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Craig Sponholtz
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Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States
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Integrating Broad-Scale Water Harvesting and Watershed Restoration

Posted by Craig Sponholtz over 11 years ago

10 guiding principles for creating water harvesting earthworks that have a regenerative function and work harmoniously with natural systems.

Over the past year I have had the great privilege to teach with some of the best permaculure, sustainable agriculture and watershed institutions in the world.  That list includes Watershed Management Group in Arizona, USA, Milkwood Permaculture in New South Wales Australia, Regenerative Agriculture in Queensland, Australia, Verge Permaculture in Calgary, Canada and later this fall at Quail Springs, in California, USA. Teaching at all of the diverse places and meeting many wonderful people has really inspired me to hone my message and teaching craft.  The wide range of conditions I found forced me to identify and emphasize the universally connective threads in the information and techniques I share.  While I specialize in drylands, these methods are applicable under extremely diverse conditions. I study and teach the integration of broad-scale water harvesting and watershed restoration, including erosion control and stream and wetland restoration.  After meeting so many great permaculture teachers, activists and doers in the past year, I have been gratified to find that the common sense ethics of caring for land, caring for people and providing a fair share provide the connective threads that I was seeking.


I have been challenged to communicate the inherent connections between broad-scale water harvesting and watershed restoration and how that is relevant to normal landowners.  Water harvesting systems are often a big part of how permaculture systems integrate the home environment and the broader landscape.  Even at some pretty large scales, water harvesting still feels like something close to home and a necessary part of living sustainably on the land.  I have found that watershed restoration sounds to many like it is something that happens far away and isn’t generally associated with everyday living and the home environment.  After all, how many of us own a watershed?  This is a perception I hope to change.  


Watershed restoration is a real necessity exactly because of the way we have chosen to impose homes, agriculture, industry and infrastructure on our watersheds with very little regard for the critical ecosystem services that healthy watersheds provide.  A very partial list of those services includes: water distribution and storage, sediment transport, soil building, nutrient cycling, and self-healing.  If we continue to follow our current path we will find ourselves lacking our most critical life support systems that healthy watersheds provide.  Of course, now I’m preaching to the choir because it doesn’t take much investigation to understand that this is part of the reason why we need watershed restoration.  I am more interested in how we can bring this idea directly into our lives and everyday decisions about how we shape our environment.  Without consciousness at this level, even permaculture systems can function counter to the basic need for maintaining and restoring ecosystem function at watershed scales.  I often see this exemplified in water harvesting earthworks that do not function harmoniously with natural processes.  Watersheds are made up of diverse landforms and a multitude of complex inter-related living and geologic processes.  A basic understanding of how those processes function and how they relate is absolutely essential to create earthworks that are harmonious with the greater ecosystem and watershed.  The larger the scale and the more ambitious the water harvesting scheme, the more important this is.


Why this level of integration between human systems and natural systems is so critical can be elegantly explained through the permaculture ethics.  People care and land care seem somewhat obvious here, so let's consider an additional interpretation of the fair share ethic. The fair share ethic suggests to me that we should return regenerative resources produced within our food producing systems back to natural systems to facilitate self-healing processes.  In terms of a water harvesting system this can be interpreted as designing earthworks that leave some natural water flows in place to support critical ecological services.  I have seen many contour swale systems that attempt to take all of the runoff resource available and turn it into food production and supporting functions.  This may take care of the people but quite often such a water harvesting scheme can be at the expense of water availability in the natural system.  Water is a finite resource, even at the landscape scale.  When we concentrate runoff in one area, we do it at the expense of another.  That is not to say that we should never concentrate runoff in earthworks like swales and ponds, but it does obligate us to consider the impact on the areas from which we are taking the runoff.  The question is, how can we return a fair share in terms of ecological services to those now moisture-depleted areas as well as the broader ecosystem?  Nature has created amazingly diverse modes of moisture storage that are the product of water and sediment movement, soil and plant biology and the complex relationships of community ecology.  In our efforts to create more sustainable human environments it makes good common sense to leave as many of these natural processes intact as possible to contribute to the resiliency and diversity of our own food producing systems and the rest of the life in our watersheds. 


My own work has been a prolonged experiment in this area.  The type of watershed restoration I do, revolves primarily around the need to re-hydrate desiccated streams and wetlands in my dryland environment.  This type of restoration work is in fact a form of broad-scale water harvesting that relies on earthworks to create a foothold for natural processes. The structures then get assimilated into the ecosystem as natural healing processes take over.  Structures are built to initiate healing processes rather than to do the work on their own as with many other forms of water harvesting.  At large scales it is risky to design systems that are dependent on human interventions to remain functional in the place of a natural process that can evolve in place by providing a modest nudge in the right direction.  This rarely requires brute force or elaborate schemes of moving water from one place to another where its use may be more convenient.


Restoration work like this is not necessarily intended to produce human food or other agricultural products in the traditional sense.  Instead, restoration is most often intended to re-establish critical ecosystem services such as moisture storage, flood dissipation, wildlife food and habitat, rare native seed sources and other resources that are typically missing from degraded landscapes.  There is no reason why such a regenerative system cannot also be designed to provide food, fuel, fodder and other resources for humans as well as many of the ecosystem services mentioned.  A water harvesting system designed to create those various forms of production fits well within the framework that the permaculture ethics provide.  Regenerative systems use natural processes to provide resources for people care and land care at the same time as returning a fair share back to the ecosystem to facilitate healing.


Though my own experiences and from the many fruitful collaborations I have had the privilege to participate in, I have developed a set of guiding principles for broad-scale water harvesting and watershed restoration.  The 10 principles encourage the development of strategies that harmoniously build upon natural processes in order to create resilient, regenerative systems that satisfy the ethical imperative to care for people, care for land and return a fair share.  The principles are not intended to be absolutes, but offer a tool to develop the right questions and allow the designer to make well-informed decisions.  It would be nearly impossible to apply the principles in a meaningful way without first engaging in some long and thoughtful observation of the project area and it’s surrounding watershed. 

Regenerative Water Harvesting and Watershed Restoration Design Principles


  1. *Manage landscapes to increase ecosystem services and productivity.
  2. *Protect and expand natural moisture storing areas.
  3. *Stabilize active erosion to prevent further incision.
  4. *Restore dispersed flow and increase infiltration at every opportunity.
  5. *Cultivate regenerative plant communities to retain and build soil.
  6. *Harvest runoff in place before attempting to move it.
  7. *Transform “waste” runoff and sediment into resources.
  8. *Create site-specific solutions using natural forms and processes.
  9. *Anticipate likely failure modes and avoid creating new problems.                  
  10. *Strive for beauty and inspiration.


For more information about my work or the application of these principles on a wide variety of projects, please visit my blog at: floodwateragroecology.com. Look for future posts that detail each principle.


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X X : Craig's name is one that will be at the forefront of the second major wave of regenerative land management practitioners, those who have gratefully taken the fertility and inspiration of the pioneering weeds, but have moved the succession forward, providing the ground for a more mature system to emerge.
Posted over 11 years ago

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Permaculture Design Certificate Course
Type: Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course
Teacher: Geoff Lawton
Location: Tagari Farm, Tyalgum NSW, Australia
Date: Nov 2000

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