Abundant Water – Part 1: The Four R’s Of Regenerative Hydrology

Abundant water for ourselves and future generations is achievable. A change in mindset from the dominant water scarcity paradigm to a regenerative water abundance paradigm is required. Following this, we have merely but to apply appropriate techniques to completely and utterly transform our private and shared landscapes. We can do this by designing and implementing systems in alignment with the four principles below, adapted from permaculture teacher and designer Warren Brush.

The Four R’s of Regenerative Hydrology

The actions of a regenerative hydrological cycle can be expressed in terms of sound fiscal budget management. The Four R’s of a water budget – receive, recharge, retain, and release – are equivalent to income, deposit, savings, and expense, and are described more fully below. It is always in the best interest of a landowner or land steward that the water balance of their local watersheds is in the blue and not in the red, that liquid assets continually produce a high-quality return on investment, and that returns are re-invested back into local watersheds to continue building principal.

1. Receive = Income

Watersheds only receive water as snowfall, rainfall, dew condensation and fog precipitation. Annual precipitation is the only true source of income to re-supply a property’s water budget allowance. Everything else (drafting fossil aquifers, importing from other areas) is drawing down on principal (whether locally or somewhere AWAY). 

Regenerative hydrology advocates the adaptive management of watershed lands to optimize rehydration by promoting land use patterns that enhance the receptive capacity of a watershed in times of excess and the retentive capacity in times of drought.

While it may seem that we as humans lack the ability to influence the amount of precipitation on our properties, we can in fact shift this number, as shown in examples like the Willie Smits Samboja Rain Machine

Willie Smits detailing how reforestation can bring back the rain.

2. Recharge = Deposit

Recharge processes are critical for the landscape to annually refresh itself via the deposit slip called infiltration. The capacity to make water deposits depends on the watershed’s recharge potential. Precipitation received by the watershed must percolate and be absorbed, or else there is no replenishment of the water savings account.

Recharge potential and functions are impaired by the hardening and paving over of natural recharge areas, poor siting and drainage of roadways, concentration of run-off in pipes and ditches, the disconnection of creeks and rivers from their floodplains, the deforestation of native vegetation, and the draining of wetlands. 

To increase recharge, a landowner can:

  • Limit impervious surfaces and the wholesale conversion of native vegetation.
  • Implement stormwater pacification techniques designed to slow, spread, and sink water into earthen storage. 
  • Protect open space in known groundwater recharge areas. If site conditions are not conducive to recharge, then the landowner is wise to ensure proper bio-filtration of all surface waters prior to their discharge and deposit into rivers, wetlands, lakes, estuaries, and oceans.
  • Most Importantly – Landowners can plant trees and establish perennial vegetation wherever bare soil exists. Trees are far and away the best producers of future rainfall, in addition to being the best protectors of soil from the impacts of unimpeded rainfall as well as the most effective means by which to infiltrate precipitation into the soil and increase soil moisture to the benefit of all lifeforms. Trees and perennial vegetation are critical to increasing the recharge capacity of the landscape (more on this in the Plant Trees! section).
Zuni bowl installed in an old erosion gully (created by poor drainage design in the up-watershed avocado orchard) that serves to divert water via the 1.5% diversion drain into a three-tiered swale system before discharging at the original valley bottom.

3. Retention = Savings

The retention of recharged precipitation is like a savings account asset that yields interest. The storage of water is often the most challenging aspect of water supply management. Regenerative hydrology strategies should appropriately slow water down, increasing the residence time of water storage in our watersheds. This will optimize the amount of water available for local expense by living processes.

A landowner is wise to avoid overdrafting of their local watersheds. To be in the blue, a healthy albeit challenging goal is to never extract out of storage (groundwater) in amounts greater than what is annually received and recharged. While this can go on for a while, eventually a penalty must be paid. In situations where this is currently occurring, landowners can take steps to mend the broken hydrological cycle to ensure that as much water as possible is being returned and put to highest use in the landscape before it leaves.

To increase retention, a landowner can:

  • Build living soil (increase the organic matter content) as rapidly as possible (each 1% increase in soil organic matter results in an additional soil storage capacity of 20,000 gallons of water per acre).
  • Create texture in the landscape to allow water a place to settle.
  • Infiltrate water at the first and last chances available.

4. Release = Expenditure

Ideally, expenditure of water assets will go to further increase the reception, recharge and retention capacities (the first Three R’s) of the watershed.

Water is released naturally to the ocean, land and atmosphere in a process known as the water cycle. Through seasonal snow and ice melts, groundwater springs and seeps, water is returned to creeks and rivers. Solar evaporation and the evapo-transpiration by plants help to form new clouds and feed the cycle anew. The infinite nature of this cycle is to continually flow and be in flux as the expense of one stage produces income for the next.

Common modern development practices (creating impervious surfaces, channelizing stormwater, etc.) tend to increase the rate and volume of storm water’s return to the ocean via excessive runoff and heightened flood discharges. This directly reduces the landscape’s ability to retain water and diminishes the amount of water available for later release during the dry season when it is most needed.

To increase sustainable expenditure, landowners must implement the prior Three R’s of Regenerative Hydrology as best they possibly can. Expenditure of stored water (whether stored in the soil or in a tank) should create a net positive return for the landscape and hydrological cycle at large.

The Big Idea: Water Patterning Strategy For Rebuilding Regenerative Hydrology

Slow, Spread, Sink, Grow

The Regeneration Equation…best not assessed for mathematical accuracy 🙂 Get the t-shirt!
  • Slow The Water Down – By slowing the movement of water over a landscape, its erosive potential is reduced and infiltration is allowed to occur. Common methods for achieving this are increasing vegetative cover (grasses, trees, plants), installing earthworks (swales, catchment basins, net-and-pan, boomerangs, keyline plowing etc.) and limiting/reducing the use of hardscape and consequent concentrated run-off flows, and when possible using permeable hardscape surfaces.
  • Spread The Water Out – Part of slowing water down is to spread it over as much surface area as possible, and reduce any peaks in concentration. The more surface area the water can touch the greater the opportunity for it to sink in and be put to work in the landscape.  Common methods for spreading water include those mentioned above as well as geological and biological flow spreaders (plants and/or rocks arranged to pacify and spread overland flows).
  • Sink The Water Into Soil – If Steps 1 and 2 have been designed well, this part will take care of itself. If the water has a chance to be still (or at least slow down considerably) it can infiltrate into the soil. For this, an emphasis is placed on permeable surfaces where hardscape is necessary and encouraging vegetation where it is not (plant and tree roots are the best infiltration mechanisms we have).
  • Grow Biomass And Soil – Slowing water down, spreading it out, and encouraging infiltration into living soil creates the greatest amount of living edge possible for water to interact with. It is here that the landscape and its stewards reap the greatest rewards, as evaporation is reduced, solar energy conversion to biomass and ultimately to soil is maximized and life expression is steered towards abundance.

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