"When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first that is still to come."
Leonardo da Vinci
The San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the U.S. where fresh water from the Central Valley mixes with the salt water of the Pacific. Crabs, clams, fish and birds live in its deepwater channels, marshes and tidelands.

So Much Rain, So Little Storage

Thinking Outside the Dam

By Juliana Gonzalez, Executive Director

The winter’s storms have brought some welcome relief to our parched California lands. But our dams filling to the rim from atmospheric rivers are not a sign of the end of the of the state’s water challenges. This is a symptom of our falling infrastructure, and the need for new ways of thinking about storing and cleaning our water.

In California, we see a renew interest in building new and larger dams, despite uncontroversial evidence of the negative effects dams have on natural flowing systems that feed the Bay.  But what are the alternatives?  We need to think outside the dam, and look to nature for clues as of where to store and replenish our water resources. This applies to the working meadows in the Sierras, aquifer replenishing areas in the low lands, tidal marshes in the river mouths and green infrastructure or Low Impact Designs (LID) in our urban centers.

Not only do we need to double down on our efforts in water conservation and recycling, but in an effort to make our systems more resilient, we need to leverage nature as part of our infrastructure. Not only do we need to restore natural systems where they still exist but we need to create new systems that mimic nature where they don’t.  This can be done at the local scale through green infrastructure such as increased wetlands and riparian buffer zones, and through LID such as rain gardens, tree box filters, bioswales, rain barrels, vegetated rooftops, and permeable pavements. All of these solutions employ the concept of bio-mimicry to replicate the pre-development hydrologic regime of watersheds in highly developed areas. These features take in urban runoff, slow it down and spread it out, allowing water to infiltrate into augmented soils where microorganisms and fungi associated with soil and plant matter break down nonpoint source pollutants.

Applications of LID on a larger scale in urban areas can accomplish multiple benefits: 1) slow runoff delivered from impervious surfaces, attenuating street flooding and reducing sedimentation in waterways; 2) break down nonpoint source pollutants present in stormwater otherwise destined to harm downstream water quality and place municipalities at risk of regulatory non-compliance; 3) improve the quality of life in urban communities by “greening urban watersheds,” and 4) generating green collar jobs to install  and maintain LID’s in underserved communities.  

Many municipalities and communities now recognize that implementing LID is one of the most effective ways to address environmental health, maintain regulatory compliance, and improve social well being.

At The Watershed Project, we have been making progress at the local level to showcase the multiple benefits of LID, and our network of over a dozen rain gardens and bioswales are able to treat and slow down over 1 million gallons of water a year;  we have helped distribute and/or installed over 300 rain water harvesting systems, and in the last 5 years we have planted close to 500 trees along streets and sidewalks to create cooler and greener communities.  

If this is what we have done with the power of volunteers and local municipalities, imagine what can be done collectively if this became the strategy used to help restore our depleted water resources infrastructure on a larger scale.  It is time to turn the page on gray infrastructure and concentrate our efforts in enhancing nature’s water management strategies.