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Interview with Erica Gies - Author of Water Always Wins: Thriving in an age of drought and deluge
The Slow Water Movement, a global response to climate change that starts in your own small place
March 19 1024 am EDT

WaterToday: I'm interested because we cover water every day, what was the inspiration for doing this book in the first place?

Erica Gies: I love writing about water because it's just so fascinating. It's getting up to so many interesting things. The more we learn the more you realize there is to learn. Even since I've researched for my book, I am writing on more discoveries made since the book was published.

I have been covering the environment for about 25 years, focused specifically on water for about 15. This area of nature-based solutions for water, which I'm calling slow water, is a global movement . There was little coverage in the press about it and very little awareness from policy makers in terms of incorporating these approaches, the benefits of them and the cost effectiveness of them. I decided to write this book because I was hoping to bring this information to a wider audience.

WT: This is about gray infrastructure. Is this what makes the problem worse with floods and droughts?

EG: We are seeing a big increase in frequency and severity of flood and drought around the world. The narrative you often see is that climate change is causing these extremes, and that's definitely true, climate change is altering the water cycle. However, what you don't often see is that our development choices, land use change, by that I'm taking about urban sprawl, industrial agriculture and forestry and the gray, concrete infrastructure that we use to try to control water are all making these problems much, much worse.

The good news about that is, there is a lot we can do within our own places to make space for water and help to heal the parts of the water cycle we have disrupted.

WT: You went around the world to do this book, can you talk about the places you went and what you learned when you went there?

EG: I am originally from California, so some of my reporting is from California. Some from Washington State, and Canada, India, Peru, China, Kenya, England, Iraq. In all these places I met people who are innovating ways to work with water instead of trying to control it. So it's really a cultural shift in thought, away from "what can water do for us?", which leads to either thinking of it as a commodity if it's scarce, or a threat if you are worried about flooding. That tends to lead to single-focus problem solving. Instead, to people who are asking , "what does water want?" It's about thinking of water not as a "what" but a "who", an entity that has relationships with soil and rock and microbes and beavers and people and plants.

WT: Can you tell me, you have coined a phrase, "the reservoir effect", what is that?

EG: I cannot claim the creation of the term reservoir effect. That term is from a field called socio-hydrology which looks at the relationship between water and people. This is very important because for a long time hydrologists were trying to measure water, for example, flows in rivers as if people didn't exist, as if people didn't have an really dramatic impact on water availability. Socio-hydrology is trying to correct that.

The reservoir effect happens, such as in California we have more water reservoirs, this often gives people a false sense of security. We have this giant pool of water so we can water our lawns, we can expand agriculture, we can expand housing developments etc, but what that means is basically you are bringing more people into a place that doesn't really have enough water to support them. It makes more people vulnerable to the extremes of the water cycle. What socio-hydrologists have shown again and again, if you have water scarcity and you bring in water from somewhere else, you just increase water demand and water use. It's very much like if you have gridlock and you build more lanes on the freeway, you attract more traffic and very soon have gridlock again.

WT: Are you saying if I'm in a place with water, I build a reservoir there to catch the water, it makes the problem worse?

EG: That's right. You might solve the problem in the short term, but in the not-too-distant future you are going to have the problem again, and this happens all around the world.

I also want to add that reservoirs and dams are an environmental justice issue. It's not just that you are taking water away from another eco-system, you are also taking that water away from other people. A 40 year meta-study looked at dams around the world and found that they brought water to 20% of the world's population but decreased water availability to 24% of the world's population. People also turned to pumping groundwater. Groundwater is not separate water, it is connected to surface water so when you pump groundwater you are depleting surface water. That is not sustainable for the long term.

WT: You have a view about the media covering the causes of wildfires. Can you tell our viewers your version of causes of wildfires?

EG: It's not my view per se, I have been following some scientists who are working across disciplines, atmospheric physicists who are also interested in ecology and biology, for example. They are doing some really cutting edge work about the role of land in the water cycle.

The narrative around forest fires is climate change, and climate change is definitely a factor. In dry places, the air has less water in it, so that makes fuel more likely to burn. The other thing we often hear about is the mismanagement of forests. Settlers stopped doing prescribed burns, stopped natural burn cycles, and so that led to this big extra growth of fuel, and that is also a factor.

