Interviewed by Tracy Frisch
When writer Judith Schwartz learned that soil carbon is a buffer for climate change, her focus as a journalist took a major turn. She was covering the Slow Money National Gathering in 2010 when Gardener’s Supply founder Will Raap stated that over time more CO2 has gone into the atmosphere from the soil than has been released from burning fossil fuels. She says her first reaction was “Why don’t I know this?” Then she thought, “If this is true, can carbon be brought back to the soil?” In the quest that followed, she made the acquaintance of luminaries like Allan Savory, Christine Jones and Gabe Brown and traveled to several continents to see the new soil carbon paradigm in action. Schwartz has the gift of making difficult concepts accessible and appealing to lay readers, and that’s exactly what she does in Cows Save the Planet And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, which Elizabeth Kolbert called “a surprising, informative, and ultimately hopeful book.”
For her most recent project, Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, Schwartz delves into the little-known role the water cycle plays in planetary health, which she illustrates with vivid, empowering stories from around the world. While we might not be able to change the rate of precipitation, as land managers we can directly affect the speed that water flows off our land and the amount of water that the soil is able to absorb. Trees and other vegetation are more than passive bystanders at the mercy of temperature extremes — they can also be powerful influences in regulating the climate.
The week after this interview was recorded, Schwartz travelled to Washington, D.C., to take part in a congressional briefing on soil health and climate change organized by Regeneration International. As a public speaker, educator, researcher, and networker, she has become deeply engaged in the broad movement to build soil carbon and restore ecosystems.
A Healthy Water Cycle
ACRES U.S.A. Please explain the title of your book, Water in Plain Sight.
JUDITH D. SCHWARTZ. The title plays on the idea that there is water in plain sight if we know where to look. It calls attention to aspects of water that are right before us but we are not seeing. By this I mean how water behaves on a basic level, not anything esoteric.
ACRES U.S.A. How should we reframe the problems of water shortages, runoff, and floods?
SCHWARTZ. Once we approach these problems in terms of how water moves across the landscape and through the atmosphere, our understanding shifts. For example, when we frame a lack of water as “drought,” our focus is on what water is or isn’t coming down from the sky. That leaves us helpless because there’s really not much we can do. But if we shift our frame from drought to aridification, then the challenge becomes keeping water in the landscape. That opens up opportunities.
ACRES U.S.A. Could you say anything about floods in that same vein?
SCHWARTZ. Allan Savory has always said that floods are manmade. Again, it has to do with how we manage our land. Is water remaining in the landscape, or is the land incapable of holding that water? If it’s the latter, you will get a flood.
ACRES U.S.A. Many people have forgotten, or maybe never were familiar with, what a healthy water cycle looks like. How would you describe its characteristics?
SCHWARTZ. In a healthy water cycle, precipitation remains in the landscape and only leaves the soil through plants or by filtering through the ground into underground water stores. In general, a healthy water cycle ensures there’s sufficient water to sustain biodiversity in that particular system.
ACRES U.S.A. Allan Savory’s concept of “effective rainfall” ties together many of your examples throughout the book. What do people do to make rainfall more effective?
SCHWARTZ. On a very basic level the key is carbon-rich soil. Often, what is considered a water scarcity problem is really an inability-to-keep-water-on-the-land problem. Carbon is essential here because every gram of soil organic carbon represents 8 grams of water that can be held on the landscape. It’s an amazing sponge. When we lose that sponge, we have landscape degradation.
ACRES U.S.A. I still see confusion, even in organic farming circles, between the more persistent soil carbon in humus versus just applying a quantity of compost to the land. They’re not going to have the same effect, are they?
SCHWARTZ. There are a couple of ways to understand this. In terms of function, what’s important is not the presence of carbon per se, but soil structure, meaning well-aggregated soil to allow for water and airflow. As Christine Jones has pointed out, aggregates form around the roots of plants. Humus is formed within soil aggregates. Adding compost doesn’t directly promote aggregation other than, perhaps, helping to create the conditions for aggregates to form. Also, there is a difference between surface, labile carbon and stable carbon deeper in the soil. With added organic matter, the top layer of soil is very biologically active with microbes respiring, releasing CO2. This isn’t a bad thing since it’s rapidly cycling in and out, but to build soil carbon it needs to be drawn down deeper through plants.
