Don't let it dry up

August 11, 2008|By Liza Field

The underground water table gets its supply from only one source: the moisture which falls on the surface of the land.

- Jay N. "Ding" Darling,

cartoonist and conservationist

Got rain?

Paying $4 per gallon for milk and gas drew our attention this year. It seemed to create a funnel for the reality finally to sink into our awareness: Resources on a finite Earth are limited.

It also diverted our attention from a more submerged shortage - of water. This is regrettable, because water is one resource we could renew, if we tried. And though we don't stand gazing at its price each week at "the pump," water is far more valuable than fossil fuel.

We valued it here in the Mid-Atlantic last summer, as water supplies began to look finite. Their finitude constituted a relatively new idea for Eastern states, historically sodden with rain, groundwater, springs, creeks and full rivers. Water shortages had always been the problem of people "out West," appallingly draining their ancient aquifer and arguing over rivers.

So for decades, while Western states lived under strict rules for surface and groundwater use, governments in the East continued handing out water-withdrawal permits to any industry that asked. Meanwhile, we continued to develop, pave and grow - our only limits appearing to be the horizontal landscape, not the vertical situation beneath our feet.

In recent years, Smart Growth advocates have warned that Mid-Atlantic water shortages would result from unchecked development, a drier climate, the revamped logging siege in our Eastern mountains and the rapid transition of woods and farms into developed sprawl. Officials in Maryland and Pennsylvania helped lead the way in legislating standards for sending pollution-laden urban stormwater into detention ponds, rather than shunting it down gutters, creeks and rivers into the Chesapeake Bay. But often, the slowed-down, somewhat cleaner water ultimately gets sent downstream rather than into the ground.

This brings up a vital point. Expecting government single-handedly to restore the water table is as unproductive as expecting it to solve the energy crisis. Ordinary citizens are the ones who must create a "water reserve" for the future.

How? After all, average residents can no more hoard rain than we can stockpile gasoline down in the root cellar. Or can't we?

Luckily, nature has been storing rain underground for eons. That's why the American settlers found abundant springs, creeks and groundwater sitting just a few feet below the surface for their spade-dug wells. Across the continent, in those days, orchards, crops and wildlife could survive long periods without rain. Plant roots could reach the groundwater, and wildlife could find abundant creeks and springs. Why?

When rain falls into meadow grasses, woods or humus-buried mountainsides, it gets absorbed by what permaculturists call a "sponge." Tall weeds, fallen logs, leaf litter, pine straw, rotting apples, nut shells, sticks, moss and lichens - all the "mess" we've been taught to rake off the land's surface - help slow down any rain run-off, meanwhile absorbing it for slow release into the ground.

So while one's neatly mowed, sun-beaten lawn may be parched dry as a wicker basket on summer afternoons, a nearby woodland walk can reveal a shaded landscape still moist, under the leaf mat, from rain three weeks prior. This is one reason Smart Growth advocates link increased land development to future water shortages. Besides more residential demand for water, the rain-repellent traits of developed landscapes keep groundwater from being recharged.

Curbing development seems essential to restoring our region's groundwater. But what about the vast spread of developed landscapes that we can't exactly undo?

Ordinary residents - once informed - can transform things. We may not be public officials or developers, but if we have any influence at all over a small patch of earth, we can help store up the priceless resource of rain.

Permeable paving blocks, rain barrels and gray water lines are great investments for "groundwater banking." But at almost no cost, homeowners, landlords, schools, churches, hospitals and businesses can transform their landscape from a high-maintenance lawn (which can shunt off stormwater like a thatched roof) to a landscape of water-catching mulch, compost, gardens, shrubs, ferns, wildflowers and shade trees. Such a landscape not only absorbs rain, but it also can help retard the immediate evaporation of water from the ground.

A rain-absorbing, less mower-dependent landscape also cuts emissions - as well as costs at the gas pump. And who knows? If saving gallons of rainwater can also save a few gallons of gas, groundwater-banking ideas might begin to percolate more deeply into our awareness, the local neighborhood, the region and perhaps the entire, thirsty continent.

Liza Field, a hiker and conservationist, teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor's School and Wytheville Community College. This article was distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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