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7 “Better” Ways to Save Water in Your Home Landscapes

Our definition of saving water needs to broaden to include strategies to keep water. This is especially true in our garden landscapes. While paving over grass with cement or replacing with artificial turf or stones saves water by reducing or eliminating the need to water, this strategy fails to KEEP any water, arguably more critical.

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This bike powers the movement of captured water in a rain barrel. You get exercise and water the garden at the same time. Win-win.

Currently, 2/3 of rain is lost to runoff and evaporation in urbanized areas. This includes farms treated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides that diminish the soils natural ability to retain water in comparison to soil with organic matter.

I learned the best strategies to keep water from Lenny Lebrizzi, an expert in rain harvesting. We met in his small office nestled in an aging skyscraper across from New York City Hall in Manhattan before he drove me across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to his home garden in Staten Island.

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Lenny Lebrizzi, expert in rain harvesting, in front of his home in Staten Island.

Lenny works for GrowNYC, a nonprofit organization engaged in greening the five boroughs of NYC. His job is to capture a portion of the 90 billion gallons of water that fall with every one inch of rain inside the borders of the largest metropolis in the United States.

“A rainwater harvest system needs a surface to collect rainwater,” said Lenny. In the case of a rain garden, bioswale, tree pit or permeable surface, it is the ground collecting the water. The rainwater is stored in the soil where microorganisms break down pollutants and recharge underground water tables that feed surface waters.”

Rain gardens and bioswales are shallow ditches, landscaped with drench and drought tolerant plants. The bioswale is long and narrow while the rain garden takes any shape. Each is like pockets in the ground, designed to pool and slurp rainwater and snowmelt.
Tree pits are carved openings in the curb. Rainwater enters thru the opening in the curb, collecting water around the tree and plants.

In the United States, an area larger than the state of Ohio is paved with roads, driveways and parking lots and increasingly artificial grass. The rain glides across instead of through these surfaces, taking with it surface pollutants.

Runoff between paved and unpaved surfaces are stark. In woodland areas, 95 percent of the water is absorbed by the soil. In urbanized areas where large swaths of exposed land are paved, the totals decrease to 50 percent. Water runs off these impervious surfaces fast, warm and polluted.

We can all do better to keep water in our personal landscapes and advocate for improved designs at the municipal level.

7 “Better” Ways To Save Water In Your Yard

#1  Add Rain barrels. The roof collects 1/2 gallon of water per square foot with every inch of rain. Check to see if your water agency offers rebates. For information regarding the Metropolitan Water District rebate click here.

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Lenny standing next to his 160 gallon rain barrel.

#2 Think Bioswale or Rain Garden. It’s time to move away from slopes and hills in both public and private landscapes UNLESS they feed into a bioswale or rain garden.   These pockets or ditches created by bioswales capture rain and draw it downward to replenish groundwater supplies. Check to see if your city or water agency offer financial incentives to install one. You can easily find guides online to help you design and install your own.

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#3 Stop applying chemicals on your landscapes like fertilizers and herbicides. Chemicals kill the microbial activity in the soil. In other words, chemicals limit the soils ability to keep water. Our reliance on chemicals for soil fertility and weed removal has transformed our landscapes into quasi-pavement.

#4 Add a Tree Pit. Tree pits are carved openings in the curb. Rainwater enters thru the opening, collecting water around the trees and plants.

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The cut out in the curb allows for water to flow into the swale during a rain event.

#5 Grow plants in the ground instead of raised beds. Like potted plants, plants grown in raised beds are thirstier. Soil drains faster, and evaporation occurs on the surface and four sides. Raised beds are a great option if the soil is contaminated, but when possible plant directly into the ground.

#6 Compost. Compost is beneficial to water systems on many fronts. Compost, rich with micro-organisms is a sponge for water. It absorbs 1/2 gallon per square foot of soil at a minimum. Compost lessens water pollution by diminishing or eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, instead bolstering the plant’s inbred resistance to disease and pests.

#7 Plant Cover Crop. Cover crops is a technique organic farmers use to build nitrogen in the soil and can be used in your home garden too. Lenny scatters seeds of wheat or ryegrass over his vegetable patch after the growing season and turns the soil in his home garden in Staten Island. If he needs nitrogen fixers, he plants beans and clovers. When he’s ready to plant his garden, he turns the crop cover into the soil. The root systems of the cover crop feed the microbes in the soil, nature’s keeper of water.

There is power in the collective!

Be well,

Florencia

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4 Ways to Wear Less Water

“We communicate who we are with our clothing,” begins the trailer for The True Cost, a newly released fashion documentary.

