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Water in Plain Sight:
Hope for a Thirsty World

By Susan H. Frey

As Concord experiences one of its worst droughts and record heats, residents, gardeners, farmers, wildlife, insects, birds, trees, and plants, have felt the harsh effects. It is easy to frame the drought as simply a water shortage. However, Judith Schwartz’s new book Water in Plain Sight not only points out the need to understand how land and water work together to sustain the water cycle but provide reasons for hope. Judith will share successful strategies for dealing with today’s water crisis.

“When we focus on what does or doesn’t come down from the sky—whether there’s enough rain or too much all at once—there’s the impression that we’re at the mercy of the elements,” Schwartz writes. “However, once we attend to land function, we regain a sense of agency: specifically, this steers our thinking toward the many ways to enhance the land’s ability to retain water, organic matter and microbial life, thereby offering resilience in the face of flooding and dry skies.” .

In other words, to attain water security we have to realign ourselves with natural systems. One example Schwartz provides is a community in rural Zimbabwe that was able to restore a local river by employing land management techniques that utilize grazing domestic animals. These animals serve as surrogates for the large herds of wild herbivores that coevolved with the grassland ecosystem, thereby initiating biological processes that allow plants to grow and the soil to retain moisture. While this example may seem far afield, many of her ideas are applicable locally.

Schwartz has traveled around the world reporting on communities that are replenishing water sources by wise use of land and water resources. Schwartz chronicles her stops in California to observe the impact of the reintroduction of the beaver, Mexico to study how to create richer habitat for birds on farm fields, Brazil, West Texas, and Australia to see how “biodiversity – a mosaic of life forms, each thriving in its unique place – contributes to hydrological function in another important way: by slowing down the movement of water.”

While many of Schwartz’s examples come from faraway places, the ideas in her book make me appreciate everything Concord has in place to help our town be more resilient in times of extreme weather. Most importantly, a third of our land in Concord, including wetlands and 14 farms, is permanently protected.

There are opportunities to create healthier soil in Concord and surrounding communities that will increase capacity of our land to absorb water more effectively. We need to consider application of best practices to conservation lands, farm fields, and town and residential land, including gardens, yards, town properties, roofs, driveways, roads, and parking lots, and roads. Schwartz reminds us that we have a choice. Do we want to find more ways to slow the flow of water, to spread the water across the land and let it sink into the ground? Do we want to stop the use of impervious surfaces that force pollutant carrying water to wash into our streams and rivers and loose water to the sea? We can make our own land “act like a forest” and retain and recharge all stormwater.

Best of all, Schwartz reminds us that we need imagination in order to have hope and we need hope in order to act. She encourages us not to set our sights too low. We can chose enhancement, health, biodiversity and complexity or face degradation.

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