Boosting Rainfall Infiltration
ACRES U.S.A. Most likely you wouldn’t start with an ample supply of carbon-rich humus in the soil. What have people done to boost the infiltration of rainfall into the soil?
SCHWARTZ. The approach I know most about is holistic planned grazing, in which livestock serve as a tool for large-scale and restoration. In degraded, dryland landscapes — areas that desertify most dramatically — planned grazing solves a basic problem in areas with seasonal rainfall: How do you maintain moisture in the soil from the end of one rainy season to the beginning of the next? Indeed, Allan Savory helped us understand that ruminants have always played this role in grassland ecosystems, and therefore sustained these landscapes. One of his particularly useful concepts is the “brittleness scale.” Here in Southern Vermont we have moisture fairly consistently throughout the year. Ours is a “non-brittle” environment. By contrast in Zimbabwe, where Savory is from and the site of the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, there are distinct dry and rainy seasons. This is a “brittle” environment. Brittleness is not a matter of total rainfall, but of distribution of rainfall. Johannesburg, where my husband grew up, has nearly the same average annual rainfall as London. But South Africa is brittle whereas the UK is not. Where a place falls on the brittleness scale provides insight as to how the ecosystem functions. Allan Savory helped us understand that moisture can be maintained in the landscape through the digestive system of ruminants. The animals secrete moisture and nutrients that then can be reincorporated into the soil. They also help break down dead plant matter. Often in agriculture and ecology, we think about birth and growth but not death and decay because they’re not very sexy. In Vermont there’s always moisture to support the microbial and fungal life that break down decaying matter. In dry areas you don’t have that. One of Savory’s core insights is that land can be undergrazed as well as overgrazed. Grazing animals consume and digest — break down — the grasses. They also trample dead plant matter into the soil so microorganisms can act on it. When people look at a landscape, they usually don’t think, “how wonderful that microorganisms are incorporating plant matter into the soil,” though that is what gives it life. That process builds the carbon level, which holds the moisture. With that moisture, the land supports microbial life, which keeps the entire system functioning. Without that it stalls, a story now being written across the planet.
ACRES U.S.A. Do you want to say more about the vicious cycle, where feedback mechanisms make things get worse and worse?
SCHWARTZ. The vicious cycle is driven by the loss of carbon in the soil. This can happen in many ways. If you clear land or heavily till it, you lose soil carbon. Or let’s say land is undergrazed or not grazed at all. When dead plant matter accumulates on the soil surface, it oxidizes. That is, it undergoes chemical decomposition as opposed to biological decomposition by microorganisms. It blots out the sun, hindering new growth. The ground dries out, microorganisms die and you have a biological desert. Savory often gauges landscape health by the space between living plants. When he started the Africa Centre, much of the ground was 90 percent bare. Now, he says, he has to intentionally create bare patches for learning purposes. It is amazing how quickly land heats up when it’s bare. This is where the concept of “land skin temperature” comes in: the soil surface can be significantly hotter than the air temperature. At less than 120°F microorganisms start dying and by 130 degrees, 100 percent of moisture is lost. On hot days, say 100 degrees-plus, you can exceed 140 degrees on bare soil.
ACRES U.S.A. In your book you quote Bruce Ward’s statement about land skin: “If we were to lose our skin, it would hurt like hell.” How do you define land skin?
SCHWARTZ. Bruce Ward was a very beloved teacher of Holistic Management in Australia who passed away a few years ago. He talked about soil as the interface between the body of the earth and the atmosphere, much like our skin is the interface between our body and the air that we move around in. You can also think of it as a membrane that’s protecting the surface.
ACRES U.S.A. What a great image! Another evocative phenomenon is the violence of a raindrop falling.
SCHWARTZ. That was from Alice Outwater’s book Water: A Natural History. She describes how raindrops become little bombs detonating upon impact with bare soil. That’s very different from water that gently filters through a tree’s canopy or other vegetation, where it can trickle into the ground and replenish the water table. Raindrops hitting bare soil kind of bounce and they can produce splash erosion that leaves little craters. This reality totally belies our sense of rainfall as a soft, nourishing essence.
ACRES U.S.A. By what process does vegetation moderate soil temperature?
