Words on Water at Aprovecho

by Abel Kloster

Sustainable logging in Aprovecho's forest

High summer on the south facing slope here at Aprovecho is dry.  The creek channel is a cracked gully of bedrock flagstones.  Seed heads shatter or pop on the stalk and leaves curl in the afternoon breeze sinking down from the upper hills.  The ponds fall to their lowest level, the water tank runs low, and the garden is a lush island in an arid land.  But as the winter squash grow plump and the apples get a blush the first rains arrive.  It takes quite a bit of water to work its way through the sponge of forest duff and thirsty feeder roots into the lens of groundwater that will eventually grow large enough to bulge out of the soil and flow across the surface of the land.  Often it takes until November, after a few good rains, for the creek to begin to really flow.  By Mid Winter the land is awash with moisture.  The moist spots in the valleys have become pools and ephemeral streams appear and subside all throughout the low lying parts of our landscape.  You can stand in the garden and hear water rushing below your feet underground.  There is not a member on site without a pair of designer neoprene Muck boots for the winter season.  These seasons of water with their extreme polarity at their peak make up a significant part of our reality.  It is easy to let the mind tarry on how to coax the edges of the seasons deeper into each other to have winter heat and summer moisture.  I want to talk about some of the things we are doing to bring summer moisture to our land.

Calico Creek Restoration

Aprovecho is in the Calico Creek sub basin.  Our stem of Calico Creek meets up with the main stem just south of our property, flows out of the Hazelton Valley for less than a mile where it meets up with Silk Creek.  Silk Creek flows about 5.5 miles East where it meets up with the Coast Fork of the Willamette River beside the Old Mill Farm Store in downtown Cottage Grove.  Our reach of Calico Creek has been drying up by July lately.  Old maps, stories, and the flat geology of our creek (often brought about by old beaver dams filling with silt and debris over time… Beaver live also in year-round creeks) imply that in living memory, Calico Creek was year round.  The main stem of Calico Creek (which is still year round) has water rights on it but the amount of water deeded by those rights is far out of proportion to the current summer flow also indicating that in years past there was a greater flow.

All of this drying up has not been caused by less rainfall.  Rainfall averages have been pretty consistent as far as I can tell in our area.  To me this situation has more to do with a collection of human caused factors.  The first major blow to watersheds in the Northwest was the trapping out of most of the beavers.  The beavers were the engineers that slowed and spread the water as it moved through the systems.  The loss of the beavers meant the loss of thousands and thousands of organic mini dams and a lot scouring erosion as the ponds behind the dams broke loose.  After the trappers came the loggers and the miners.  Elaborate log dams were built to pond up water in high creeks.  Fallen timber was stored in these ponds until they were full.  The dams would then be blown out with dynamite and all those logs would go tearing down the stream channels to the larger rivers.  The mines cleared their water flumes when they got broken by dumping all of the water into the nearest creek while the spot down the way was repaired.  One can only imagine the effect this type of sudden scouring had on the landscape.  This channeling has been further exacerbated by the removal of ground cover, forest duff, and organic matter from the upland forests and the channeling of the lowlands for agriculture.  Creeks more than ever act like straws as water runs off of the hills faster and is drawn through the valley quicker ultimately drawing with it soil in the creek bed.  The net effect on Calico Creek is a linear channel 8 feet deep in places that has bare bedrock at its bottom.  In the end, the amount of water passing through the system remains the same but the speed of its transit from source to sink means the difference between a seasonal and a year-round creek.

We have begun to envision what Aprovecho might look like if the water that has its presence only during half the year was creatively coaxed into staying with us deeper and deeper into the sunny dry season.  We wonder if we could in our lifetime return Calico Creek to its year-round flow.

I had the opportunity to ask Joseph Sheahan, Habitat Restoration Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, this question when he came out this year to talk about restoration options with us.  He affirmed that he has seen creeks similar to ours in the Oregon Coast Range restored to year-round flow after some relatively simple interventions.  Joe’s advice was to place 10+ inch logs into the stream channel in all areas showing extreme channelization.  These logs were to be placed so as to create Xs or Ws or Vs wedged into the bank to prevent them from washing away.  Into these structures he suggested we stuff Christmas tree sized fir trees and branches.  He suggested we utilize some hardwoods in our structures as well since these decompose faster thereby creating holes over time.  He also told us to fall big trees over the top of the channel to act as floating bridges to catch floating debris in the event of a large flood.

These things we did.  This Fall, Aprovecho partnered with Kennedy Alternative High School, and the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed Council to slow the flow of water on the stretch of Calico Creek that flows through our property.  Working with students from Kennedy’s Conservation Corps, we fell a series of fir trees that have begun to grow among the oaks in one of our meadows.  We released the oaks from the shade and competition of the fir while producing a yield of trunks and branches for the creek restoration process.  We used a wheeled arch to assist in the transport of the logs to the creek and a series of rock bars and ropes to negotiate the logs into place.  Now as the creek begins to flow, the monitoring begins.  This project will continue into next year and beyond.  Eventually, when more water is held in the system, we can eventually import a few beavers to take up where we leave off.

