Saturday, March 2, 2024

"Water Always Wins" a book review

 Water Always Wins Erica Gies (2022)

Water Always Wins (327 pages, 290 references) is a treatise on how water behaves and misbehaves on our planet, and how our human attempts to control water via dams, channeling rivers, dikes, draining of wetlands, shoreline management, and so on, and so on, fail. The subtitle: "Thriving on an age of drought and deluge" points toward how human-caused climate change has exacerbated the problems we have with out-of-control water. 

The overlying theme of the book is "slow water," meaning that in a nature-pristine state there are mechanisms such as plant cover, porous soil, drainage obstructions (including beaver dams) and so on that slow drainage, and that by doing so lessen flooding in times of heavy rain or snow melt, and also recharge the local and regional surface water and ground water, lessening the impact of drought.

Beaver skull: see that the gnawing teeth are 
separate from the eating teeth, and that the former
have an orange enamel on the outside surface. 
These teeth grow throughout the animal's 10-12
year lifespan. The orange enamel is harder than
the white, so these teeth are self-sharpening. The 
bite force is twice that of a human, but much less
than that of large dogs.
Chapter 4: "Beavers - the original water engineers" describes the impact this species had on North America prior to European colonization and fur trapping, and how the more recent recovery from extirpation (regional extinction) is being accomplished. A rough estimate of 60 to 400 million beavers population North America prior to arrival of the Europeans. Trapping for the fur trade reduced the numbers to an estimate 100,000 mostly in Canada. With government protection, the beaver population has recovered to an estimated 10-15 million.This includes live-trapping of beavers in areas where their activity infringes on human habitat - flooded farm fields and suburban lawns plus gnawed trees - for relocation to ideal habitant is empty. Beaver dams slow water from headland tributaries, and be doing so, mute floods and maintain water flow in times of drought. The water impoundments also stongly support biodiverisity.

Chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8 are in-depth case studies of how water was and is and will be managed in various countries, specifically India, Peru, US and China, and Kenya. The common theme across all of these chapters is that deforestation and urban sprawl are contrary to the concept of slow water, and need to be addressed by plans to support slow water, and to also plan for space within and adjacent to cities that are allowed to flood in times of excessive water. The chapters also address that while reforestation in theory can be beneficial, planting the wrong types of trees or only a few species of trees, i.e., monoculture, can be counterproductive. 

Chapter 9: "Sedimental Journey",  describes the best and worst ways to manage the land/ocean interface in these times of rising ocean level. Worldwide, our current practices are mainly the worst. By building to the water's edge, and in places trying to defend that edge with seawalls, we have removed all of the natural coastal ecosystems - salt water marshes, mud flats, mangrove forests, coral reefs, barrier islands, sand dunes, kelp forests - that when in place blunt storm damage and coastal erosion. The chapter adds that building dams on rivers compounds the problem by preventing river sediment from restoring and actually increasing the land height of marshes, beaches and river deltas. Efforts to restore natural waters' edge barriers to San Francisco Bay are described in great detail.

Chapter 10: "Our Shared Future", loops back to the concept first broached in the title "Water Always Wins", To wit,  stop fighting and adapt. Towns, even cities that have a frequent history of flooding have been abandoned, or even moved. Sometimes the catalyst is a refusal by insurance companies to provide flood insurance. Efforts at rewilding coastland and river valleys provides space for water. On the drought side of the equation, limits on development recognize the fatal flaw in allowing population growth in places where water cannot be guarenteed, neither by reservoirs nor pumping ground water in excess of what can be replenished by rain and snow melt. Ditto on water-intensive crop choices in areas with water limits. If water always wins, make peace, not war. 

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