The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Managing water in a wet climate

Muddy golf cartI read a lot of blogs and books that talk about water management.  The problem is, they're all tailored toward arid climates, where you need to work hard to capture any rain that falls and store it in your soil for later dearths.

Our water management issues are very different.  The badly eroded soil of the forest garden becomes so waterlogged that algae grows in puddles even during the winter.  Our gutterless trailer pours so much water off the sides that the soil is sodden, and simple foot traffic is enough to turn the ground into a morass.

Meanwhile, our two creeks are clearly eroding more than they should.  The big creek was straightened by some foolish farmer a few decades ago, and even though I know channeling it back into its original meander would slow the flow, I'm afraid to undertake such a huge project.

Headcut erosionThe smaller creek has dug itself so deep that that the lower portion has vegetationless banks four feet tall.  As I was gathering leaves in the woods, I noticed that the tree that had been holding back the advance of the headcut was losing the battle.

I suspect all of these problems are really opportunities if considered from a permaculture standpoint.  I've been raising up the forest garden with hugelkultur mounds, and the rotting wood releases enough water a bit at a time that I was able to grow tomatoes there without irrigating last summer.  Gutters on the East Wing would clear up the worst path morass, channeling the water into one of our IBC tanks to allow us to experiment with aquaponics.  Maybe the small creek could be mended with a Zuni bowl and some homemade meanders.  And one of these days I'd like to create a little pond.

Zuni bowlBut I don't want to dive into any water management project without a bit more information.  Do you have any books you would recommend for permaculture style water management in wet landscapes?  I'm looking for an inspiring print source that shows how to work with water on a small scale with no heavy machinery.  (You can recommend websites too, but I'm unlikely to read them deeply --- I have a mental block against getting in depth information off the internet.)

Our chicken waterer is perfect in the brood coop since it keeps the bedding dry as your mother hen incubates her eggs.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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The folks over at milkwood have been posting several articles lately about watershed management and Zuni Bowls. Their blog is at I don't remember seeing if they mentioned any books though. I think they were bringing in guests for onsite classes.
Comment by Drake Mon Feb 13 09:38:57 2012
I'll be checking back often to see if others have any good books/websites to suggest, because this is the sort of problem we're dealing with too. We've got the stream that goes nuts (although I will it admit it gets the extra water through QUICKLY, heh), plus a small pond which mostly which I suspect needs to be cleaned out in order to function properly, plus an underground stream that very much wants to come above ground through another part of the yard. I would love to know how to better manage both the water and the plants so that we discourage erosion, encourage wildlife, and maybe find some food plants for us that don't mind getting hit with a flood a few times a year (because right now that area is just an old yard with matted grass and sandbars which doesn't do much for us or the other inhabitants of our area). Please bring this topic back up again periodically so that I can find out what's working (or not) for you and share the same thing from my perspective! :)
Comment by Ikwig Mon Feb 13 11:20:08 2012

Drake --- Milkwood is the blog that's got me thinking about the topic. But they're in a totally different climate, and I've learned not to mindlessly mimic Australian water management advice. It tends to turn my already waterlogged yard into a bigger mess. :-)

Ikwig --- You'll definitely hear about it as we experiment! It sounds like you have a lot of the same land management issues we do.

Comment by anna Mon Feb 13 12:00:31 2012

It is a pleasure for me to read your initial study of managing water. All I know on the topic came from watching the documentary Blue Gold. I mention it so your movie watching readers can check it out. I would love to see you write more about wet climate water management in particular.

It is neat for me to read about your understanding of your few acres as a specific local area to manage.

Comment by Maggie Mon Feb 13 13:08:59 2012
Have you thought about talking to the soil conservation office in your state? Here in Arkansas they offer some very good advice & help in managing water and protection soil. We now live in the Ozarks and have learned from the extension office that they (the extension agents) can offer some advice but the real experts are the soil conservation people. Perhaps yours will be just as valuable?
Comment by Stephanie in Ar Mon Feb 13 13:37:26 2012

Start from the place where water flows away from your property. That will be the creeks and possible underground streams. The size of those streams yields a maximum drain capacity. But unless the creeks are regularly filled to overflowing, that shouldn't be the bottleneck.

Then look at your soil. The soil is both water storage and drain medium. The big questions is what is limiting the flow of te water here? Is it the permeability of the soil itself, or are there inpenetrable layers below the surface that prevent drainage. From your pictures, it looks like the first.

If that is true, you need to enlarge the draining capacity of the land. The time-honoured and low-tech solution in these parts of the world (and we know about having too much water; our whole country is basically a delta of several rivers) is to dig small, regularly spaced, drainage trenches leading to the creeks or to bigger channels leading to the creek. It is easier for water to flow through an open channel than to permeate through the soil. Digging a small trench every 30 feet or so should help a lot. If not, halve the spacing and repeat if necessary. Of course you have to orientate them sensibly, since water has trouble flowing uphill. :-) All you need for this is common sense, a shovel and elbow grease. The size of the channels needs to be tuned to the slope of the land. You can measure that with a spirit level and markers on trees. You want to keep the speed of the flow through the channels low to prevent erosion. If the speed is too high, make the trench wider and put rocks or zuni bowls in as flow barriers.

Another option (which is much more work I think) is to increase the permeability of your soil itself. That means mixing other stuff in that drains better.

My guess would be that a combination of drainage trenches and soil improvement would be the winner.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Feb 13 13:37:45 2012

Maggie --- Good call! I seem to have an even bigger mental block against movies than against websites, but I'll bet that'll help some people.

Stephanie --- I haven't gone to talk to them, but I suspect you're right that the soil and water conservation service would be helpful. I was hoping for something less official and more permaculture-themed. I'm not really sure what I think the difference would be, though... :-)

Roland --- Ditches are the traditional way of draining fields. What I'm unsure of is whether they're really good for the whole watershed. (Maybe, to link this to my note to Stephanie above, that's why I want a permaculture source, not the government information.) You would think that ditches would push more water into the streams faster, which would keep your fields drier but would also make the streams prone to flooding and erosion.

I feel like even though we have too much water at certain times of the year, we have too little at other times. What I'd like is to figure out a way of evening that out --- maybe draining land into a pond that could be used to water the garden in the summer? Or draining water into a organic matter-filled trough that naturally feeds water into surrounding areas later?

Comment by anna Mon Feb 13 14:43:46 2012

Ditches are used to manage the height of the water table. If you make a dam or adjustable sluicegate in the ditch, water will only flow out until it reaches the top of the dam or gate. So the ditches act both as drainage channels and reservoirs. The water table will stabilize on that level. (Insofar as a situation with varying rain and evaporation can be termed stable.)

This works best on a flat field, so you can have a fairly constant depth of the water table below ground. If your garden has a lot of relief, you either need to take into account which plants you put in which parts of the garden (since the depth of the water table will vary a lot) or you have to build terraces.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Feb 13 16:38:34 2012
Roland --- Thanks for the extra info on ditching, flat ground, and water tables. It sounds like it would be a lot of work to ditch our land, since nothing here is flat. (I think of our central garden area as flat, but that just means the slope is mild enough you don't get out of breath walking up it....)
Comment by anna Mon Feb 13 18:34:35 2012
I think that Art Ludwig's Create and Oasis with Greywater is a handy book. While it isn't greywater you are trying to manage, the book is about managing water to create stability.
Comment by Eric in Japan Mon Feb 13 23:19:30 2012
Good reminder, Eric! You're right that that's not exactly what I'm looking for, but it is a book I'd been meaning to read regardless....
Comment by anna Tue Feb 14 07:51:01 2012

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