SCHWARTZ. By holding condensation, by covering and shading the soil and by transpiration. I keep on saying “in many ways” because of the built-in redundancy in natural processes. Nothing occurs just for one purpose; rather every process has multiple benefits and effects and multiple ways of reaching the same means of modulation.
Blue Water and Green Water
ACRES U.S.A. What do you mean by blue water and green water?
SCHWARTZ. “Blue water” is contained in lakes and rivers and bodies of water that are colored blue on a map. “Green water” refers to the water held in the soil. Two-thirds of precipitation becomes green water. Ultimately that is the most important water, as it nourishes most of the vegetation on the planet. In fact, 70 percent of the world’s food is grown in rainfall agriculture. Generally our regulations address blue water — while there’s no protection for green water, despite its enormous significance for maintaining ecological function.
ACRES U.S.A. Doesn’t the same hold for government funding for water, too? It primarily goes for dams and water delivery and removal systems and water and sewage treatment.
SCHWARTZ. Right. There hasn’t been funding to protect green water and educate people on the importance of what the Australian scientist Walter Jehne calls “in-soil reservoirs.”
ACRES U.S.A. Humans are not the only animals that undertake impactful water management projects. Certain wild animals extensively manipulate the land in ways that affect green and blue water, though we typically don’t value their contribution. What happened when we almost completely eradicated the beaver?
SCHWARTZ. We lost our fabulous water engineers. Beavers create wetlands. Their dams slow down the flow of water in wetland areas and keep the water on the land longer. By working with tree limbs, they create meanders that slow down the current. And they create areas of very rich, spongy, peat-like soil.
ACRES U.S.A. What about other keystone species that act as a critical part of water infrastructure?
SCHWARTZ. In the Southwest there are prairie dogs. They create little holes for water to flow through. They also chew on mesquite, and get much of their moisture from eating it. Many millions of dollars have been and continue to be spent to eradicate this woody plant.
ACRES U.S.A. With herbicides?
SCHWARTZ. Yes. But prairie dog colonies not only destroy mesquite, they increase soil moisture and lead to greater biodiversity, conditions unfavorable to mesquite.
ACRES U.S.A. In your book you make a statement about mesquite that grabbed my attention, that when grasses emerge the microclimate becomes too humid to support mesquite, and then the mesquite dies.
SCHWARTZ. Absolutely. That trajectory is often ignored when we consider what we call invasive species or weeds. Often, they’re there for a reason. When the conditions conducive to their presence disappear, they naturally retreat. If we merely try to eradicate these unwanted plants, without changing the underlying conditions, we get caught in an ongoing battle we can’t win, like a kind of herbicide arms race.
Water Management and Climate Change
ACRES U.S.A. The contribution of water management or water to climate change is not widely acknowledged. What should we know about water vapor as a greenhouse gas?
SCHWARTZ. It’s a significant greenhouse gas. There’s more water vapor in the atmosphere than any other, and it traps and transfers more heat.
ACRES U.S.A. Why are you calling for us to use a different narrative about climate change?
SCHWARTZ. I believe the way that we talk about climate change leaves us stuck and interferes with our ability to truly grapple with it. In public discussions, the term climate change is generally assumed to mean global warming being caused by excess atmospheric CO2 due to the burning of fossil fuels. While we absolutely need to stop burning fossil fuels, this narrative is incomplete. And it leaves us feeling powerless because what else can we do about it other than protest pipelines or encourage divestment? However, if we understand climate change as manifestations of distorted carbon, water and energy cycles, we can work to restore the health of those cycles. If you work on restoring the water cycle, you inevitably help restore the carbon cycle. And in addressing the carbon and water cycles, you are helping to rebalance the energy cycle. By energy cycle here I mean the solar energy that strikes the Earth, not fossil fuels. Water Jehne, a microbiologist with Healthy Soils Australia, has an interesting perspective on the energy cycle. He notes that on average, 342 watts of solar radiation per square meter reach the Earth’s surface. But because of how human activity has altered various ecological dynamics, only 339 watts per square meter are being emitted back. To have a stable climate, the amount coming in should equal the amount going out. These are figures from the International Panel on Climate Change.
ACRES U.S.A. So, in effect, the Earth is absorbing this amount of energy and that’s raising the temperature?