According to the documentary, what we communicate with our fashion apparel is more than we think. Just like our food choices, our fashion choices matter to water systems around the globe. The water footprint for a t-shirt is 560 gallons of water on average. For a pair of jeans, it is 3,000.

The average American throws away 54 pounds of textiles per year, according to The Green Blue Book. We are literally throwing away water and leaving chemicals behind in the environment.

The clothing industry, feeding our insatiable demand for clothing, is built on the backs of low-wage workers, too often working in deplorable conditions.

We have the power to influence change with our dollars. Four simple things we can do NOW:

1. Support fair-trade or union labels. You can find a listing of clothing lines with fair-trade labels at www.fairtradeUSA.org. My husband Michael, is a big fan of All American Clothing for his jeans.

2. Buy clothing made from organic cotton. Cotton farms are heavy on pesticides. Ninety-six percent of all cotton grown in the USA is genetically modified. Pesticide applications pollute, water, air and humans. And it kills microorganisms, diminishing the soils natural ability to absorb and retain water.

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3. Buy used clothing.  I am a big fan of consignment and thrift shops. All the outfits pictured above were found at a thrift store or consignment shop including the topaz color necklace.

4. Buy less. Only a small percentage of our collective wardrobe is recycled. And not all the clothes are ever worn again, instead many end up in a dumpster somewhere in the world.

Wear less water! There is power in the collective.

Be well,

Florencia

A #Water Footprint Riddle

During a farm visit, I was asked the following, “Well-meaning people will order a soy burger instead of a hamburger thinking it’s more environmentally-friendly as well as a healthier choice. Sometimes it’s true, but sometimes it’s not. What if the soy used in the veggie-burger comes from irrigated fields, but the beef is from rain-fed pasture-raised cows?”

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Water footprint totals have been tossed around in this time of low reservoir levels and little rain (don’t we all know that it takes a gallon of water to grow an almond?). But to answer this riddle, first I must introduce the concept, “color of water.” Water footprint researchers assigned colors to water to help differentiate the types of water sources: blue, green and gray. Blue water is sourced from aquifers, reservoirs and rivers that scribble across the landscape. Rain water and moisture is green. Gray is water tainted with nitrogen, the run-off from fertilizer and manure.

If we consider water footprint totals alone, then the soy burger with a water footprint of 224 gallons per pound is a superior choice. But if the soy burger originates in a field irrigated by ground or surface water, it has a water footprint of 224 gallons of blue water, water from above and below ground reservoirs. And the gray water totals are higher too if grown on fields treated with chemicals fertilizers. If the pound of hamburger is from a pasture-raised cow on a diet of rain-fed grass, it’s 1,851 gallons of green water, rain. Even with an overall higher water footprint total the rain-fed beef hamburger is a better choice.

It isin’t simply knowing the water footprint of food that matters, but rather the source of water. When we know the color of water and begin to support farmers who utilize more “green” water and cultivate the soil to “keep” more water when it rains, we can positively impact water systems around the world.

Eat less water at the kitchen table!

There is power in the collective.

Be well,

Florencia

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This Earth Day Hug a Sustainable Farmer

Skip the tree hugging this year, instead reach for your nearest sustainable farmer. They are the ones who toil daily to protect our water, soil and air while providing us with nutritious foods.

They are a small lot of folks around the country. Farms keep getting larger and more specialized, but it is the last thing our Earth needs. We need more small to medium scale farmers who incorporate methods that enrich the soil, increase the nutrition of our food and use less water.  Sustainable farmers can only grow in numbers with our support.  This Earth Day, seek them out, buy their goods, tell them you care about the work they do.

Here are five sustainable farmers I send a virtual hug to this Earth Day.

John DeRosier, Biodynamic Grain Dry Farmer, With the Grain Farm, Paso Robles, California  

John DeRosier, owner of With the Grain Farms

John DeRosier, owner of With the Grain Farms

I start with John because he was one of my first teachers on my quest to eat less water. While his farm neighbors excavate water at 1,000 feet deep to sustain almond and wine grapes, John farms his land using no irrigation. He is what is called a dry farmer. His crops of grains survive on rain and moisture alone. This year’s harvest will be available to With the Grain CSA members.

Dr. Aldolfo Murillo, Organic Farmer, Tequila Maker, Tequila Alquimia, Oxnard, California, and Arandas, Mexico

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Dr. Adolfo Murillo, owner of Tequila Alquimia

Dr. Murillo says his organic tequila doesn’t give you a hangover. The agave he raises on his farm in the state of Jalisco, thrives on sun, rain and healthy soil alone. Adolfo’s farming methods are in contrast to the conventional way of growing agave that includes applying generous doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides over the course of 6-8 years, the average length of time required to grow agave. The chemicals absorbed by the plant is further intensified during the fermentation and distillation process. This is what causes the tequila hangover Dr. Murillo suggests.

