery?  Humans give me the vapors. 

I listened to part of this podcast while I did my normal 20 minutes of morning chores on the small 1/3 acre parcel where I have been living for the last sixteen years, never needing water from a municipality, well, stream, water truck, etc.
There are also a rapidly growing number of farms all over the world, that are being changed into ecologically and economically profitable farms that, as well as crops, harvest rainwater; snow melt, depending on location; retain an ever-increasing volume of water as those farms increase the organic matter in their soils as well as being able to recharge the ground water tables.

In neither the two-person residence where I live, nor these large farms I am either aware of or have been associated with in one way or another that have been developed in virtually every climate in the world (including desert areas) need much more high tech or ongoing input, including energy, than that which Mother Nature provides

In my case, Mother Nature provides our water needs through two relatively modest cisterns totalling some 4,100 gallons being fed from two roofs capturing rainfall from only 600 square feet of roof (44" average annual rainfall) and the higher, but smaller, cistern can gravity-feed most of the rest of the fairly steep property usually topping off small decorative, lily, banana tree and guppy (natural mosquito control) inhabited  "kiddie pool" ponds, also providing drinking water for cats, dogs and other wildlife on the property; or use that cistern with hoses leading to fixed drip irrigation lines watering groups of other soil-planted things needing water, as well as being watered by the grey-water systems from every sink, shower and tub which of course do not go through drip irrigation which GW would clog.  Further, the property is heavily wooded, providing its own micro-climate.

There are others much more versed on the farm aspects of water harvesting, retention, etc. than I, since my focus is primarily on substantiating the hard economic numbers to take to individual savvy investors so they can invest in property to have developed ( or restored) and professionally run as an ecologically sustainable and economicaly profitable investment.

Three top experts in the world include Ben Falk, who was mentioned by HughK in a previous post, accompanied with an outstanding video by Ben; Mark Shepard, owner of New Forest Farm, a polyculture farm that grows a variety of nut, fruit and fuel producing trees; other annuals; livestock; vines; medicinals and more (see pic) and is also the principal of Restoration Agriculture, LLC.;Australian, Geoff Lawton who has been continuing the work of the founder of permaculture, Bill Mollison.  Chris - any of these three, would be an outstanding guest.

Finally, regarding a bit about legal issues and water - as Chris and Sandra Postel discussed, the laws are counterproductive.  As examples of good and bad that I am aware and partly close to home, literally, include the following:  Here in the US Virgin Islands, as well as in Bermuda, it is the law for every building to have a cistern based on the size of the building (because at least here in the USVI, other than St Croix, our other two main islands were formed from ancient volcanoes, and as a result do not have much in the way of aquifers).  However in Colorado it is against the law to harvest rainwater off your roof - Go figure?!?!?!  There are other states that make it difficult if not entirely impossible for for an individual to retain rainwater that falls on their own land with man-made ponds.  Then on the other hand, the USDA will pay an ongoing subsity for farmers to build and maintain earthworks that will slowdown runoff to help prevent water and soil from doing so.!

Much of these counterproductive, greedy, damaging and degrading  water practices could be replaced by common sense as multiple-time guest, Joel Salatin, self-proclaimed, "Christian, Libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist, lunatic farmer wrote in his outstanding, humorous yet perversely true book, Folks, this ain't normal.  A must read!



It still says that the "transcript will be available shortly."
How much longer do I have to wait?

Pyranablade -
Are you seeing it now?