Prairie Gentian

Today was Prairie Day at Shaw Nature Reserve.  I learned how to use an atlatl, saw many cool exhibits, ate a bison burger, and took a walk through the prairie with the camera.   While the brutal drought is still evident throughout the region, the recent rains seem to be aiding in the fall bloom season.  Anywho, I took a few photos.  Here is just one for now.

I’m fairly sure this is Prairie or Downy Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta).  These beautiful perennials, at less than 2 feet tall, could be easily missed in a full prairie, were it not for the vibrant blue-purple flowers.  And yes, it’s native.  And yes, it’s drought resistant.  Why not try something like this in your sunny flower garden?  Grow Native!

Forget Climate, are we Prepared for the Weather?

The debate rages on over climate change and what needs to be done to address it, if anything.  Regardless of your position on that matter, there’s no escaping the certitude of the weather.  The weather!  With all the baked lawns, charred forest, buckling pavement, derechos, unusual tornado patterns, etc., maybe we should consider that we aren’t even prepared for the weather!!

We aren’t prepared to withstand substantial drought.  We aren’t prepared for scorching wildfires.   We aren’t prepared for flash flooding in our cities.   We aren’t prepared for  EF-5 tornadoes.    We aren’t prepared for straight-line winds that tear our tethers to the grid.

What can we do to be prepared?  Well, for one, carry an umbrella.  But what else is there?  Some weather events are so sudden and violent that preparation is almost impossible.  Other events (like the drought) last so long that we are unprepared for their lingering consequences.  But there are things we could do…things that not only protect us, but also provide ecological, economic, and social benefits.

Drought 2012

The drought in the United States this year has been brutal.  July was the warmest month on record for the contiguous United States.  Drought has encroached on over 63% of the lower 48 states.  Severe drought is classified as a natural disaster by the U.S. EPA.Drought-stricken Lawn

The drought has been particularly devastating to agriculture that relies on rain and irrigation from reliable water sources. Well, rain is gold these days and water sources are severely depleted.  Constant use and inefficient watering techniques have already depleted major groundwater resources, like the Ogallala aquifer that underlies much of the plains.  As opposed to some seasons when farmers are PAID TO PLOW CROPS UNDER (to maintain lucrative crop prices), prices this year are being forced higher for low supplies (like Corn).

There are several ways to deal with the drought.  Drought requires efficient watering of gardens and landscaping, if it’s not already banned (see watering tips by Joe Lamp’l, host of PBS “Growing a Greener World”).  Some farmers are watering parts of their land while sacrificing others.

But more importantly, how could we be better prepared for drought in the future?  Well, we shouldn’t be wasting our resources on extracting, filtering, and purifying drinking water just to flush it down the toilet and wash the car. Water conservation is a primary concern today, but it should be habit on a daily basis.  It should be as simple as using greywater or collected rainwater for flushing toilets, watering the lawn, and washing cars.  The plants we add to our landscapes should be native, drought tolerant, and/or deep-rooted.  Irrigation to gardens and ag fields should be extremely efficient.  Drip irrigation and low-level, properly-timed sprayers can effectively provide moisture to the plants while minimizing loss by evaporation, salt-accumulation, and soil erosion.

Drought reduces moisture levels in the soil and leaves dry tinder for rampant wildfires.  Part of the reason for the terrible fires is from intense fire suppression by foresters.  Several years ago, we thought fire was bad in all circumstances.  We are now finding that fire is a natural part most ecosystems.  When fires are allowed to occur naturally and regularly, the understory kindling doesn’t usually build up so much as to scorch everything.  That is why controlled-burns and thinning of vegetation have become accepted practice in forests and prairies all over the world.  Burning reduces wildfire fuel, destroys intolerant invasive plants, and brings back native and natural growth.

Flooding

On the other end of the scale, flooding and especially flash flooding are dangerous occurrences that inundate homes and threaten lives.

What can you do for this?  Well, first, DO NOT build on a flood plain!  Just because you haven’t seen floodwaters reach far beyond its channel in your lifetime doesn’t mean it has happened before or will happen again.  The flat area along water bodies are naturally inundated during 1-in-10, 1-in-100, and 1-in-1000 year rain events.

Next, flooding tends to be exacerbated in urban areas where concrete, asphalt, and compacted soils prevent rainwater from infiltrating into the ground.  Instead, the water becomes surface runoff.  Most urban areas have sewer systems to carry away stormwater, but sometimes those systems reach capacity.  In cases where stormwater systems have been combined with sewer systems, Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) can spew a mixture of stormwater and untreated sewage into waterways.

