Issue 3: Water


What hydrates you?

What are you creating to capture and store the water of your life?” 

— Warren Brush, founder of Quail Springs Permaculture Farm

Welcome back, folks.

This was an interesting time to cover Water for a couple of reasons. First, when I chose the topic, I didn’t know that Laine would be embarking on a multi-week water fast, which made talking about food just seem sort of sacrilegious. And, I hadn’t checked the weather forecast — but we’ve had a wonderful spring flush of water from the sky over the last two weeks, coming in a few big bursts and then a protracted period of cool, drizzly days. These all helped make up for the very, very dry January and February we had. 

So it’s been good gardening times, albeit great weather for slugs; and a nice time to be talking and thinking about water.

From Marion Nestle’s What To Eat

I found WTE rather basic in the Water department — there’s just one chapter, and she largely focuses on the relationships between tap and bottled water; and on tap water safety, including coliforms, heavy metals, and pharmaceuticals. Our neighbour, who has a PhD in analytical chemistry and works for a very large biotech firm, confirms Nestle’s assertions with his statement that, “If you want me to find something in our tap water, you name it and I can find it.”

Antidepressants, heart medications, birth control, pesticides, cleaning and industrial solutions, metals… it’s all rather depressing. On the plus side, she busts the myths that 1) we need to drink a lot of water (e.g. 8 – 8 oz glasses per day), or constantly, to stay hydrated, and 2) that thirst is a poor indicator (or a belated one) at indicating hydration. In general, most people do need to consume about 2 quarts (32 ounces) or litres per day to replace fluids lost through sweating, breathing and urinating. But her advice is very straightforward: drink when you’re thirsty, and/or when your urine is dark yellow and strong-smelling; and feel free to get water from sources including tea, juice, and even coffee. The only time to really push yourself to drink is in the heat, during and/or after strenuous exercise, or at high altitudes; and for children and the elderly, who don’t regulate hydration well. 

Quotes from WTE

The idea that you need to drink bottled water rather than tap water comes more from smart marketing than from science or public health. And so does the idea that you need to drink water all day long.”

–p. 401

“Chlorine itself is benign but it reacts with other chemicals in water to form ‘disinfection by-products’ such as chlorinated trihalomethanes. … these are anything but benign. At high concentrations, they cause cancers of the bladder and other organs. They also interfere with reproduction, alter menstrual cycles, reduce the quality of sperm, and cause fetal losses. . . . Researchers who study the effects of disinfection by-products actively debate whether the low levels typically found in tap water cause harm and, if so, to what extent. . . . But there is no debate about whether tap water contains undesirable chemicals. It does. In 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey found antibiotics, hormones, plasticizers, insecticides, and fire retardants in 80 percent of the streams it tested, one-third of them containing ten or more of such chemicals. … The EPA has identified a thousand or so chemicals in tap water, and sets allowable limits for about eighty of the worst of them.

— p. 404

A book that I pulled off the shelf and found both exceptionally informative and rather depressing was Paul Roberts’ The End of Food (2008). A few key points from the protracted reading I did on issues related to water:

    • Regardless of how we try to farm, many signs indicate it is unlikely that we will have sufficient water supplies to provide for the projected (2050) population of 9 billion. Turning briefly to his Chapter 10 on smaller-scale, ‘polyculture’ and ‘diversified’ farming systems, he does seem to really have a thorough grasp (with some new-to-me examples) of the potential role of practices of agroecology, dry farming, and so on. The depth of his research (and extensive citations, from ~50-100 for each chapter, mostly from peer-reviewed sources) gives me good cause to trust his conclusions. His quote from the World Water Commission: “even assuming irrigated agriculture is made as efficient as possible, ‘humanity will still need at least 17 percent more fresh water to meet all of its food needs than is currently available'” (p. 231) is therefore more sombre given that he doesn’t seem to be coming from the standard, conventional and reductionist viewpoint and working from a conventional agriculture model. That said, a lot has changed since the book was written (2008) and I am curious to dig deeper into how his conclusions might have shifted or numbers and predictions changed in the last decade.
    • Similar to many that predict burgeoning political issues over water distribution, Roberts anticipates not so much an increase in big water exporters (US, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Australia) as a precipitous rise in water importers as a result of growing populations and falling water tables. A large factor in this is so-called virtual water, which is exported in crops, e.g. grains.
    • He notes that even with the most ideal meat production methods, we will still very likely need to reverse the trend towards increasing meat consumption around the world (p. 234). And to quote, “[U]nless we expect the developing world to bear the burden of this shift to a more sustainable food economy, it is consumers in the West, and especially North America and Europe, who will need to change their food practices – something that is hard to imagine occurring voluntarily.” (p. 234). And yet, today with the rapid rise in vegan and vegetarian diets, that seems to be precisely what is happening. 