SCHWARTZ. Essentially. The energy differential is only about 3 watts per square meter, which is less than 1 percent of the total amount of solar energy striking the land. Walter asks whether we can work with the water cycle and other natural processes to disperse and re-radiate those 3 watts per square meter. And he points out all the opportunities we have to do so. For example, we can look at transpiration as a cooling mechanism because it consumes energy. All that’s needed to promote transpiration is plants. Let’s say we have a little patch of bare soil. When the sun hits the exposed ground, that heat is absorbed. It becomes sensible heat — heat you can feel. That is a positive in the energy balance, meaning we’re taking in that heat. Then take a few steps over to a meadow. There the solar radiation falls on plants. Those plants are transpiring water, which uses and disperses solar energy. It’s a cooling process, the antithesis of warming up bare soil. That heat becomes latent heat embodied in water vapor.
ACRES U.S.A. Won’t that water vapor eventually change phase and become liquid water again?
SCHWARTZ. Right. But it won’t necessarily generate heat. It could become water again by condensing into clouds, higher up in the atmosphere.
How Trees Make Water
ACRES U.S.A. Your chapter about how trees make water blew my mind. Could you recount the magnificent story of Rio de Janeiro’s historic turnaround from water scarcity to abundance?
SCHWARTZ. In the 1500s, when Europeans first arrived in what would become Rio de Janeiro, the mountains around the future city were fully forested. Then, echoing the story of European settlement all over the world, the forests were cut down and the land was exploited and developed. Some people made a heck of a lot of money from the plantations around the city, but over time, the local climate began to change. Streams stopped flowing and other water sources dried up. There was also erosion because the hills did not absorb water well. By the 1800s, people were moving away because there wasn’t enough water. They were the early harbingers of climate refugees. Fortunately, the king at the time believed bringing back the trees would solve the water problem. He enlisted a military officer to handle the reforestation, and thanks to this effort the water did return. This is the renowned Tijuca Forest.
ACRES U.S.A. You draw a stark contrast with Rio and the largest city in all of the Americas, São Paolo.
SCHWARTZ. Sao Paolo is experiencing extraordinary water problems right now, and people are stunned because Brazil has long been considered kind of the Saudi Arabia of water. No one anticipated that it might someday be dry.
ACRES U.S.A. Does this have to do with the deforestation of the Amazon?
SCHWARTZ. Yes, because of the role forests play in cycling moisture. I can say that over the course of writing this book I came to feel that plants run the show to a larger degree than I ever would have thought.
ACRES U.S.A. In Water in Plain Sight, you offer astounding facts about the influence of plants on the water cycle. Between 80 and 90 percent of continental atmospheric moisture comes from plants. Wind over forested areas generates more than twice as much rain as wind over cleared areas. Leafy tree canopies produce flows of water vapor more than ten times greater than herbaceous vegetation. How do scientists explain these conclusions?
SCHWARTZ. This is all due to transpiration. We think of plants as recipients of water, but they’re also producing, retaining and moving it. The Australian farmer Peter Andrews, who developed Natural Sequence Farming, says: “Plants manage water. And in managing water, they are managing heat.” Andrews calls attention to the fact that we have de-vegetated about a quarter of our planet. This means that on a large part of our planet, where vegetation is largely absent, the natural mechanisms that used to regulate moisture and temperature can no longer function.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m trying to picture a quarter of the land surface of the planet being relatively empty of vegetation.
SCHWARTZ. There is the built environment — roads, roofs and concrete. And consider all the degraded areas, particularly as we lose 12 million hectares to desertification each year.
ACRES U.S.A. Often in agriculture, crops are only in the ground for three or four months a year.
SCHWARTZ. They are seasonal deserts, biologically speaking. Fortunately, cover cropping is becoming more common. Going back to desertification, I saw the process occurring with the very large Mennonite farms in Chihuahua, Mexico. The native desert grasslands there are home to many species of birds and other animals, but with so much of that land getting plowed up, large expanses are becoming a biological desert.
ACRES U.S.A. Let’s go back to the contributions of trees, which in agriculture often get short shrift. What are some of the amazing characteristics of trees in relation to the water cycle?
