Written by: Yazmin Torres
If you type “failing dams” in the google search engine, a list of 93 major dam failures pops up. That’s 93, dams! Each one accounts for significant property damage and countless loss of life; this is proof that even the most progressive technology can and will fail. In the coming years, California’s 1968 Oroville Dam, the nation’s tallest, is becoming the 94th catastrophic dam failure on that somber list!
In February 2017, a spillway serving Oroville Dam developed a hole that threatened to release uncontrolled floodwaters. Because of this, nearly 190,000 people in Northern California evacuated their homes. Residents were alarmed by the potential danger to their lives and property. However, they were also annoyed by the engineer’s and city officials’ perceived incompetence to prevent the inconvenience of evacuation.
Meanwhile, officials and contractors worked frantically to get as much water out of Lake Oroville as possible. The dam itself was not damaged, but due to heavy rain, the spillway threatened collapse that would unleash an overwhelming wall of water onto nearby communities. This spillway incident was the second in only a matter of days. A week prior, the dam’s primary spillway developed a hole that was 200 feet long and 30 feet deep. They have yet to repair this hole. Officials estimate that the repair will cost between $100 and $200 million.
Time and again, our water infrastructure’s failures have wreaked havoc, severe environmental damage, countless fatalities, and millions of dollars in damages and repairs. We must find a better way to manage water. Dams (and technology more broadly) offer many solutions to flood control, irrigation, and the public water supply, but so too can examine people’s current behavior and water practices. Often, people become so focused on technological advancement; we neglect the potential peril technology produces.
When the consequences are upon us, we attempt to solve the technical problems with yet more technology! Unfortunately, there aren’t always technological solutions for ecological issues.
The solution to the current water crisis involves accepting our part in the problem.
If we observe the natural workings of the world, we see that nature is better at water management, than any dam can ever be. With the growth of technological water management, people have forgotten the unique role nature plays, which cannot be replaced by technology. In her book Water in Plain Sight: Hope for A Thirsty World, Schwartz reminds us of the critical lessons that nature can teach us if we take the time to understand it.
Natural processes demonstrate the beauty in slowness, the importance of humility, and the effectiveness of nature’s ability to maintain a thriving, sustainable, water-rich environment. These teachings of life, long forgotten, need to be modeled more carefully, given our current state of water management to stop the continual ravaging of our planet.
The first step in solving the water crisis involves recognizing the dichotomy between the fast-paced globalized world and the slow, gradual state of nature. In society today, it seems we favor a quick cover-up over more deliberate, sustainable solutions. We try to ease the pressure of water scarcity with dams and irrigation pumps, but we fail to acknowledge the critical role that healthy soil can play in retaining water; this is because technology can produce rapid results whereas cultivating well-nourished soil does not.
Reversing ground that has suffered desertification will involve time to learn how this process works, time to take care and manage the field, and time for the microbial life to organically produce a healthy, thriving landscape. Despite nature’s slow process, Schwartz highlights the profound effect a flourishing, biodiverse environment has on the water cycle. She does this by analyzing the habitat of the birds in Chihuahua, Mexico. She comments:
… let’s look at the grasses that are so pivotal to the birds’ survival that winter in Chihuahua. These diverse plants don’t only feed and house the resident animals, insects, and birds– they’re also feeding the watershed. The plant life, particularly deep-rooted grasses, support the water cycle: they hold soil in place, build soil carbon, and promote the formation of soil aggregates so the ground becomes a sponge-like last chapter’s airy loaf of bread as opposed to the powdery flour that can’t hold water. Also, plants are continually transpiring moisture. When the ground is covered with plants, transpiration regulates soil temperature and maintains a pool in the landscape. In arid and semiarid landscapes, such humidity is crucial. (Schwartz 73)
Nature’s vast interconnections contribute to a stable, well-built system that supports a water-rich, sustainable environment. However, rebuilding these complex interconnections will take years to accomplish. Thus, to reverse the water crisis, our world currently faces, water management systems must acknowledge nature’s wisdom and incorporate its critical, albeit slower processes. We need to have a strong vision with the fundamental goal of maintaining a healthy, biodiverse environment.
A strong understanding of natural solutions can save us from leaping vulnerably into the next new technological band-aid. Nature’s system has been around for millions of years. Instead of attempting to fix and control it, technology should be learning from and trying to preserve and emulate it.
Unfortunately, as society has advanced, so has our hubris. We have come to believe that we can replace the functioning of natural processes. However, as climate change continues to worsen and water becomes more scarce, it is evident that nature does things its own, unique way. Unless we can find humility, we will be unable to learn from life. As much as people try, we simply cannot replace or overpower nature’s will. Schwartz comments on this when she states:
… U.S. leaders continue, illogically, to quarrel over whether climate change is real. For all of us who came of age when technology was ascendant, it’s difficult to grapple with such powerful forces beyond our control. We can understand climate denial as a kind of primitive railing against the inconvenience and indignity of elemental change, like a primal scream or tantrum. As impressive as our machines may be, we can’t hi-tech our way out of climate disruption. (Schwartz 79)
Schwartz nicely summarizes the threat people feel about environmental and climate disruption.