Re-hydrating the Ridges

This last year I was able to work with our water master to develop a new water right on Aprovecho’s property by showing that our Eastern valley without an existing stream channel and little above ground flow can hold water in ponds year round for summer irrigation.  This right will allow us to develop ponds throughout and run swales out from the entire stretch of our Eastern drainage.  This drainage has now become a research site for building up water storage in previously dry valleys.

However, it is not whimsy alone that drives us to catch the rain but need.  Two summers ago our well went dry with a sputter and wheeze of the pivot sprinkler in the garden.  The aquifer level dropped 10 feet and our well-pump had to be lowered to 180 feet.  It is terribly embarrassing to knowingly contribute to the drawdown of aquifer water and unsettling to know that our water source may suddenly dry up.  Since that time we have undertaken a planning and implementation process with the ultimate goal of meeting all of our potable and irrigation water needs through rainwater catchment.

Aprovechans are visionary sorts.  We have ventured to think that we may even be able to begin to create enough hydrologic action in some of our dry canyons to create creeks of our own in the years to come.  We are certain that we can store at least enough water to meet our irrigation and aquaculture needs without the use of our well. We estimate that we will need nearly 250,000 gallons of water to irrigate the vegetable gardens and the aquaculture system throughout the summer.  This need will be met through the construction of a large pond with irrigation infrastructure at the top of the system and a series of aquaculture ponds in our Eastern valley.  The first of these ponds has already been finished.  Also in progress, is the project of building up enough water storage in the same drainage to draw water out of the valley and onto the 5 acres of homes and gardens via swales and moderately pitched drains.  These waterways will lead to further small ponds and seasonal wetlands scattered among the currently summer dry ridge.  The lens of water that fans out from these wet spots through the soil will sub-irrigate contour and scalloped perennial plantings across our site.

Sponge Ladders and Starting at the Top

Permaculturists are prone to enjoy ancient and or goofy-technical terminology.  This language results in an insider dialogue replete with what my friend Tom Ward calls Permi-Babble.  One such word in this lexicon is “sponge ladder.”  This is the term for the phenomenon of compounded moisture in the soil as one moves down slope through a series of permeable water storages.  So multiple swales charged with water increase the presence of water in the lower reaches of the slope.  Where ground flattens out or has shallow bed-rock we really see water appear at the soil surface.  This is one way that people can increase the staying power and presence of water on landscapes.  We have begun to see the sponge ladder take effect in our research area.  Sometimes in ways we like and others in ways that challenge us to turn a problem into a solution.  The observant eye will notice the advantage a tree with ample sub-surface water has next to its dry neighbor come late June as the growth tips on the branches push outward by another foot.  A well designed greywater system is a great testament to the value of soil moisture during the hot and sunny periods.  However, too much water where it is not wanted or planned for can be challenging.  Since beginning to build up the sponge ladder on our site we have had a spring pop up on a section of our road, and a creek begin to flow through our greenhouse (Easier to build a pond in a greenhouse than on a road). These unintended consequences are the result of building hard infrastructure within the contours of the land’s drainage as the moisture is enhanced.  This is why it is said that in planning for Permaculture it is best to start at the top of a system and work your way down.  One often finds that un-planned developments put homes in perfect pond spots.  This makes for design challenges in the future as land is retrofitted for water storage.

Potable Water and Greywater

We want to catch water for domestic use as well.  We are thinking that all of this water will be caught off of roofs and directed to impermeable tanks and then run through biological sand filters before entering the homes.  Our first substantial bit of progress toward this goal was the construction of a 10,000 gallon ferrocement rain tank with a crew of paid high school students in the summer of ‘09.  This tank can meet the potable water needs of our strawbale dormitory.  We have yet to construct enough tanks to service residents and staff.  In some cases, water for domestic use can come from year round springs on Apovecho’s property as well.

Each home will also have a yield of nutrient rich greywater.  This water will be used to irrigate perennial plantings around each of the homes.  The water is directed via underground pipes to the root zone of individual perennials or lines of shrubs on contour.

A School in the Building of It

One of the most exciting things about all of this to me is that we are doing all of this work in the context of hands-on educational programming.  Students are having the opportunity to build first-hand experience with regenerative land practices that they can then take to other landscapes.  As this educational model grows and our systems are completed at Aprovecho, we will be able to take these hands-on programs to other sites in our community to meet the needs of our neighbors.  This coming year’s Permaculture Practicum, Permaculture Design Course, and Natural Building Program will be powerful testaments to the ideal of creating the change we wish to see.

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