Bay Area 'Water Always Wins' author surveys world for water solutions

BySpencer Christian and Timothy Didion via KGO logo
Friday, July 8, 2022
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In her new book "Water Always Wins," writer Erica Gies argues that in the age of drought, we need to start thinking about water differently.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For more than a century, engineers in California have worked to control destructive flooding, but at the same time, they may have been missing an opportunity.

In her new book, "Water Always Wins," environmental writer Erica Gies argues that in the age of drought, we need to start thinking about water in a different way.

"In Western development, we tend to look at water as a commodity or a threat. And so with that lens, we try to control water, and we see that all over the place with our concrete infrastructures," Gies argues.

Instead of fighting with water, Gies takes a whirlwind tour around the globe to learn how others cultures have developed a healthier relationship with it. Experiences like the Marsh Dwellers of southern Iraq, who broke down levees after the fall of Saddam Hussein, restoring the health of wetland habitats that have sustained human life for thousands of years.

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It's a similar strategy to what many environmental groups have advocated to rescue the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta and the tidal marshes of San Francisco Bay.

"We've filled in or paved over 87% of the world's wetlands, and we've intervened on two-thirds of the world's largest rivers, and the footprint of our cities has doubled just since 1992," she points out.

In other words, they are the kind of big water projects that helped define California -- everything from the canals that move water up and down the state, to the levees and seawalls meant to secure the shoreline of San Francisco Bay.

Moving forward, Gies is pointing to a strategy adopted in many parts of the world that she calls slow water. It's a way of letting water behave more naturally in a way that replenishes the supply.

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Currently, India is restoring ancient systems of ponds dismantled by the British that connect communities and allow water to soak into the aquifer.

In Peru, the government is requiring utilities to help restore upstream ecosystems high in the Andes, where water will eventually percolate down to cities along the coast.

She says the concept has similarities to a project in California, where teams are now searching for long-buried geological waterways known as Paleo Valleys that could be used to help replenish Central Valley groundwater with runoff from the Sierra and heavy storm cycles.

"And if we think about what water does, or what water wants to do, and how it functions with these different entities, we can see opportunities for helping to heal the water cycle that create more water availability and in a much more sustainable way," Gies argues.

While the natural flooding cycles that once covered broad stretches of the Central Valley may no longer be practical, alternatives may be. Protecting open spaces like Coyote Valley near San Jose is just one example, allowing the creeks and watersheds to flood into the ground water table, instead of diverting them into cement culverts and ultimately into the ocean. In essence, it's slowing water in the same natural way as a growing number of communities around the globe.

To learn more about the slow water concept, visit this page.

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