Be aware that these are brief highlights taken out of the larger context of the book, and I’m looking forward to pulling more material from this book, while also giving it a full start-to-finish read. 

From the Scientific Literature Database

A recent Nature paper that is an important read for considering the omissions and oversights of previous climate and hydrological models:

Abbott, B. W., Bishop, K., Zarnetske, J. P., Minaudo, C., Chapin, F. S., Krause, S., Hannah, D. M., Conner, L., Ellison, D., Godsey, S. E., Plont, S., Marçais, J., Kolbe, T., Huebner, A., Frei, R. J., Hampton, T., Gu, S., Buhman, M., Sara Sayedi, S., … Pinay, G. (2019). Human domination of the global water cycle absent from depictions and perceptions. Nature Geoscience, 12(7), 533–540.

Kohutiar, J., & Kravcik, M. (2010). Water for an integrative climate paradigm. International Journal of Water, 5(4), 298.

 I have long sustained an interest in innovative wastewater treatment and a couple of years ago, joined a local representative of the Chilean firm Biofiltro for a field visit to a local project. They use industrial-scale vermicomposting to filter liquid sewage and food processing wastewater. In my former PhD lab, there was also a lot of work being done on humanure composting and biosolids applications. Here are a couple of wastewater treatment papers I’ve found interesting: 

Abou-Elela, S. I., El-Khateeb, M. A., Fawzy, M. E., & Abdel-Halim, W. (2013). Innovative sustainable anaerobic treatment for wastewater. Desalination and Water Treatment, 51(40–42), 7490–7498.

Al-Jayyousi, O. R. (2003). Greywater reuse: Towards sustainable water management. Desalination, 156(1–3), 181–192.

Bukhary, S., Batista, J., & Ahmad, S. (2020). An Analysis of Energy Consumption and the Use of Renewables for a Small Drinking Water Treatment Plant. Water, 12(1), 28.

Eastman, B. R. (2003). Vermiculture’s Effectiveness as an Alternative to Standard USEPA Class A Stabilization Methodologies. Proceedings of the Water Environment Federation, 2003(1), 1–8.

Lam, K. L., Zlatanović, L., & van der Hoek, J. P. (2020). Life cycle assessment of nutrient recycling from wastewater: A critical review. Water Research, 173, 115519.

Ahhh, mycorrhizae: so important. An older paper but gives an important understanding of their role particularly in dry soils:

Allen, M. F. (2007). Mycorrhizal Fungi: Highways for Water and Nutrients in Arid Soils. Vadose Zone Journal, 6(2), 291–297.

The title says it all: the role of perennial agriculture in improving water resilience:

Basche, A. D., & Edelson, O. F. (2017). Improving water resilience with more perennially based agriculture. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 41(7), 799–824.

An intriguing application and co-benefit of grazing management:

Clausen, K. K., Stjernholm, M., & Clausen, P. (2013). Grazing management can counteract the impacts of climate change-induced sea level rise on salt marsh-dependent waterbirds. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50(2), 528–537.

 Several years ago I had a conversation with Calgary-based Verge Permaculture‘s Rob Avis about reaching out to the author of a book we were trying to source for Avis’ rainwater harvesting guide (which you can order through New Society Publishers here — I highly recommend it). The author, Peter Coombes (first author on the paper below) is now collaborating with Michelle Avis on an online course, currently closed for enrolment but worth bookmarking if you’re interested. This was one of the papers that started my investigation into Coombes’ work, and relevant to urban rainwater harvesting:

Coombes, P. J., Kuczera, G., & Kalma, J. D. (2003). Economic, water quantity and quality impacts from the use of a rainwater tank in the inner city. Australasian Journal of Water Resources, 7(2), 111–120.

More of a personal interest and for others in Mediterranean and related climates:

Deitch, M. J., Sapundjieff, M. J., & Feirer, S. T. (2017). Characterizing Precipitation Variability and Trends in the World’s Mediterranean-Climate Areas. Water, 9(4), 259.

Update on understanding where academics (focus on students, which was interesting) stand in their understanding of climate change terminology:

Escoz-Roldán, A., Gutiérrez-Pérez, J., & Meira-Cartea, P. Á. (2020). Water and Climate Change, Two Key Objectives in the Agenda 2030: Assessment of Climate Literacy Levels and Social Representations in Academics from Three Climate Contexts. Water, 12(1), 92.

