Do you remember learning about the water cycle in your third grade science class? The sun heats up the ocean to create clouds that float over the land. It rains, water flows downhill into streams that enter the ocean again. Maybe your teacher made you learn a jingle of precipitation, evaporation, condensation!
According to water specialist Carmen Gonzales, most hydrology college students learn a similarly broad concept of the water system. She remembers classes focused on teaching students how to move water in pipes and store it in tanks.
“Hydrology is taught in geology. Geologists study rocks!” Gonzales said. “I didn't learn a whole lot about the mechanics of how water infiltrates into the land and moves through the ecosystem, which is one of the most critical things to understand.”
The lack of well-rounded knowledge of our water systems has resulted in poor water management decision-making, according to Gonzales. Now water tables have dropped across the country and watersheds are drying up. But the ecological sciences explain why we’re experiencing water shortages worldwide.
“The rainwater is not getting to the body of the earth anymore,” Gonzales said. “We're starting to understand that the surface temperature of the ground is very important to whether or not water infiltrates into aquifers. If the ground is too hot, the water will evaporate. That’s pretty much the definition of a desert, that we lose more water to evaporation than what sinks into the ground.”
According to Gonzales, mono cropping, open grazing and even historical instances like the forced relocation of 13,000+ Dine people since 1974 have created hotter ground temperatures. Livestock impoundments and the subsequent creation of two coal mines began to suck water out of the ground, impacting vegetation. Perennial grasses, whose roots prevent soil erosion, grew weaker and began dying out, resulting in hotter ground temperatures with hydrophobic soil that struggles to absorb water.
“The land in desert regions is hydrophobic,” Carmen said. “When you pour water into a dry sack of flour, it just sits there on top. This is why you have to knead your frybread to get the water mixed into the flour. If you just put the water right on the dry flour, it won't soak in. That’s happening on the landscape as well.”
Many landscapes have shallow “living” aquifers which hover around the depth of plant roots to water plants. But when the soil compacts from overgrazing and root matter dies, it leaves no space for water to flow and the shallow aquifers dry up, creating a deadly cycle of soil erosion and runoff during rains. However, better water management practices would allow us to maintain our current levels of consumption across the nation.
“Getting water back into the ground is a multi-layered approach,” Gonzales said. “We need to bring down ground temperatures, and to do that, we need plants that survive the best, native species. But we can’t just go in and replant the species that were there when it used to be a healthy landscape. We have to rebuild the soil in order to bring back the plants.”
Nitrogen and carbon are the two essential elements that improve soil microbiology. Both solid and liquid animal waste infuses the soil with nitrogen, while composted woody materials such as brown materials, grasses, and other dead plants put carbon into the soil. Plants cannot grow without water, and in most states it is legal to harvest rainwater.
“If somebody wanted to harvest rainwater at home, there's small earthworks that can be built in your yard to harvest the rain that falls out of your roof,” Gonzales said. “Rain gardens and chains are a great way to do that. Put a chain from the roof to the ground and the rain will travel down that chain. Make a little depression in the landscape and put in mulch and some vegetation that can withstand wet and dry conditions.”
Gonzales is working on a long-term project to restore the watershed in Navajo Nation, where most of the streams are ephemeral: they only run when it rains. But she hopes to create living aquifers that feed plants and fungus that hold onto water for more time after the rains, then release the water into a year-long perennial stream.
“The shallow living aquifers will give us the opportunity to bring back springs that run all year that give us enough water that we could have drinking water supply from. Then we're really in an upward spiral of success for the ecosystem. My concern with the deeper N-aquifer is contamination. It'll take time to understand how to recover them.”
Spring restoration recharges deeper aquifers, like the N-aquifer, simply through gravity. Water flows downhill due to gravity and gravity pulls water into the earth; we just have to help it enter the degraded earth. As long as we put in more water than we take, the aquifers will recharge.
“I hope that we develop a relationship with water, like water is a family member that we don't want to abuse and take advantage of. I hope we can learn to honor water better and not be wasteful,” Gonzales said. “We just have to change our relationship with how we manage our behavior on Mother Earth. She always provides enough, but we somehow figure out how to mess it up. We're very creative as humans and we have opposable thumbs and heavy equipment and a brain and a heart. We can always make a better decision.”
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