Brock Dolman: Your Watershed Is Your Lifeboat

By Sarah O’Leary

This article was published in the December 2009 edition of Econews (the newsletter of the Northcoast Environmental Center).

Speaking at the 2009 Bioneers Conference in San Rafael in October, Brock Dolman repeatedly reminded his audience of the importance of “hydro-literacy.”  He pointed out that 60 percent of Americans can’t even name one component of their hydro cycle – where water comes from and how it gets to you.

Dolman advocates a “watershed approach” to the looming problems of climate change, sea-level rise and potential drought. While studying owls, salamanders and other endangered vertebrates as an endangered species vertebrate biologist, he reached his own “watershed moment” when he realized that if the hydrologic cycle of a place is compromised then the carrying capacity of life in that place would be accordingly compromised.

“[We] have to start thinking like a watershed because that’s the scale,” he said. “If you fly up in a plane about a thousand-foot level from your project site, you go ‘oh I get it, I’m actually in a container – a cradle – called a watershed with a drainage attachment.’”

“You can have your head down in the creek trying to fix it up for the fish for a long dang time,” Dolman continued. “Until you realize that if you want to save the river, you start at the ridgeline.”

Dolman has devoted much of his adult life to educating and advocating for healthy watersheds and smart uses of water and land. He heads up the Water Institute, a program of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) in Sonoma County, and also directs the Center’s Permaculture Design Program and co-directs their Wildlands Biodiversity Program.  In his spare time, he works with local political entities advocating for water rights and water-quality protection – once even dressing up as a totem salmon for a Board of Supervisors meeting.

The Water Institute, established in 2004, stands for Watershed Advocacy Training Education, Research and Restoration, representing a five-pronged approach to watershed management. “Watersheds are … interesting units upon which community organizing can happen on a geographic scale,” said Dolman.

Much of the work of the Water Institute is participating in public processes around policy and land use decisions, he explained.  “[We] are directly involved in actually helping to rewrite policy,” he said. “For example, I’ve been involved with a large number of people in the process of rewriting the new California grey water code – to try to make parts of that code more accessible and affordable to people.”

Education and Relationships

Another important component of the Water Institute’s work is education. “If you’re going to do advocacy, one of the important things is to do training and education around just basic literacy.”

To this end Dolman has coordinated “Basins of Relations” trainings for the last decade. “Lots of folks up and down the coast in many different watersheds … have done this residential training at OAEC and then gone on to start a citizen-based watershed effort,” he said.

Dolman emphasized that every watershed is unique with its own challenges and work to do. “[It’s] about the relationships between the people you share that basin with. Each watershed, in my opinion, ends up looking like a lifeboat and you’ve got to get your community together to batten down the hatches of your living watershed lifeboat because the future isn’t looking so certain.”

Soil Saves Carbon

In the midst of the current buzz about preserving forests in order to sequester carbon, Dolman reminds us that healthy soil is also an important piece of this puzzle. Carbon is fixed through photosynthesis, making plants an important component of carbon storage. Since part of the carbon is stored in the below-ground portions of the plant, Dolman points out that this area may be a safer place to store carbon than above ground where they are susceptible to fire and other natural threats.

“It’s important to honor that each vegetation community has its rightful place,” he said. “What would be called ‘carbon farming’ puts the carbon in the form of humus and black fixed carbon into the soils – this is one of the areas that needs a lot more recognition.”

Forestry certainly has its role, Dolman acknowledged, but organic farming that increases the percentage of carbon in the soil over time should also be considered as a form of carbon sequestration. “If it can be done in an agriculturally productive manner that’s still fish-friendly and wildlife-friendly, then we may have some integrative solutions here,” he said.

Tying this idea back to the importance of water, Dolman said, “As we increase the humus content in the soils, we can increase their water-holding capacity, increase the sponge so to speak, so our water storage capacity can go up. We can pattern the land to slow that water down, spread it out and sink it, get into the soil.”

To Dolman’s mind, most human settlements need a retrofit to be more ecologically literate – and this is the idea behind permaculture, which he defines as a ‘design methodology for regenerative human settlement patterns.” A good retrofit will promote resiliency in the face of an uncertain future, he said.

“The watershed lifeboat analogy is helpful,” Dolman said, “when you think about how we can retrofit every human land use behavior to be integrated in a way that you’re solving a bunch of your perceived problems:  food security, air security, fire security, soil water, fish, people, plants.”

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