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🔬 "Replenishing a Broken Water Cycle"

What About Water?

Photo by Alex Geerts / Unsplash

Host: Jay Famiglietti
Guest: Sandra Postel | Director | Global Water Policy Project
Category: 🔬 Research

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[2:38] “If we think about water on the planet, this movement of water from source to sea, from watersheds across the landscape through the land toward the sea, is the water cycle that keeps everything going. All of life on terrestrial Earth depends on this water cycle. And yet, if you look at how we've managed water and land, which of course are very connected, we can see all kinds of ways in which we've broken that cycle.”

[3:07] “We have now 60,000 large dams around the world that are blocking rivers from flowing the way they naturally should flow. That means that many rivers because of dams and diversions are not reaching the sea. So they're not bringing nutrients and sediment and freshwater to our coastal environments. […] We have these huge levees to guard against flooding. Rivers are meant to flood and so they're no longer connecting to their floodplain. That's a break in the water cycle. We're over pumping groundwater, which means that that part of the water cycle is also broken. Groundwater is the base flow for rivers. Those are just a few ways in which we've broken the water cycle.”

[3:54] “With climate change, the heating of the atmosphere is fundamentally changing the water cycle. The warmer atmosphere is holding more moisture, which means that droughts and floods are intensifying, and that's changing water cycles everywhere locally, globally, regionally, and so on. These are fundamental changes that have very dramatic impacts for us for food security, water security, the health of people and nature in general.”

[4:31] “We very much are a part of the water cycle, not just because we're made of water. 60% of us is water. But how we live, how we manage the land is very much influencing how water flows and how water is stored and how we're going to be resilient in these coming years.”

[5:36] “The good news is, I think we can [fix the broken water cycle]. And I think it's going to require kind of a shift in mindset in our relationship with water and how we use and manage water. We have this tremendous water engineering, that's incredibly impressive. […] And it's hard in some ways, I think, to imagine our world without this engineering. […] And yet, this kind of command and control approach to water and water management has kind of entailed a bit of a Faustian bargain. […] It's breaking that water cycle. And, I come back to something Einstein said that we can't solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created the problems. So thinking we can engineer our way out by doing more and bigger of the same kinds of things is really not going to work. And so what I feel is our best hope for building a more secure resilient water future is to really begin working with nature as more of a partner, less of a command and control approach and more looking at natural services, ecosystem services, looking at nature and working with nature as much as we can.”

[7:22] “We've got three big crises happening at the same time. We have the climate crisis, we have the water crisis, we have a crisis and biodiversity. And we simply do not have time to solve these major crises in a piecemeal fashion. We have got to find holistic solutions that solve them simultaneously. […] I think [it] is really important how we go about controlling floods. We have tended to build big dams, big levees alongside rivers as a way of keeping floodwaters at bay. But if we think about a different approach, letting rivers move laterally during floods again, reactivate floodplains, reconnect rivers to their natural floodplain, we get these multiple co-benefits, where we're controlling and mitigating floods, we're storing more carbon in the soil, we're recharging groundwater, we're holding and purifying water before it heads down stream, and we're rebuilding fish, wildlife and bird habitat along the riverside. Those are multiple benefits that are solving simultaneously those three big challenges.”

[10:24] “I've been studying water issues for nearly four decades now. And I readily admit that I have paid far too little attention to the health of soil as a water reservoir. We kind of go right from rivers to groundwater, and we forget about that layer of earth we call soil in between. And yet, when you look globally, soils hold eight times as much water as all the world's rivers combined, but we rarely manage that soil reservoir for a water reservoir. So if we can improve soil health, again we're getting multiple benefits. Better yields, the need to apply less chemical fertilizer, more carbon in the soil, and the ability to hold more water.

[11:11] “One simple solution here is to incentivize the planting of cover crops. During the offseason, when you finished growing your commercial crop, many farmers just leave the soil and their land sort of barren. And instead, if you plant a cover of crops, so that you have a living root in the soil at all times, you're going to improve the health of that soil. And you're going to reduce wind and water erosion, which takes away that healthy topsoil. I think in the United States, maybe 6% of all of our farmland gets cover crops. A state like Maryland, I believe has more like 29%, because it has incentivized this.”

Rating: 💧💧💧💧

🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify
🕰️ 30 min | 🗓️ 11/24/2021
✅ Time saved: 28 min

Additional Links:
Stockholm Water Prize Laureates