 A few older papers that specifically look at water- (and soil) impacts of different production systems and amendments:

Evanylo, G., Sherony, C., Spargo, J., Starner, D., Brosius, M., & Haering, K. (2008). Soil and water environmental effects of fertilizer-, manure-, and compost-based fertility practices in an organic vegetable cropping system. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 127(1), 50–58.

Gerbens-Leenes, P. W., Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2013). The water footprint of poultry, pork and beef: A comparative study in different countries and production systems. Water Resources and Industry, 1–2, 25–36.

A few papers considering the role of forests in water cycles:

Jasechko, S., Sharp, Z. D., Gibson, J. J., Birks, S. J., Yi, Y., & Fawcett, P. J. (2013). Terrestrial water fluxes dominated by transpiration. Nature, 496(7445), 347–350.

Sheil, D. (2014). How plants water our planet: Advances and imperatives. Trends in Plant Science, 19(4), 209–211.

Sheil, D., & Murdiyarso, D. (2009). How Forests Attract Rain: An Examination of a New Hypothesis. BioScience, 59(4), 341–347.

 A few of these I’ve already included but climate- and water-related impacts of diet:

Kim, B. F., Santo, R. E., Scatterday, A. P., Fry, J. P., Synk, C. M., Cebron, S. R., Mekonnen, M. M., Hoekstra, A. Y., de Pee, S., Bloem, M. W., Neff, R. A., & Nachman, K. E. (2019). Country-specific dietary shifts to mitigate climate and water crises. Global Environmental Change, 101926.

Lupo, C. D., Clay, D. E., Benning, J. L., & Stone, J. J. (2013). Life-cycle assessment of the beef cattle production system for the northern great plains, USA. Journal of Environmental Quality, 42(5), 1386–1394.

Stanley, P. L., Rowntree, J. E., Beede, D. K., DeLonge, M. S., & Hamm, M. W. (2018). Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems. Agricultural Systems, 162, 249–258.

I haven’t even touched on microplastics in freshwater, but a recent study found even alpine waters contain suspended microscopic particles of plastic. 

Koelmans, A. A., Mohamed Nor, N. H., Hermsen, E., Kooi, M., Mintenig, S. M., & De France, J. (2019). Microplastics in freshwaters and drinking water: Critical review and assessment of data quality. Water Research, 155, 410–422.

And finally, the biotic pump papers:

Makarieva, A. M., & Gorshkov, V. G. (2006). Biotic pump of atmospheric moisture as driver of the hydrological cycle on land. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences Discussions, 3(4), 2621–2673.

Makarieva, Anastassia M., Gorshkov, V. G., & Li, B.-L. (2013). Revisiting forest impact on atmospheric water vapor transport and precipitation. Theoretical and Applied Climatology, 111(1), 79–96. 

In The Public Space

So much to choose from, but here are a few tidbits.

Highly recommended water documentaries

I specifically chose those with a global rather than US-based perspectives, which omits quite a number, e.g. DamNation, Cadillac Desert, The Water Front. 

    1. Flow Official film website is defunct but viewable as an Amazon documentary
    2. Blue Gold: Water Wars
    3. Tapped
    4. Chasing Ice

There is lots of great stuff on erosion control and using soil and vegetation to filter pollutants and sediment from water, at all scales. Ecology Artisans (Encinitas, CA) has a very nice photo documentation essay of their use of straw mulch crescents (“fish scales”) to anchor and protect a hillside from erosion during our heavy, highly seasonal rain events. 

If you’re interested in larger scale work, Dr. Robin “Buz” Kloot, whose work I’ve come across in various regenerative agriculture circles, has an interesting website called Merit or Myth that has a couple of videos on soil infiltration with three different farming systems (chisel vs. moldboard plowing, and no-till). The results are striking, and the video is only 5 minutes long and nicely curated. 

Beavers are getting a lot of “buzz” (sorry, I couldn’t resist…) lately, too. This was a decent overview in a Nature blog post (“Why the Nature Conservancy is Restoring Streams By Acting Like A Beaver“)   from May 2016, and more recent articles on folks like rancher Jay Wilde in Idaho actively working to restore both beavers and their work through beaver dam analogues.  And if you’re interested in beavers, habitat restoration and the history of beavory habitation across the west, check out Ben Goldfarb’s book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Lives of Beavers, .and the audio interview with Ben on Montana Public Radio here.

Next, if you’ve ever wondered what the differences between terms like wilting point and water holding capacity and a lot of other technical soil-water terms, this article by a very conventional source does a great job of putting that information at your fingertips, in the context of managing irrigation. 

