Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World

This is an excellent book.

Water in Plain Sight Hope for a Thirsty WorldJudith is an easy-to-read writer who has a knack for discovering people who are doing ground-breaking environmental work. She visits them, relates their story, explains the insights they have had, and shows us how their work can restore the natural order. You will be wiser and much more hopeful when you finish reading it.

The topic of Water in Plain Sight is, of course, water scarcity, which is growing worldwide. Schwartz travels to many places where water used to be available and is no longer. She meets with people who understand what has changed, have a solution, and are implementing it.

In chapter one she visits Allan Savory in Zimbabwe and witnesses firsthand the remarkable restoration of a desertified and degraded land that his work has achieved. In the case of Zimbabwe, as with all the cases in this book, the problem is not the disappearance of water. The problem is that we, through not understanding the consequences of our actions, have disrupted natural cycles. The consequence is that where there used to be adequate water, now it is no longer available.

In the case of Zimbabwe, as in many rangeland areas, the key to having available water is the presence of herds of large ruminants and their predators. Nature used to supply them in large numbers. They would overrun an area, eat much of the grass, trample the rest into the soil, defecate and urinate heavily, and then raidly move on, always driven by the fear of the approaching predators. The result of this process was that soil surfaces were heavily penetrated by hooves so that when the rain came it would soak into the ground rather than running off. In addition, the supply of carbon provided to soil microbes by trampled grass, manure and urine resulted in a large flush of soil life. The consequent plant-microbial symbiosis promoted vigorous grass regrowth and sequestered large amounts of carbon, which in turn was able to store large amounts of water in the soil when it rained.

Our mistake, speaking for conventional ranchers, was to turn cattle loose on large areas and leave them there for long times. That resulted in degradation of the grasses as favorite varieties were destroyed by overgrazing and rejected species were left to spread. Worse, cattle did not visit most of the area, choosing to deposit fertility only where the favored grasses grew. When rains came, most of the soil was crusty and the water ran off without infiltrating. Without carbon and water, most of the microbial life stayed dormant and grass regrowth was lackluster. After only a few years of properly managing cattle by moving them rapidly from small paddock to small paddock, land that had been desert was seen coming back into lush pasture.

Chapter two looks at Southern California, which is well known for its elaborate systems of transporting water for hundreds of miles — and also well known for both droughts and floods. The problem in Southern California is not too little or too much rain. The problem is that the rain it gets does not go into the ground. Los Angeles gets 13 inches of rain a year, about the same as Athens, Greece. Why is that not adequate? Visiting a fascinating group of people we learn about:
• the beavers who used to construct wetlands on an astonishing 10% of the land in America and are being brought back to places like Nevada,
• soil aggregates, held together by fungal secretions like glomalin, which enable a soil to hold 20,000 gallons of water per acre for each 1% of carbon it contains,
• the built environment of impervious surfaces (roofs, roads, parking lots, and many square miles of highly compacted land) which prevent water from entering soil to instead enter another built environment of drains and culverts, and the activists who are planting trees, building swales, collecting water from roofs and designing incentives to encourage infiltration on private land.

Chapter three takes place in the Chihuahuan Desert. A several year drought has resulted in low land prices and failed ranches are being sold for low prices. Potential buyers include Mennonite farmers who will dig deep wells to irrigate crops there, further stressing the water reserves, and energy speculators looking for new lands to frack. But her host, a Mexican rancher, tells Judith the problem is mismanagement by continuous grazing, as happened in Zimbabwe. He and a few other ranchers on 260,000 acres are bringing back biodiversity, tall grass, birds, and flowers by slowing down the water cycle – getting it to infiltrate the soil via hoof prints, prairie dog holes, animal action – and thus cool, enliven, and even pool on it’s way to the ocean.

Chapter four explores the brand new field of bio-water production. In case after case modern development has meant cutting down trees. An unintended consequence a generation later is water shortages and drought. This is not news – the ancient Greeks wrote about deforestation and the loss of water resources. The reasons are clear, too. Tree roots stabilize soil against erosion, the canopy intercepts rain’s fall and delivers it gradually as well as shading and cooling the ground to prevent evaporation. The tree itself retains thousands of gallons of water and slows its flow to the sea. Transpiration is a key dynamic now getting study. It is the ability to use solar energy to vaporize water, cooling the forest and storing the heat in the vapor. This transpiration “pump” from vegetation accounts for 90% of all moisture rising from land, storing huge water reserves in aerial lakes and rivers that are then moved vast distances by wind currents before actually evaporating.

Chapter five focuses on farming and water use. The featured host is John Kempf, a remarkably knowledgeable Amish farmer in Ohio. John is a proponent of working with the soil microbial community to provide plant nutrition, and believes that the microbes use far less water in this process than conventional farming which works with water soluble simple ions of minerals. But he doesn’t stop there. John is also concerned about the source of water. Hard water, that carrying mineral salts, requires more energy to use. That means some of the nutrition going to the plants is being wasted on processing the water they take in. Which, in John’s view, means they cannot achieve maximum vigor and health. Hard water picks up those salts by dissolving them over time from the earth, so pure rainwater, which has recently been distilled, is still soft and much better for use with plants.

Chapter six, one of the most fascinating to me, discusses the role of condensation in moving water around the globe. The site this time is West Texas, that low rainfall area where an enterprising couple have devised a way to harvest the dew. Inspired by the Namib Desert beetle, the Ottmers have created a roof structure in which the upper one superheats but shades a lower roof. Air from the top one flows through a system of vents onto the lower one, where the high level of moisture it contains is condensed and runs into a cistern. They get about 60 gallons a day from this simple, passive device driven by temperature differentials. To give a sense of scale here, Schwartz cites the fact that there is five times as much water in the form of vapor in the air than exists in all the world’s rivers! We also learn about the tiny particles required for vapor to condense in the air into droplets and form rain. The size and source of those nuclei determine whether rain will form or only a haze.

Chapter seven takes us to Kimberly, in Western Australia, where we learn about the role of fire in shaping that continent’s prehistory. Our host here grew up in Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe and knew of the Savory paddock system. He is applying it with cattle and restoring grasses, getting a dried creek to flow again, and seeing more birds and trees. But the original Australian megafauna were wiped out by early Aboriginal immigrants and the remaining soft-footed native ruminants have no hooves to puncture the soil. Thus grasses did not thrive and forest growth was managed by intentional fires.

Chapter eight, the last, returns to Africa to look at the way land degradation has cheapened the price of land, resulting in land grabs and water privatization, and how some of the world’s poorest people are intimately affected by the resulting water stress. Once again, we see the restorative effects of Savory grazing on land quality and understand how easily we can return a water cycle that slows, uses, and stores the precious moisture coming from the sky.

We in the Northeast don’t have the same endemic water shortages we read about in this book. But we certainly have floods and droughts occasionally. What we learn about the water cycle and how to keep our soil hydrated is crucial to managing those events.

I don’t believe you will ever think about or discuss water in quite the same way after you read this book. Read it, and give one to every thoughtful friend you have.