By Steven Apfelbaum

Water is one of the most coveted, yet vilified, resources on earth.

Our food, energy and industrial production all rely on predictable availability of water resources. When phenomena such as flooding, drought, severe rainstorms and erosion upset this operational functionality, productivity and supply chains become disrupted. Severe events that impact our access to water resources will continue to exercise control over our economic, ecological, social and cultural systems — and, ultimately, at the global level, our future survival — unless we change our approach to conventional water management.

Many areas in the United States are now experiencing the fallout from extreme weather and severe drought conditions.

Unfortunately, this problem is long-standing. During our country’s settlement, settlers drained landscapes in order to promote agricultural and ultimately regional and economic development. Poor drainage systems hampered mobility and expansion while contributing to human and livestock diseases and crop failures.

Now, despite a wealth of technological and scientific advances, we’re still facing the same issues our ancestors did. Water is an asset or a liability, depending upon the availability and timing of precipitation, and effective water management is critical.

To date, in the non-arid areas of the United States, the primary strategy has been eliminating what has been viewed to be excessive water from the root zone and soil surface. In long-recognized droughty landscapes, irrigation has been the primary focus. But in lands receiving excessive amounts of water early in the growing season, and then drought stress later in the season, both drainage to remove water and irrigation to introduce water are often used.

However, as we recently witnessed, no amount of irrigation will solve the pressing problems where entire counties and even states or regions suffer from severe drought. We’re still unable to properly manage the limitations and excesses of water resources.

Therefore, it’s clear that we need to redefine how we manage water beyond a short-term focus. The role of irrigation may change drastically as surface water reservoirs subjected to extreme heat may not have the water reserves necessary to serve as a source of irrigation water. And with declining ground water levels in many locations, and predicted accelerated reductions, high volume wells may also represent a serious challenge.


An ecological approach to irrigation needs

All photos provided by Applied Ecological Services, Inc.How can we reconcile our contradictory relationship with water and improve our approach to future water-resource management?

No single technological fix can address the complex package of outcomes needed now and in the future. But by understanding the stressors that are adding to the problem, we can work together to develop national strategic plans that address these factors and find practical, cost-effective solutions that provide a long-term solution.

“Stressors” include overgrazing, fire, erosion, invasive plants and animals, water depletion and salinity — all of which can impact the structure and functionality of the landscape. Even very sophisticated cultures and societies are not immune from the changes these stressors may bring.

All aspects of our life, from food production and distribution systems to roads, buildings and power grids, are designed to meet our needs under “normal” conditions. As more intense storms, floods, drought and changing distributions of resource availability become manifest, the foundations of normal design solutions will not succeed in maintaining our needs.

Ecological-based approaches will solve many problems and address many stressors simultaneously. What does an ecologically based solution encompass? It’s a comprehensive approach to address economic, environmental and social needs. It’s an understanding that poor water management has substantial ecological and human costs.

If good water management strategies are integrated with the concepts of ecological systems in developing and redeveloping landscapes, substantial money could be saved by not needing infrastructure for water management. Long-term management of the water management infrastructures would be reduced, and sites would be safer while retaining higher market value and resale potential.

Combining human and ecological systems with water management is a way to keep our quality of life and reduce potential vulnerabilities in the future. It’s a way to directly address some of the root causes of our changing conditions and risky problems and challenges we face.

One example of an ecological approach to meet our needs now and in the future is the idea of increasing organic soil matter to essentially “re-grow” our available water supplies. A one-percent increase in organic soil matter per acre equates to an additional 60,000 gallons of water-holding capacity in the soil.

Organic matter is about 30 percent carbon, and the depletion of our soils has resulted in one of the largest emissions of greenhouse gases, which greatly contributes to atmosphere deterioration.

If we commit to improving soil carbon levels, even incrementally, the result will reduce flooding; improve potable water and water supplies for ecological systems; reduce soil erosion; and improve the quality, nutrition and quantity of food produced per acre.

Re-growing soil organic matter is one of the largest, single-most accessible, non-experimental approaches to curb the effect of unpredictable meteorological changes and mitigate the effects of this severe weather.

The immediate benefits from improved soil quality include less water for irrigation and relying less on herbicides and pesticides. However, marketplace or policy incentives to encourage such stewardship haven’t been in place.

Other possibilities for incorporating effective irrigation practices may have to focus on managing precipitation. This could happen close to where the rainfall and snowmelt occur. Then this retained water, stored in the soils and in various landscape features can be the source of irrigation water. This strategy can be used both passively and actively.


Minimizing future risk

As we see the results of increasingly risky weather and uncertainty, and as we feel the effect of higher costs for items we rely on to support our quality of life, it’s time to encourage a new approach to water-resource management.

Prudent decisions should be made using scientific facts and evidence to guide our future and minimize our risk in a non-partisan and forward-thinking manner.

The role of “re-growing” soil organic matter and using water conservation strategies to protect and “re-grow” available water supplies is a sure way to meet the heat of the future head on despite the unpredictability of severe weather events.


Steven Apfelbaum founded Applied Ecological Services, a full-service ecology restoration firm with ten offices in the United States and two abroad. He is also the author of Nature’s Second Chance, a personal memoir recognized as one the top 10 environmental books of 2009, and co-author of The Restoring Ecological Health to Your Land series, which shows readers of all skill levels how to design and implement their own restorations. Both books are available at