Rain for Climate is an organization founded on the scientific basis that vegetation is a major but overlooked driver of climatic cycles. While this is a controversial view, it is gaining widespread press through the efforts of regenerative agriculture advocates Drs. Christine Jones and Walter Jehne. Unfortunately, while a small handful of papers support the biotic pump theory, it is not well supported by research and disputed directly by other researchers who claim while the principle is both attractive and plausible, the mechanisms as proposed are not unsound. Walter Jehne’s lectures, based on his 30-year career with CSIRO in climate-related research, can be viewed on YouTube (but note that many are 2 hours long). 

Your Requests

You wanted to know mostly about the water-related impacts of your food choices. First, know that a water footprint comprises 3 parts:

      • green water  rain water; 

      • blue water surface and groundwater

      • grey water pollution of surface and groundwater

      • virtual water contained in foods and materials, e.g. grains, produce, meat, lumber

Helpful for more detailed information is They have a large selection of free, downloadable PDF fact sheets on a variety of topics including nuclear energy, fracking, water issues, and meat. These cite a good mix of both current and reliable journalism, e.g. Washington Post, and scientific literature.

Tying in with last week, here are two really solid, nuanced articles on whether grass-fed beef is really better for the environment and the climate than grain-finished: one from NPR and the other, Spoiler alert: yes, if it’s actually raised locally rather than air-shipped from Australia; and if it’s actually finished on pasture, not in a feedlot as much grass-fed beef actually is (Gerbens-Leenes et al., 2013; Lupo et al., 2013; Stanley et al., 2018). No big surprises, but some of the nuances might surprise you — like “grass-fed” Australian beef can be relabeled as USDA if it’s been ground in the USA. And lest you thought Canada might be better, here’s a quote from the labeling section of the Government of Canada: “If this imported product is repackaged at retail, it is not required to indicate “Imported by” / “importé par” or “Imported for” / “importé pour” as part of the name and principal place of business declaration.”

There’s yet more labeling and importing information to wade through (you can start getting lost on the Government of Canada website here ) but suffice to say, once again… know who you’re buying from. That is 100% the only way to ensure, without hours or days of due diligence, that you know who you’re supporting, how those animals were raised, and to the greatest extent possible, what their environmental impacts were. 

Some of you were also interested to know more about rainwater harvesting on larger scales than the barrels provided by many municipalities. From personal experience, I’ll say that absolutely you should install the largest capacity you can afford and find space for, even if you have to shoehorn it into a property ordinance (like we did).

In 2015 we installed a 4100 gallon rainwater tank in our ¼ acre suburban yard, between the side of the house and the neighbour’s fence. At the time, people thought we were being ridiculously optimistic; for an area that averages around 12 inches of annual rainfall, and for the last decade has been in a perpetual state of drought ranging from standard-issue “very dry” to extreme drought, it seemed a little crazy to think that we could reliably capture and store enough to fill that tank.

Turns out, we underestimated our capacity and have each year wished we had space to add a second tank. Even with just 8” of rainfall, our 1000 sq ft of roof would net us close to 5,000 US gallons.

The math is simple: 

Imperial: Roof Area (ft2) X Precipitation Amount (in) X 0.623 = Gallons Collected

Metric: Roof Area (m2) X Precipitation Amount (mm) = Litres Collected

An easy way to remember: 1″ of rain on 1,000 sf roof will yield approximately 620 gallons or 2300 L. “Approximate” is owing to the fact that you will lose some based on your roof material, gutter efficiency or spillover, how much is diverted to a first-flush system, and other variables. 

It’s also very easy to find quick-and-dirty online rainwater harvesting calculators such as this one at Texas-based and Brad Lancaster’s resources, including the appendix from his book go into much more detail, including calculating your needs based on gardens, trees, household use, and other metrics such as run-off co-efficients.

We spent all told less than $2500 USD to install a 4100 USG tank (so about $0.61/gallon). Many municipalities offer free or low-cost rain barrels periodically, but they’re typically in the 20-50 gallon range, so given their size and the amount of plastic used compared to water stored, seem hardly worth the cost of your time to put them in place. It’s worth sitting down to estimate how much water at least a raised bed and a few fruit trees would use in order to start thinking about capturing and storing water at scale.



The End of Food. Paul Roberts (2008). On GoodReads

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Author: Susan Cousineau

I’m an evolutionary ecologist who grows a little food and cultivates close friendships with farmers. My mission in life is to engage, inspire and educate on the integral relationships between food, ecology, health, and climate.

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