SCHWARTZ. The late Bill Mollison talks about how a tree stands there as a barrel of water. Trees hold water, and water is always moving through trees. They protect the ground from those harsh raindrops and the rays of the sun. They also keep the land from drying out. Trees allow for the slow filtering of water into underground stores. Another way forests are pivotal to the functioning of our ecological systems is their influence on rainfall.
ACRES U.S.A. Is that related to the biotic pump?
SCHWARTZ. This is a theory developed by Russian physicists Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov that natural forests act as a “pump” that pulls in moisture. In a forest, the collective transpiration of trees creates an area of low pressure. Since nature always wants to fill a void, this low pressure pulls in moisture from elsewhere, ultimately from the coastal regions. Water vapor moves all around the Earth, and forests help direct the movement of that moisture by drawing in water vapor. According to the biotic pump theory, this is an important factor in the production of rainfall. Evaporation from the oceans results in a lot of water vapor, so coastal rainfall makes sense. The question is, how does rain fall far away from the coast? With the biotic pump, you have a sort of tug-of-war between the oceans and the forests over the moisture. That can explain how you get moisture moving and ultimately falling as precipitation on inland areas.
ACRES U.S.A. That suggests another reason why deforestation is a total disaster.
SCHWARTZ. Absolutely. Deforestation really frightens people who have studied the biotic pump. They recognize how essential transpiration is for normal precipitation patterns and the consequences of interrupting that function.
ACRES U.S.A. Is this one of the reasons that climate in an area can flip so quickly and suddenly become much hotter and drier?
SCHWARTZ. That is the hypothesis as well as something that people are really concerned about. Scientists are finding that the Amazon not only supports local and regional rainfall, but that there are “teleconnections,” so what happens in the Amazon can have effects much farther away, like in the Midwest of the United States. When it comes to water, we all live in the same neighborhood.
ACRES U.S.A. That’s very frightening.
SCHWARTZ. It is. In developing their theory, Makarieva and Gorshkov have been able to watch what’s happening in real time and make sense of it. For example, they associate the unprecedented 2010 fires and heat waves in Russia with the incredible deforestation rate of the Western Russian boreal forests. When something unusual happens, we can inquire about changes in the region that could be factors. We are now seeing droughts in places like Madagascar and Haiti, which once would have been unthinkable. Simply attributing this to climate change misses the point, as this primarily represents disruption of ecological function.
ACRES U.S.A. Forests in the Rocky Mountains are experiencing massive die-offs. Warmer winters are allowing far greater survival of bark beetles and other tree parasites, and these insect outbreaks are decimating trees. So we’re facing the potential loss of large amounts of forest, with forest fires burning large expanses of trees that are already dead.
SCHWARTZ. This is the vicious circle. Walter Jehne counsels us to rehydrate our landscapes, or else we’re cacti. If we ask how landscapes stay hydrated and what makes them more resilient to fire, then we’ll start finding solutions. Often it comes down to biodiversity. We need the beavers and other herbivores that kept down fire fuel.
ACRES U.S.A. One summer I spent a couple weeks at around 8,000 feet in the uplands of New Mexico. To my utter amazement, beavers were active on this land, which only got 15 inches of rain annually, and they had made lush wetlands.
SCHWARTZ. In Nevada there’s a project initiated by rancher Jon Griggs and biologist Carol Evans to restore the land by working with ranchers on holistic planned grazing. As the land improved, the beaver showed up. Now the land has lush vegetation and sufficient water, even though nearby areas are dry. So let’s pose the question: How can we rehydrate these landscapes? If we focus on attacking this pest or that pest, something always replaces it to fill in the niche. You need to change the underlying circumstances.
ACRES U.S.A. You quote Jan Pokorný’s assertion that our understanding of the role of water and plants in landscape function is the equivalent of medicine before Pasteur.
SCHWARTZ. That statement points to how much more there is to know. The mere fact that water is not a part of our discussions of climate change says to me that we have a very long way to go. The good news is we have all these opportunities to address climate change that are in plain sight.
ACRES U.S.A. In that same vein, policymakers, scientists and even well-read laypeople and climate activists tend to consider trees as carbon sinks and nothing more.
