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Water is Life

Updated: Mar 4

"Water is the driving force of all nature," said the humanist and artist Leonardo da Vinci. While that was an enlightened and poetic truth during the High Renaissance of 15th century Italy, it is a prophetic truth today, in North America.


Water is the most precious of all natural resources, but it is also at-risk. Fresh water (tap water) in particular is a crisis-level issue that deserves our immediate attention and response. The good news is that 'everyone' can participate in crisis recovery, and we can start today, in numerous small ways.


It was a nagging preoccupation with wasted residential irrigation and tap water that started me on my permaculture journey, and encouraged me to return to school to study natural systems, sustainable agriculture, organic growing and living, etc. What I learned so concerned, fulfilled and inspired me that I negotiated a sharp mid-life left-turn away from the corporate world, traded skirts and heels, for jeans and Blundstones, and embarked on an entirely new, low profile but highly rewarding vocation, that of urban permaculture design.

In my new uniform, at full-immersion permaculture village boot camp. Uncomfortable, enlightening, life changing.

A general preoccupation with water conservation began three decades ago when I visited Germany and stayed with a close family friend Sonja, who lived together with her physician husband Joseph in their Munich apartment/medical clinic. They were comfortable and had a lovely home, yet they lived a very conservative, zero-waste lifestyle. I was still living at home with my parents at the time, in a big city locked firmly in the indulgent, wasteful '90s.


Sonya, for all of her opportunity and culture, washed her dishes by hand in a rectangular white plastic tub in the sink. She used biodegradable dish soap and dried the dishes with decades-old unbleached linen towels which she washed in a machine, then air-dried on a wooded rack in her kitchen (as she did, their clothes). Once the used dishwater cooled and any organic bits settled to the bottom of the tub, we would tip the water carefully into her window boxes and patio pots, all planted with gorgeous vegetables and edible flowers. I was hooked; this simple ritual, centred in gratitude and respect for a natural resource, made sense to me.


Watering dormant strawberry plants on the covered patio mid-winter, with recycled vegetable scrubbing water

Sonja told me that she never watered her plants with anything but recycled water, and because she was a seed-saver, she enjoyed fresh produce much of the year, for little or no cost. Sonya and Joseph were children during the war, and they learned these valuable lessons young, struggling to make ends meet, eating only what their families could grow or raise themselves.

Today, because so many of us grew up thinking little or not at all about where water comes from or where it goes ultimately, down the drain, we are re-visiting our relationship with water, and learning new, sustainable habits. Habits that, cumulatively can have a HUGE and beneficial impact on the environment. Many of us learn basic residential water-savings tips at school and through social media -- don't let the tap run while brushing your teeth, use short wash cycles for clothes and for dishes and be sure loads are full, take showers not baths -- but there is so much more we can do in our homes and in our gardens.


First, think deeply about this EPA published statistic --- the average American uses an average of 88 gallons (352 litres) of water per day. What the heck? That's a nuts amount of water by any standard. Consider that:

  • Water is finite: 71% of the earth's surface is covered by 326 million cubic miles of water, yet less than 0.5% of that total is available as fresh, clean water.

  • Water costs us money: $1000 per year, per family on average, and as much as $10,000 per year in cities that meter water and charge based on volume.

  • Clean water is an endangered species: already 82 of America's 204 water basins, and 40 of 50 states are experiencing/expecting water shortages this year.

Finally let's put these statistics into context and imagine that the Earth's total water supply of 326 million cubic miles was reduced down to just that 88 gallons of water that each of us uses every day, on average. If that were the case, then we would be left with just over half of one tablespoon (24ml) of fresh, clean water. Seriously.


Knowing all of this cannot help but change how we think about water and how very precious and finite it is. A dripping tap wasted thousands of half-tablespoons full of water every day, a running tap, tens of thousands...


Simple things we can all start doing now:

  • Use a watering can instead of a hose, to water plants in containers, pots and raised beds. This way, you can monitor and control usage.

  • When it rains, set out empty buckets to catch rainwater, then use that water for irrigation. If you are concerned about optics, use hipster or vintage buckets.

  • Install rain barrels with spouts and overflow diverters at one or more rain gutter downspout, and consider planting rain gardens to benefit from the overflow.

  • Wash vegetables and salad in a bucket or bin in the kitchen sink, and use that water for irrigation of outdoor and indoor plants.

  • Over time, replace irrigation-thirsty conventional lawns, with bee turf and other pollinator-friendly ground covers. These carbon-sequestering, nitrogen fixing ground covers can reduce watering by 50-75%, and reduce mowing (and CO2 emissions) by as much as 50-75%.

  • If you have a vegetable garden, build a washing station outdoors using scrap lumber and found materials; capture the dirty but biologically rich water to use for irrigation.

Scrap wood & screen from various garden projects turn a Lee Valley sink into a vegetable wash/water recycling station.

I promise you that, once you start thinking about water as the dwindling, endangered precious resource that it is, you will start to recognize your and others' wasteful habits and patterns, and you will cringe. I did. Cringing is good, it inspires change.


Please share this message with those who may not otherwise consider their options, and invite them/challenge them to pick up a watering can or set out a bucket when it rains.


We have a lot of catching up to do, each of us, one-half tablespoon at a time.


To learn more about capturing, directing, and storing rainwater on your property, watch our 'Swales and Rain Gardens' video and read the accompanying article found at: https://modernfarmer.com/tag/urban-permaculture/

To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, such as those relating to traditional culinary and environmental knowledge, and adherence to nature's logic, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.


If you haven't subscribed to MF's Million Gardens Movement newsletter, please do.





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