I’ve yet to test his theory because this award winning tequila tastes too good to drink in one shot, it is made to sip. You can taste the Mexican sun in each swallow. Tequila Alquimia is available at a growing number of bars and stores in California. It can be shipped anywhere (as long as you live in a state that allows for the shipment of liquor).

Maureen and John Knapp, Organic Valley Member Farmers, Cobblestone Valley Farms, Preble, New York

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Paul and Maureen Knapp, Cobblestone Farms

Paul and Maureen Knapp converted their dairy to organic when they learned the river was at the headwaters of the Chesapeake watershed. Home to the first discovered dead zone in the U.S., the hypoxic zone spreads over 40 percent of the Chesapeake. At least 50 percent of the pollution stems from agriculture upstream.

Paul and Maureen’s concern for water quality led them to implement Holistic Management. This farming method corrals animals into smaller areas of pasture or paddocks. The animals are frequently moved to eliminate overgrazing. As a result, their dairy cows graze on rain-fed pastures during the spring through the fall. When the snow brings the cows indoors, they are shoveled rain-fed hay grown on the farm.

Mike Benziger, Biodynamic Grape Grower, Winemaker, Benziger Family Vineyard, Glen Ellen, California

Every drop of water is reused on Mike’s family vineyard. Water used during the bottling process, restrooms, restaurant sink is collected in a man-made pond located on the vineyard. Gravity carries the water into this constructed wetlands. The impurities of the water is removed by the sway of tall, thick papyrus and graceful calla lilies and the microbes living on the root systems. By the time the water moves through the wetlands it is almost drinking water quality. The recycled water is used for irrigation.

Irrigation is used sparingly on the vineyard. Irrigation is not scheduled but rather based on soil moisture. And with the implementation of biodynamic farming methods, the root systems of the grape vines are encouraged to grow deeper into the ground, increasing the plants access to more moisture. It also allows the plant to absorb more minerals, elevating the flavor of the wine to the extraordinary.  You can find Benziger in every state and now in some first class cabins at 40,000 feet. I was thrilled to discover Benziger wine sold at my local Von’s and BevMo.

Nelida Martinez, Organic Vegetable and Berry Farmer, Pura Nelida Farms, Mt. Vernon, Washington

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Nelida Martinez, Pura Nelida Farms

As a former farmworker, Nelida Martinez knows firsthand how chemicals cause physical reactions. It is why she chose to become an organic farmer. “I got rashes on my hands from touching the soil, vegetables or fruit with my bare skin,” she shared with me during my visit to her farm located an hour north of Seattle. “The common practice was, and still is, to apply pesticides on a portion of the farm while farmworkers worked on another. Even when they applied chemicals two or three fields away, we were exposed. The wind brought them to us.” Her son, who worked beside her in the strawberry fields in my hometown of Oxnard, contracted Leukemia. While she doesn’t know for sure if the fumigants sprayed on the sweet berries led to her son’s cancer, she does believe it contributed to the illness that left him with a compromised pancreas.

She dedicates herself to growing healthy, non-chemical food for her family and community. Her vegetables and berries, along with her fresh tortillas and swiss chard and cheese stuffed tamales, are sold at the Viva Farms produce stand during the late spring, summer and fall months.

Sending additional hugs to…

Kurt Unkle, owner of Cajun Grain Farm in Kinder Louisiana

Carney and Alfred Ferris, owners of Windy Acres Farms in Orlinda, Tennessee

Shane Watkins, Watkins Cattle Co.,  Ventura, California

Ben Godfrey, Sandy Creek Farm, Cameron, Texas

Rob Cunningham, Coyote Creek Farm, Elgin, Texas

To these sustainable farmers and others not listed here, thank you for the work you do in the world!

Eat less water at your kitchen table. There is power in the collective!

Be well,

Florencia

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Lessons From a California Dry Farmer

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John DeRoseir at his farm in Paso Robles, California

John DeRosier’s With the Grain farm grows a diversity of grains without irrigation during the winter and summer months, even when the temperature consistently tops 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Paso Robles, California. He is a dry farmer.

The concept was implausible at first. I asked him several times to explain, “How is it you can farm without irrigation while all the neighboring farms are drilling 1,000 feet beneath the surface?” I pointed to the surrounding sea of grapevines which clung to the soft hillsides.

“It starts with the cover crop,” he told me.