SCHWARTZ. We’ve gotten in the habit of looking at single metrics and through the lens of single disciplines. Climate science has been dominated by physics, and biology has been left out. Similarly, soil science has been dominated by geology. This is why people believe it takes 500 years to create an inch of topsoil. Again, biology has been left out. And agricultural science has been dominated by chemistry. Now, thanks to publications like Acres U.S.A., biology is being brought in. Bringing biology into any of these discussions is a huge shift.
Carbon Loss and the Water Cycle
ACRES U.S.A. Rattan Lal of Ohio State calculates that the world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon. What are the implications of this loss for the water cycle?
SCHWARTZ. It’s huge because when you lose the carbon in the soil, much less water can be held in the soil. It also, if indirectly, affects precipitation. You see, water vapor needs something to coalesce around in order to form raindrops. Walter Jehne calls attention to aerosols. We have all this stuff in the atmosphere: ice crystals and salts, and volatile compounds from plants. Then there’s particulate matter from combustion, including fossil fuels. And a lot of dust rising from desertified land around the world. The effect of eroding soils is really big and that one we can absolutely do something about. The dust particles tend to be much smaller than condensation nuclei that form raindrops. All of these tiny dust particles and this microdust just sit up there, mingling with water vapor without forming raindrops. And because of what we’re doing, the balance is shifting toward these non-water-attracting particles. The Asian brown cloud is one manifestation of this situation. It’s pollution that suppresses rainfall, and has diminished annual monsoons by an estimated 30 percent.
ACRES U.S.A. Does the Asian brown cloud hold in heat?
SCHWARTZ. It’s complicated. On one hand it holds in heat but it also blocks the sunlight. Some pollution is actually cooling in that it can mask warming effects. It’s paradoxical, like the humid droughts that Walter talks about: when it’s muggy but there’s no rain because the soot and dust particles don’t lead to precipitation.
ACRES U.S.A. Amish agricultural consultant John Kempf says that in a really well-functioning, fertile soil environment plants grow faster and require less water to do so.
SCHWARTZ. John talks in terms of the high nutritional level of the plants. He says healthy plants create healthy soil, and healthy soil creates healthy plants. Another virtuous cycle. When plants are growing vigorously they are more effective at photosynthesis, which means more energy to form higher-order nutrients. For example, plants with a high level of nutrition produce more lipids. Kempf refers to the glossy, waxy coat on the foliage of healthy plants. This protective barrier holds in moisture and protects the plant, so it does not need to use its moisture to cool itself and cool the soil. This creates another level of water efficiency. As does living soil, since fungal networks extend a plant’s reach to obtain moisture.
ACRES U.S.A. Why do you downplay the benefits of irrigation to address shortfalls in precipitation?
SCHWARTZ. Christine Jones reminds us that every society that has depended on irrigation ultimately fails. Sandra Postel also talks about how irrigation buys time but leads to other problems, such as salinization. If you keep applying water to land, especially in an arid environment, when it evaporates it leaves behind salts. And salinization reduces the quality of water, too.
ACRES U.S.A. Why does the claim that the fastest way to regenerate soil is to grow extraordinarily healthy crops make sense to you?
SCHWARTZ. The healthier the plant, the more carbon that plant can send down into the soil as root exudate. That’s another kind of beneficial feedback loop, in that this carbon-based root exudate serves as currency for trading for nutrients, trace minerals, phosphorus and nitrogen. There’s a whole underground barter exchange.
Collecting Condensation and Dew
ACRES U.S.A. How did the permaculturists near Big Bend, Texas, collect enough water to overflow a water tank when it hadn’t rained in four months?
SCHWARTZ. This is something that took them by tremendous surprise, too. Here they are in an incredibly dry place, where everyone worries about water all the time. Katherine and Markus Ottmers designed their barn — the center of operations for all their projects — as a water-collection device. It had two levels of tin roof. In the afternoon, the top one would super heat. Then, at night, cooling breezes laden with invisible moisture would blow in. That temperature differential would cause the moisture to condense, and the water would then flow down a pipe into their water tank. One morning in winter 2012, lo and behold, the water tank overflowed. They checked for blockages and there weren’t any. The next morning, Markus woke well before dawn to see what was happening. He was stunned by the rate at which water was flowing into the tank.
ACRES U.S.A. That’s remarkable. What have they been doing to create oases on their land?
