Water Always Wins author Erica Gies to keynote at Safe Clean Water LA Event on Thursday November 17 

Book Review by: Melina Sempill Watts

Rethink water and take on the drought: Erica Gies, author of Water Always Wins, is giving a book talk at the upcoming Nature Based Solutions Success Stories event on Thursday November 17, 2022. Register to attend the event here.

Erica Gies’ book Water Always Wins shifts the dominant narratives about drought and flood by putting water itself center stage.  Rather than managing water, frequently a Sisyphean task, she suggests an approach she captures with the phrase “slow water.”  She writes that, “…when water stalls on the land, that’s when the magic happens, cycling water underground and providing habitat and food for many forms of life, including us. The key to greater resilience, say the water detectives, is to find ways to let water be water, to reclaim space for it to interact with the land.”

In an era of ongoing drought, in California, it may seem like water is already center stage. 

But Gies’ lens points out that for the most part, we are not thinking about water for waters’ sake, but primarily or even only, to meet human needs.  This myopia is driven in part by a legal framework, in which water becomes a commodity for driving economic activity and for human use, and, only, when possible, within the context of water rights availabilities, for sustaining local ecosystems. Water rights are, by definition, a thing allocated to people, to cities and agencies and to businesses. Gies asks readers to consider what would happen if water had an intrinsic right to itself.  In her book, Gies explains, “Kelsey Leonard is a Shinnecock citizen and assistant professor in the School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. As she explained to me and an audience of river researchers in an online talk in 2020, many Indigenous traditions don’t consider water to be a “what”—a commodity—but a “who.” Many Indigenous people not only believe that water is alive, but that it’s kin.” In conversation, Gies adds that this idea is not just a First Nations belief, but a concept that occurs around the world and drives water management choices that create more room for biodiversity to persist.

Combining Gies’ interest in slow water with her respect for the being of water, her narrative takes a trip up to Seattle, Washington to explore the restoration of Thornton Creek led by biologist Katherine Lynch.  While people have tackled creek restoration in many places, mimicking historic natural hydrological systems by building in s-curves, laying back eroded stream banks and adding in in large stones and fallen logs to recreate the functions that give creeks their ability to manage sediment, reduce flooding and sustain annual year-round flow, in many cases these restored creeks are not yet sustaining the level of biodiversity that once flourished in these sites.  Gies describes the limited return of living forms to restored creeks as “the cockroaches and crows’ syndrome,” in other words, only the most stubborn easy-to-sustain biota are returning.  So, what do pristine functional creeks with rich biodiversity have that these restored creeks lack?  Gies explains that there is a living substrate underneath a creek or river, the hyporheic zone, that is integral to the function of a creek. Gies writes, “Similar to the discovery of the mycorrhizal networks under forests, stream ecologists are learning more about what goes on in something called the hyporheic zone (Greek, hypo, “under,” and rheos, “flow”). Just below the streambed, the sediment and soil are filled with water. But this is not an underground aquifer—it’s a limbo zone that’s dynamic and contested, where groundwater pushes up into surface water and the stream forces water back down underground. Like the river on the surface above it, water within the hyporheic is also flowing downstream but orders of magnitude more slowly. healthy system, that underground river can be vast and hold a huge volume of water. The expanse and depth of the hyporheic varies with topography, gradient, sediment size, channel shape, and quantity of flow. Along a large river, the hyporheic zone can extend underground laterally more than a mile from the banks and reach below the bed a hundred feet or more—although the main hyporheic flows are shallower, in the top three to ten feet or so.” The creatures existing in this space are the foundation of the riparian food chain and play central roles in maintaining in stream oxygen and have enormous impacts on water quality. 

So the Thorton Creek restoration takes an additional step to creek resorationl Paul Bakke’s research at Thornton Creek showed the hyporheic zone had been almost completely stripped away by what hydrologist Mike Hrachovec calls the “firehouse effect” which is what happens when creeks and rivers are straightened which then accelerates and intensifies the flow. So,  Hrachovec and Bakke lowered the stream below the floodplain and widened it to recreate gently sloping banks and then layered in 8 feet of rock and sediment to build in a new hyporheic system. Then, onspired by the work of Kate Macneale who reintroduced insects into urban streams, Linda Rhodes, the microbiologist, and stream ecologist Sarah Morley “…inoculated the engineered hyporheic zone with microbes and invertebrates. To take the human gut analogy a step further, it was a bit like us taking probiotics—or even getting a fecal transplant—to restore gut biomes.”

After this intervention, researchers found a total of 1900 pollutants in water coming into the restored stream.  Tracking this water as it went into the restored Thornton Stream, they found that “Just flowing downstream reduced about 17 percent of the chemicals. The short stretch of the hyporheic reduced 59 percent, and the long stretch, 78 percent.”  

Considering the astonishing role of the hyporheic zone at Thornton creek in addressing pollutants led to the question of how the hyporheic zone functions in the context of a creek with a cement bottom. Gies observed, “The cement blocks the water from moving down into the hyporheic zone. Basically, this means that none of those processes I was just talking about can happen, so you don’t have a creek at that point, you have a concrete channel.”

Water Always Wins includes a harrowing chapter on flooding and drought in Chennai, India, that details how, starting during the British colonial era, urban development meant filling in the beautiful ersi, which are open air, below ground cisterns used to capture water for use by farmers and urban people. Once the ersi are filled in with permanent structures built on top of them, this gives rainwater in storm conditions nowhere to go except flooding – and means there is no local water stored up in the cities for use during drought conditions.  Can local leaders such as Jayshree Vencatesan, the biologist who founded Care Earth Trust, re-integrate the concept of slow water into local urban planning, to save Chennai? 

By jumping around the planet to look at water problems – and solutions – Water Always Wins invites readers to consider how water is managed in their own local communities. Reflect on Water Always Wins, register for Nature Based Solutions Success Stories and join the conversation. Gies is on at 9:00.

Support for this article and event were provided by Safe, Clean Water L.A. and the California Watershed Network.

 

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