The availability of clean water is becoming an increasingly pressing problem in many parts of the world, including some areas of the United States. We need water; we also need to be mindful about how we use it.
Many practices in conventional American yards are not water-wise. We plant grasses that are not suited to our local climate and, in some parts of the US, shower them with twice as much water as is used for the people in our household. We do this sprinkling un-carefully, letting the water splash onto sidewalks or evaporate directly into the air. We point our downspouts onto paved surfaces, diverting precious rainwater to areas where it will do nothing but contribute to street flooding.
Permaculture practitioners have five better ideas for how we should manage water on our land.
Slow it. As water comes onto our property, we want to slow it down. If we let it move quickly, this valuable resource will continue straight on to someone else’s property, likely taking good soil with it. Our loss, our neighbor’s gain. It is to our benefit to hold on to as much free water as we can.
Spread it. Water is a powerful force, and too much of it in one place can lead to unhelpful outcomes. We want to spread out the water instead of letting it pool in one area. We can do this by observing how water moves on our property, and then making small adjustments to change its flow.
Sink it. The best place to put water is in the soil. Soil can hold a tremendous amount of water, and when water is in soil, it is a beneficial, rather than a destructive, force. Once we have slowed the water down and spread it out, it will naturally seek to move downwards. This is good.
Store it. Of course, it is also handy to store water in a form that we can access whenever we need it. Rain barrels or cisterns can hold many gallons of water, fill quickly in even a modest rainstorm, and provide us with a source of water in times when rain doesn’t come.
Share it. In line with the three pillars of permaculture – Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share – we are not slowing, spreading, sinking, and storing water in order to hoard it for ourselves. If the water is in a tank, we can and should share it with those who don’t have enough. If the water is in our soil, we can share the produce that grows from it. There is enough water to go around, if we use it mindfully to take care of ourselves and others.
As you follow these principles, be aware of your water rights. In some parts of the United States, it is not legal to divert water from following its natural course downhill onto your neighbor’s property. If you live in the western part of the country, you may be limited to only small changes in your water management, or you may need to work with neighbors to agree on how water will be shared.