Interest in Water Management Blossoms

San Francisco Chronicle Article by Deborah K. Rich (12/6/08)

Brock Dolman, Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, helps to manage water and watershed issues on site near Occidental

Brock Dolman, Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, helps to manage water and watershed issues on site near Occidental

Brock Dolman signs off his e-mails this way: “Mostly Water, Brock.”

He considers storm water a crop to harvest just like sugar snap peas.

He talks about how sediment running off a landscape into a creek affects salmon as well as the neighbors, and mends creeks eroded by water dumped from culverts with plugs of fir branches thinned from overgrown forests.

He’s a watershed poet and advocate, though he didn’t set out to be either. After studying biology and environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, Dolman was working with endangered species when he experienced his “watershed moment.”

In trying to understand what caused their extinction, he realized “that, in addition to the basic issue of human land use and habitat loss, the final blow for so many species was when we compromised the hydrology of a place – dehydrated or polluted it – such that the carrying capacity for biology was accordingly diminished.”

Today, as the director of the Water Institute at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center in Sonoma County, Dolman fosters watershed moments for the hundreds who attend his lectures or workshops each year.

“Brock has a real gift for articulating a vision that we can all share about water,” said Paola Bouley of the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) in Marin County.

Bouley first heard Dolman speak during a rain garden building workshop in 2004. Through SPAWN, Bouley is now involved in the installation of 12 rainwater harvesting projects at schools, homes and environmental education centers.

At home, Bouley has installed a permeable driveway, a rain garden, and a cistern and rain barrels that together harvest 1,000 gallons of rainwater off the roof of a shed. She uses it to irrigate her vegetable garden. This winter, she’s installing an additional 1,500-gallon rainwater cistern.

“It gets addictive,” Bouley said.

Understanding water

No water, no life, Dolman reminds people. The abandoned orchards and walls of civilizations that forgot, refused or became unable to balance their water use with their water supplies mark the course of our past 10,000 years, he said, adding that we should call it planet Water instead of planet Earth.

Other planets have soil; what they lack is water. Disrupt the water cycle to too great an extent and communities fragment, governments topple, and the quality, abundance and diversity of life diminishes, Dolman said.

He gives 50 to 60 talks a year to groups ranging from the Audubon Society to the Rotary Club, where he attempts to increase understanding of how water moves through urban and rural landscapes and how humans can participate wisely in its course.

Dolman and his co-workers teach workshops on how to install rain gardens and roof water harvesting systems, how to reduce sediment flow into creeks and rivers (which compromises fish habitat while washing valuable topsoil downstream) and how to mend eroding waterways. The Water Institute’s signature four-day “Basins of Relations” seminar promotes collective action.

Each of us lives in a watershed – though we might not be able to quickly define our own – that runs from ridgelines to river mouth. How water rushes or wends (or no longer finds) its way to the ocean affects and connects cities, farmers and ranchers, developers, fishermen, storm and wastewater managers, and plants and animals.

“You rapidly, within seconds, reach global questions when discussing water in any system,” said Kathleen Kraft, who lives outside Occidental in the Salmon Creek watershed. “Every stakeholder in a watershed has a right to be there. Who’s allocated less; who doesn’t get any?”

Kraft, a baroque flutist, was a member of the Water Institute’s first Basins of Relations seminar nine years ago. Since then, Kraft and others have secured nearly $2 million in grants for various Salmon Creek watershed studies and water conservation and watershed rehabilitation projects.

On the property she leases, Kraft is using a grant from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention to thin a forested slope and remove the lower 12 feet of branches (“fire ladders”) from trees. The goal is to maintain forest health, reduce the potential fuel load in the event of a fire and prevent catastrophic sediment flow into the creek.

Getting everyone involved

One of the most important benefits of the Basins of Relations seminar for Angie Stuart, a conservation program specialist with the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, was learning to look for who should have input on a conservation project.

“Dolman stresses bringing everyone together prior to there being a problem,” said Stuart. “Don’t forget the landowners and contractors, the local associations and agencies. Make sure you’re always talking to everyone who should be participating.”

Watershed problems and solutions run downstream. “The fun part about water is that it is so interrelated,” Dolman said. “As soon as you make a decision to do right by storm water – slowing it, spreading it, sinking it – you solve multiple problems. You reduce flooding in the winter. That reduces the impact on the creeks and creek downcutting and improves water quality, which is better for the fish.

“You reduce how frequently storm water overwhelms your wastewater systems. At the same time, you’re putting more water in the ground, which improves water supply. There is a lot of opportunity to think how we redesign human civilization from a water-literate angle.”

People are listening. Seventy signed up for a recent roof water harvesting class at the Water Institute, for which there were only 30 spots. “The demand is up like we’ve never seen it,” Dolman said. “In the past, it was hard to fill some courses. Now we’re wait-listed on everything.”

In August, Bouley invited Brock to do a presentation titled “Rainwater Harvesting and Blue Landscaping” in Fairfax (Marin County). “There were over 200 people that showed up,” said Bouley. “There were people looking in through the windows; the room was just overflowing.”

To learn more

For more information on the Water Institute at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center or to order Brock Dolman’s 20-page guide to protecting and restoring watersheds, go to OAEC’s website or call (707) 874-1557.

(Excerpted from: SFGate)

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