Only 3 percent of U.S. farms reported growing cover crops in the latest Census of Agriculture, and the practice drops with farms larger than 200 acres. Cover crop is important, as I learned from John because the decaying plant material from the cover crop feeds the microorganisms in the soil.

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This process builds the soil organic matter (SOM). SOM can retain up to 10,000 times more water than soil without, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services. While his neighbors drill deeper wells to excavate water to irrigate wine grapes and almond trees, John’s crops grow with the moisture held between the granules of soil.

Last year, John wasn’t able to deliver grains to his CSA customers. “The margin of error for dry farmers is narrow,” he recently told me. “The winters are drier now. I have to plant  earlier than before.” In the fourth year of the drought, he will harvest 150 acres of grain.

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Boycott Pesticide Food! Si Se Puede!

This article is written in honor of the life and legacy of Cesar E. Chavez.

“What is the light for?” asked my son Joaquin on a drive home from piano class. A large spotlight flooded rows of strawberries providing light for a tractor driver spraying pesticides. The driver wore the required protective suit that covered every inch of his body, his nose and mouth covered with a surgical mask. The night gave the typical sight an eerie quality. The light illuminated the thick chemical mist as it rose up from the ground like steam.

“Shouldn’t he be wearing a gas mask?” asked Joaquin.
Protective gear is essential when dealing with contagious viruses, or radioactive cleanups, but shouldn’t be a necessity on the farms that grow the food we eat. My proximity to conventional cropland in part influenced the decision to institute an “organic when available” family policy.

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Strawberry field in Ventura, California

In 2011, 144 million gallons of chemical pesticides were sprayed onto cropland in the U.S. Pesticides are applied as droplets, each droplet lighter than dust. The mist scatters and drifts and settles on surface water and leaches into water tables. The USGS tested 1,412 shallow wells in agricultural areas and found the presence of one or more pesticides products in 60 percent. The same study found nitrate in all the wells, with 21 percent at or higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Maximum Contaminant Level.

It is impossible to elude exposure of chemicals. We breathe them, drink, eat and roll in the grass treated with them. Each of our bodies holds at least 700 chemical contaminants, according to EPA estimates. Farmworkers and farmers working on the 1.3 million farms have amongst the most intimate and chronic exposure. It is why Cesar E. Chavez fasted for 36 days in the summer of 1988. He understood chemicals to cause birth defects and cancer among farmworker children. It was his last fast.

Our food system is chemically dependent. The price is paid, by our water, our soil and our health.

Eat less water at the kitchen table. There is power in the collective!

eating is an agricultural act

Be well,

Florencia

Click here for information on the award winning documentary Cesar’s Last Fast, available to view on iTunes.

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Eat Different

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This World Water Day I didn’t shave an extra minute or two off my shower, or forgo watering my potted plants. Instead, I shopped at the farmers’s market and mapped out the dinner menu for the upcoming week. As 7 out of every 10 gallons of water is used to grow and produce food the most powerful way to be water conservationist is to support farmers and food producers who are.

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What is a water conservationist? I used to think that water conservation simply meant to use less water. I built a small business around this belief as a distributor of shower timers and other water saving products. But conserving water is broader than this narrow definition.

Supply and quality cause water shortages. Supply left over 1000 people without tap water in the small town of Porterville, California in Tulare County when their shallow wells went dry. Water quality explains why half a million people were left without clean drinking water in Toledo, Ohio for three days last summer.

The food in my kitchen impacts water systems around the world. The fruit, vegetables and grain I eat impacts well water levels of residents and farmers alike. Dairy and meat choices either contribute to nutrient runoff, causing toxic blooms like the ones flourishing on Lake Erie or encourage thriving soil that draws the water downward to replenish aquifers.

We are facing a frightening future, one rife with water shortages, referred to as water scarcity, caused by shortages of supply and diminished quality. Experts meeting at the World Water Forum in Istanbul in 2009 predicted 2/3 of the world’s population will experience water scarcity by 2025. It is a situation expected to result in an unprecedented rise in military conflicts. And while you, I, and our children may be among the fortunate, living far from a military zone, with a flowing tap of fresh, clean water, none of us will be untouched by a water-scarce world. At the very least it will change what we eat.

The farmers and food producers I’ve interviewed around the U.S. show me a different way to approach farming. One in synch with the surrounding environment. One that works to replenish the river not pollute it, one that serves to regenerate the soil, not lose it. But they need us to buy their food. To be engaged eaters. I’m convinced If we eat different en masse we will rewrite the story.

Eat less water at the kitchen table! There is power in the collective.

Be well,

Florencia

FYI, you can find the recipes for several of the menu items pictured above here.