This threat, felt by many, demonstrates people’s inability to recognize that we are– after all– only human. There are some things, as much as we wish to ease with technology, that is just out of our control. As specks in the world, we need to embrace our humility and our place in the cosmos. Doing this can bring into focus our technological limitations and free up our resources to begin to look toward nature for solutions. If we build a water management system modeled more closely after natural processes, our policy, like nature itself, might enjoy unparalleled sustainability.
Maybe someday we will be humble enough to work with life rather than against it.
Concerning “slowness” and a sense of humility, we might fully understand how nature is amazingly efficient and effective. Using natural resources as labor, and waste as substrates for the next useful product, nature eliminates the need for clean-up crews, toxic dump sites, and multi-million dollar infrastructure repairs. In the book Water in Plain Sight, there is a section dedicated to the fantastic work that beavers do for the environment– one of nature’s key contributors to water management.
Beavers, a keystone species, are the foundation of many ecosystems. Often, beavers are referred to as “nature’s engineers” because they whittle down trees, carve out underwater channels, and for protection, build dams, canals, and lodges. Because beavers directly interact with the hydrological cycle, they also help build nutrient-rich soil. We spend millions of dollars on (in making and repairing) beavers do for free and even more efficiently.
Unlike people, they do not desertify the soil (a root cause of water scarcity) in attempts to manage water. Today, there are about 10 million beavers; this is a decrease from around 200 million beavers when Europeans first arrived on our land. What a loss of free labor technology has cost us! Schwartz reflects on the impact of this loss of beavers when she utilizes a key passage in Outwater’s writings, a member of the Council for Watershed Health. Outwater writes:
If each of the pre-Columbian beavers had built only a single acre of wetlands, then an area of more than 300,000 square miles- a tenth of the country’s total land area- was once a beaver built wetland. Now, these wetlands are gone. The river of life receded when the water receded, and the ancient splendor of the land disappeared with the beaver’s demise. (Schwartz 47)
From this, it is clear that beavers play an essential role in maintaining the environment. It is unfortunate, however, that people failed to recognize this early on. Looking at the work of beavers, compared to the work of technology and the current environmental crisis we are in, it is evident that what technology can’t successfully do, beavers can. In addition to beavers, aspects of nature such as trees, microbial life, and soil aggregates also contribute significantly to a thriving, water-abundant landscape.
Nature can teach us how to manage our water effectively if we take the time to observe and learn.
Today, many people are unaware of land that was once flourishing, beaver abundant, and water-rich. Our nation, forever-evolving, is a continuously interactive landscape affected by the ways we manage it. Often, however, people forget that our current environment is the consequence of decades worth of water exploitation. Over time, the state of our environment has transformed into what it is today, but it doesn’t have to stay this way. Schwartz emphasizes this when she asserts:
We tend to think of land as static. A desert has always been a desert, a rocky plain where nothing thrives, still rocky, still a frustration to farmers. Of course, history tells us this is not so. Numerous civilizations– think Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Timbuktu– once flourished in regions where, to recent memory, there is nothing but forbidding, sand-swept emptiness. But we’re not always conscious of the extent to which land is dynamic, not merely as a historical anecdote or cautionary tale, but in the now. And that land is an ongoing exchange with the people that live on and from it. (Schwartz 86)
As Schwartz makes clear, we always need to be aware of the dynamic relationship between people and the environment. At one point in time, the earth was untouched by humans– slowly evolving and developing its natural biodiversity. As early civilizations developed, our landscape still flourished. In modern times, however, we have lost our humility and forgotten about the fantastic way nature works and all that it can teach us. When we forget about our land’s past, its present state begins to seem normal and inevitable– a factor out of our control.
If we remember and appreciate the history of our land, we will realize that we can effectively and positively interact with our environment to improve its current state. We may not be able to control Mother Nature, but we can choose to work alongside her and develop responsible ways to enjoy her bounty. We must reflect on our current water management methods, the past of water management, and find a more sustainable future.
Schwartz, Judith D. Water in Plain Sight: Hope for A Thirsty World. 1st ed. New York:
St. Martin’s Press, 2016. Print.
Stelloh, Tim, Andrew Blankstein, Daniella Silva, and Rima Abdelkader. “Oroville
Dam Spillway Failure: Nearly 190,000 Ordered to Evacuate.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, February 13. 2017. Web. May 23, 2017.