The factor that I don't see discussed very much is the water cycle. When you use groundwater you are decreasing the water table, you are lowering the water table, so that water is less available to plants. In places with a healthy groundwater table studies have shown that trees continue to evapo-transpire, that means the trees are pulling water up from the ground and releasing it into the air, creating more water vapor. This is a major factor in what creates rain. Plants and trees are able to do that throughout the dry season, if they have a healthy groundwater table. If we have depleted that groundwater table, they are going to have less access to that water. There are really interesting studies coming out about how healthy ecosystems buffer water extremes on all scales, locally, regionally and globally which help to keep the climate stable. Shade is cooling, but also the evapo-transpirative process flow is the major way that cools the climate. Studies have also shown when you deforest, you decrease rain on each of these cycles.

Forty percent - on average- of rain over continents comes from plants, not from evaporation over the ocean. If you deforest you don't have that. Some of that water vapor is going into these atmospheric conveyance belts - one scientist calls it eco-climate flow connection - so de-forestation in one place can cause a drought halfway around the world. There are beginning to be talks about trans-boundary water sharing. In the past those have dealt with rivers that flow through multiple countries. Now some people in Europe are trying to get these agreements where countries will care for their land in a way that ensured the creation of rain. The forests also do other things. The roughness of their surface helps to slow the wind that is carrying the water vapor, which also helps the rain to form. The forests also release particles into the air that helps the rain to nucleate. There are a lot of different elements to this process. There's other things that have caused major drainage and drying out of the continent. One scientist calls it the age of drainage, the last 500 years in North America, killing the beavers. Ten percent of North America used to be beaver-created wetlands. Its deforestation. Its overgrazing of wetlands has really destroyed those ecosystems, over-expansion of industrial agriculture, etc.

WT: I am interested to know more about these trans-boundary agreements or lack thereof, I suppose. If I am in Canada and someone is in the US and we make some sort of pact, this pact is to plant vegetation so that we have more rain generated? Could you clarify?

EG: To my knowledge, none of these international agreements exist yet. There are scientists in European countries who are calling for them because European countries are so close together that they are also having that local and regional impact from deforestation on rain. Deforestation in the Congo affects rain in Europe, deforestation in the Amazon affects rain in the US midwest, so these things can be really far reaching. The idea is to acknowledge that physical reality and to help people understand that what they do with their land management does not just affect people in their country, but affects people in other countries. What are we going to do about that?

WT: You have talked about water detectives, how important these are. What is a water detective, are these people? A group? What do they do?

EG: Water detectives are people. They are people I have met around the world, they are Indigenous people, they are farmers, landscape architects, urban planners, scientists, restoration ecologists. People approaching water with a sense of curiosity and respect, and asking what is water doing in this landscape, what does it want to do, how can we work with water to accommodate more of what it wants to do, because that creates many beneficial impacts for humans.

WT: I am interested in this, if I'm some guy and I don't work with water, how do I know or figure out what water wants?

EG: A lot of people around the world who live closer to the land, some of those are Indigenous peoples, some of those are farmers, those who spend time in close observation of the land can intuit pretty well what water wants. A lot of us in North America, in cities are pretty removed from the natural world and the environment and where water comes from. There are ways a lot of ways to get re-connected with that. If you own property, how can you help water slow on your own land? How can you help restore native plants to your land? There are ways to get involved with your city, or with Riverkeeper, or Waterkeeper groups, NGOs. For city government, to make your local decision makers aware that these kinds of approaches are an option, to point them toward the growing body of scientific evidence that shows how effective they are, how cost effective they are, working with the local NGOs that are already on that. There are a lot of things an individual person can do.

If I might just give a bit of global perspective on why I say that our development has really dramatically impacted the water cycle: humans have filled or drained up to 87% of the world's wetlands. We have dammed and diverted 2/3 of the world's large rivers. Just since 1992 the land area covered by cities has doubled. So that's pavement and asphalt that prevents water from soaking into the land. That's why I say that our development is a signficant part of the reason why we are seeing these large strains, and the forest fires as well.

The good news about slow water projects is they are local, they are things they can do in their own communities with their neighbours to make their own places more resilient to flood and drought, and they are scalable. You can start with a really small piece of land, and you can stitch another piece of land nearby, and another as the opportunity arises. Cumulatively it can have a really signficant impact, the way that solar panels on many rooftops can add up to a lot of electricity. People find it empowering, climate change is a global problem and can feel really overwhelming. This is a local response, something people can do in their own places.

Erica Gies is an independent journalist, National Geographic Explorer, winner of the Rachel Carson Award for Excellence in Environmental Journalism, University of Victoria lecturer

Puchase her book here

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