SCHWARTZ. They used animals to reinvigorate the land so the soil would hold more carbon. Markus worked a lot on managing the flow of water. Sometimes he moved earth on contours with heavy equipment. I remember one spot where we sat that felt very cool. He had created a microclimate that was several degrees cooler than the surrounding area. They also consciously placed plants so they remained in shade until the sun reached a certain angle. That allowed the dew to stay on the plants longer before evaporating in the sun. Marcus made the point that condensation is the most dependable, and therefore the most important, water in the landscape.
ACRES U.S.A. At least in the northeast I don’t think we think much about condensation, though I know it can be important in pastures.
SCHWARTZ. People are starting to post various dew-collecting contraptions on my wall on Facebook.
ACRES U.S.A. And you wrote about nets for collecting dew.
SCHWARTZ. Fog nets actually. The placement of plants also isn’t something that people think about.
ACRES U.S.A. It’s logical that ancient cultures and religions were so clued into dew.
SCHWARTZ. Yes. When I go to synagogue, there’s a core prayer that in the winter talks about welcoming the rain, and in the summer welcoming the dew. I had thought of that as a poetic thing, but actually, in ancient Israel, people had ways of collecting dew using stones.
ACRES U.S.A. After the desert environment in Texas, you move on to Australia, where you paint an appealing picture of the potential for landscape transformation. You write, “A creek that was a desiccated channel in the 1990s now has clean flowing water throughout the year. More springs are surfacing, and locally endangered species are thriving.” How was this impressive regeneration of the land achieved?
SCHWARTZ. Chris Henggeler uses holistic planned grazing. He considers cattle his “middle management” and his plants “lower management.” The upper management is the humans, of which there are few on that property. He manages the land so that the microorganisms, which he sees as the workers, can be most effective. He refers to dew as the mini-water cycle and says it’s important because if you can keep water on the land and on the surfaces of the plants for longer, that will allow more microbial activity. The expanse of that land is extraordinary. It’s the size of the five boroughs of New York and basically under the management of one family, and mostly Chris. He can only focus on certain areas at a time so he has to think strategically. His biggest concern is fire, so keeping the landscape hydrated is extremely central. If you can do that, you minimize the extent of a wildfire.
ACRES U.S.A. Besides keeping the land hydrated — which sounds like a colossal challenge in a hot desert, doesn’t he also use cattle to eliminate oxidized vegetation, which would be tinder for fire?
SCHWARTZ. Right. In a natural system, plant-eating animals consume and trample plants, but with the loss of those herbivores in many landscapes, we end up with a void that can be filled by effective management.
ACRES U.S.A. Do you endorse crop insurances as a good hedge for farmers against drought?
SCHWARTZ. I’m not a farmer, so far be it for me to say, “No, take that big risk.” But I don’t think the crop insurance program as it is now encourages people to manage for drought or to think strategically about water resources.
Urban Water Management
ACRES U.S.A. I was very struck by your discussion of water and cities. We tend to assume that cities require massive infusions of water from somewhere else, but it turns out that even desert cities squander surprising quantities of water delivered as rainfall.
SCHWARTZ. Cities were designed with the perspective that water is a nuisance in the urban environment. When rain hits all those surfaces of the built environment — roofs, sidewalks, asphalt — it runs off. So you’re working to remove what is considered wastewater. At the same time you’re bringing in the good water whereas you could make better use of the water that falls onto the urban surfaces.
ACRES U.S.A. Doesn’t all this wastewater end up in rivers and eventually the ocean?
SCHWARTZ. Yes, and, of course it’s picking up pollutants along the way. In, say, a parking lot, there’s leaked oil and all that.
ACRES U.S.A. In a cement jungle, you can’t get much aquifer recharge, and you don’t get transpiration.
SCHWARTZ. You don’t get transpiration, but you do get evaporation. If the water isn’t soaking into the ground, it evaporates.
ACRES U.S.A. How does Tucson’s rainfall compare to its water needs?
SCHWARTZ. In an average year more rain falls on the surface area of the city than the community uses. But we think we have to get rid of this water and replace it with other water, which is a huge energy drain. Think of a state like California, with all the energy being used to remove water, to bring in water, to send water over the mountains, to deliver water to agriculture, which has been built to depend on imported water.
ACRES U.S.A. How does water scarcity fuel war and other types of conflict?