Look at all that liquid gold going down the drain!

To fight flooding in urban areas, stormwater should be minimized or at least slowed down.  That can be done with pervious pavements, larger areas of urban parks and forests, retention ponds, and detention ponds.  We can store it in cisterns or rain barrels for later use.  We can also incorporate green infrastructure including grass swales; constructed, restored, or expanded wetlands; rain gardens, green roofs, green walls (an introduction), and pervious pavement.  These options generally add vegetation that can help store and evapotranspire the water and increasing the area of permanent and temporary water storage.  On top of minimizing stormwater runoff, many of these green technologies provide temperature benefits, air quality improvement, shade, soothing green space, opportunities for using native plants, and habitat for local wildlife.

Native Green Roof at Shaw Nature Reserve

Whitmire Wildflower Garden

Tornado Alley

You’d think everyone in the center of the country would have proper tornado protection plans.  Best places to be during harsh storms include a reinforced shelter, in a basement, or in a small interior room.  But because of geology, hydrology, and cost, many homes just don’t have protection.  Approximately 82 percent of the homes didn’t have basements in Joplin, Missouri, where the EF-5 Tornado struck last year (my college hometown).  In Oklahoma, it is very difficult and costly to construct a basement (See why).

So what can we do?  Well, we can build stronger homes and remove or secure obstacles outside that could become projectiles.  Also, we can incorporate safe rooms made from recycled plastic materials.  Recent research shows they work very well.  During the rebuilding of Joplin, many are choosing to install safe rooms.  EFJoplin (Originally Project JOMO) offers some of these safe rooms constructed from recycled materials.  This can divert great volumes of plastic from landfills, which are becoming fuller and fewer across the U.S.

On a related note, tornadoes, hurricanes and even violent straight-line winds can damage homes and leave many without power.  Most homes and businesses simply cannot function without electricity.  Some people cannot live without electric-powered medical devices, air conditioning, and heat.  What can we do about this?

Well, aside from building homes stronger and utilizing passive lighting and temperature moderation (skylights, large windows, etc. for natural light and air circulation), we could provide our own power and be semi-independent from the utilities.  Photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines, combined with still-improving backup systems, can provide emergency power without fossil-fuel generators.

To be completely independent of the grid, these technologies must be employed with other innovations in sustainable building design.  Earthships (see a previous entry), for example, are completely off-the-grid homes with numerous innovations to make comfortable but efficient living possible.

I could go on and on.  To me, the principles of sustainability appear to align with improving the human need for food, water, and shelter.  If all of these are improved, we may be able to better weather what we receive from Mother Nature.

Saving Rain for a Dry Day

We save everything else for a rainy day.  Why shouldn’t we save the rain for a droughty day?

In the midst of this substantial summer drought, only those with irrigation and adequate water supply (as well as those lucky enough to receive a convective storm or two) seem to have green lawns, lush gardens, and healthy crops.  Unfortunately, many folks can’t afford to water their lawns and gardens enough to stave off the baking heat.  While irrigation is commonplace in agriculture, many farms only allocate parts of their land for priority watering.  And even then, inefficient irrigation systems and improper watering timing can quickly deplete water sources.  Water Conservation is extremely important!

What can we do?

Look at all that liquid gold going down the drain!

Perhaps we should focus more attention on the storage of water in containers or promoting the storage of water in aquifers when we do receive rain.  Lately, it seems like the weathery water hose is on full-blast or indefinitely kinked.

When it dries, it bakes and burns!  Silent and deadly Sun has supplanted the patter of rain.  In and out of cities, wind and flame advance relentlessly.  Menacing fires have become commonplace these days. (Huffington Post Green Article.)  Cities, often lacking much vegetation to burn, still scorch and bake in their asphalt and concrete ovens.

When it does rain, it pours.  Occasionally, as the sky finally fades from blue, sharp, black tempests drop buckets of water on the land, perhaps doing more harm than good.  The parched land can’t soak up rain quickly enough under heavy rain, producing stormwater runoff.  In the country, flash flooding erodes loose soil in agricultural fields and deepens gullies.  In the city, curb and gutter systems typically direct the relatively large amount of surface water that pours over roofs, roads and parking lots.  Stormwater sewers sometimes become overburdened in heavy rains and cause problems.  Retention ponds fill.  Basements flood.  Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO) occur where stormwater and wastewater systems have been combined.

The rain from an intense event, gravity driven, runs away rapidly or, as the sunlight returns, quickly re-evaporates into the atmosphere.  Little is left that can benefit us and our surroundings for the longer-term.

But what if we made a strong effort to save stormwater for later use?  How could we do this? 

Here are a few ideas for rainwater harvesting, purification, storage, and use.

1.  Rain Barrels

Rain barrels are usually small holding tanks attached to existing roof gutters.  Rain barrel water isn’t usually purified, although many barrels utilize mesh openings to deter havens for mosquito larvae.  Without filtration mechanisms, this sort of water is likely to be somewhat contaminated with atmospheric and roof pollutants.  That said, the water is perfect for watering gardens and lawns nearby.  Rain barrels typically have one or two openings for spigots to accommodate water levels and hose connections.

2. Cisterns

Cisterns are essentially large holding tanks for water.  They can be operated similar to a rain barrel, or altered to improve water collection, filtration, purification, and use.  Cisterns are already in use in areas with only seasonal heavy precipitation, places where municipal lines are impossible to tie to, or places where water is already heavily used.  Earthships (as mentioned previously here and here) channel rainwater and snowmelt from the roofs into large cisterns buried in the soil berm encasing the home (“Water is precious, treat it as such“).  Storing the cistern in a berm moderates water temperature and greatly lengthens the lifespan of the cistern itself.  Eartships use various techniques to filter, purify, and prepare this stored water for

casual home use. (Video of Earthship cistern installation.)

Water Harvesting system

Innovative water harvesting system for an Eartship near Taos, NM.

3. Green Roofs

Green roofs are generally characterized as roofs covered by layers of vegetation, growing media, drainage materials, andNative Green Roof at Shaw Nature Reserve waterpoof membranes.  Green roofs reduce and delay stormwater runoff, filter air and water pollutants, add green space, reduce the Urban Heat Island Effect (UHIE), moderate interior temperature, increase the life of the roof membrane…the list goes on and on.  Green roofs aren’t necessarily the best way to store water for human use in the long-term, but the ability of vegetation and engineered growing materials to filter out pollutants means that any runoff produced (and collected by rain barrels and cisterns) is already naturally filtered.  Learn more about green roofs at GreenRoofs.org and GreenRoofs.com.

4.  Rain Gardens

Rain Gardens are similar in purpose to green roofs, although they are generally situated at ground level.  While green roofs usually use drought tolerant succulents, like Sedum, rain gardens tend to utilize native plants (See Missouri Grow Native!) that are tolerant of natural extremes in climate.  Again, rain gardens focus more on the reduction and slowing of stormwater than capturing it for later use. I guess you could capture the outflow for storage, but the benefits of native gardening are already putting you ahead.  Rain gardens can make up a portion of your landscaping that doesn’t normally require watering.  This prevents the wasting of perfectly-good-for-human-consumption water on we-can-deal-with-natural-water,-thanks vegetation.

5.  Living Retaining Walls

Green Retaining WallLiving Retaining Walls (LRWs) are retaining wall systems that stabilize slopes with blocks that facilitate plants.  I’ve posted about these several times.  Similar to other living systems, LRWs reduce and delay stormwater runoff while covering what would normally be hardscape with vegetation.  Any water draining from LRWs could possibly be stored for use, or fed into other green infrastructure like rain gardens (thus ‘saving’ the need to water more landscaping on dry days).  Actually, it might even be feasible to store water in cisterns within the retaining wall, which could be used for drip irrigation.  Oh, the possibilities!

All in all, we should focus on anything pervious that promotes local water storage or groundwater infiltration!  Return Nature to the Urban Jungle.

Many, many people rely on groundwater for municipal, commercial and agricultural consumption. Paving over everything and pushing stormwater rapidly downstream is dangerous as a source of flash flooding and disrupts natural hydrology (streamflow, groundwater/surface water interactions, infiltration rates).  Even where green space is present, construction and development have left it severely compacted, diminishing potential routes to aquifers.  Thus, all of the ideas listed above, plus anything else that reduces/slows runoff, promotes groundwater storage, and provides reserves could be beneficial.  Save it for a not-so-rainy day!

Related Links:

Catching and Using Rain Where it Falls

Legalizing Rainwater Harvesting