SCHWARTZ. That’s a difficult question because there are lots of factors. But it is worth noting that most conflict areas around the globe are dry lands, and they are lands that are desertifying. Take a place like Syria. Before the uprisings in 2011 there was a multi-year drought. Behind that was desertification, the loss of land function. My husband was in Syria in 2007. At that time there were 1.5 million Iraq refugees — yes, from our war. So you have a situation where people from rural areas are streaming into cities because they can no longer grow food, plus more than a million people displaced by war, plus insufficient rain — or at least insufficient effective rainfall. It’s clearly ripe for conflict, even before considering the geopolitical factors. We can rehydrate a lot of these places. Globally I don’t think we’re paying attention to the degradation of our landscapes. That’s partly because the decline happens gradually, and people come to think things have always been this way. It’s a collective failure of memory.
ACRES U.S.A. What numbers can you share to give readers a better sense of just how much water we are letting slip away from our land?
SCHWARTZ. Michal Kravcik, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize for his Blue Alternative to a large dam in Slovakia, says more than 700 billion cubic meters of rainwater vanishes from the continents each year — water that would previously have remained in the environment. And yet more of the world’s surface is being paved over all the time. This leaves less soil that can absorb water and less area to grow trees and other vegetation. This takes us in exactly the wrong direction. In terms of the water that we waste, Andrew Lipkis of TreePeople says that even in the lowest rainfall year in Los Angeles, over 3,000 gallons of water per person disappeared. Keeping rainfall on the land can be done by very simple means like rain barrels and little swales that pool the water and support trees. And whenever you have trees — or any plants for that matter — they’re also pulling up water.
ACRES U.S.A. What lesson can we learn from the celebrated Blue Alternative to Slovakia’s mega-dam project?
SCHWARTZ. Often our governments think in terms of large water infrastructure projects because they can understand them. They can figure out which department will budget it, what contractors can be hired, how impressive the ribbon cutting will be and all that. In Slovakia, cities needed more water, so a big dam project was conceived. Michal Kravcik and others were concerned that by altering the flow of water, the dam would be detrimental for the environment and several 700-year-old villages would have to be moved, and thus destroyed. The Blue Alternative was a decentralized system that managed the flow of water to make more water available. Volunteers created small water catchments, which collected water and minimized waste. This saved the villages and avoided a large, environmentally destructive project. And cost a fraction of the proposed project.
ACRES U.S.A. Was this done by community people with minimal funding?
SCHWARTZ. Yes. It also gave people meaningful work to do. Many forms of ecological restoration can provide meaningful work for people. This is particularly relevant as degraded landscapes often lack employment because agriculture is failing.
ACRES U.S.A. What are a few of your favorite grassroots solutions?
SCHWARTZ. Rajendra Singh is a doctor who went to the state of Rajasthan, which is a very dry area of India. He realized that the most important thing he could do to enhance the health of the local people would be to help them with water. He worked with them to build very small check dams called johads. Over time the area turned green because these little dams were keeping the water in the landscape. Seven rivers have started flowing again. Singh won the Stockholm Water Prize in 2015. Another thing that I find heartening is the 4 per 1,000 Initiative from the French Agriculture Ministry, which was introduced at COP 21 in Paris. It invites nations and other entities to commit to building carbon in agricultural soils at a rate of 0.4 percent per year. That amount was chosen because that, combined with, pledged emissions reductions would halt the annual increase in atmospheric carbon. So that’s really powerful and has huge implications for water.
ACRES U.S.A. What makes you most hopeful about the future of water?
SCHWARTZ. The fact that people are beginning to make the connection between carbon, water and climate. At COP21 I attended one of the community-led workshops on water and climate. I met people working on programs to keep water on the land and looking for alternatives to big water infrastructure projects.
ACRES U.S.A. With your book you’re trying to bring this message to more people. How else could this message become more widely known?
SCHWARTZ. First of all, just getting people to not be afraid to talk about our big, global challenges. When there’s a problem, let’s get people to inquire, “how would nature solve that problem?”
This interview appeared in the June 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A.
For more information about Judith D. Schwartz, visit her website. Books by Judith D. Schwartz include Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World (2016, St. Martin’s Press) and Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth (2013, Chelsea Green).