“Water is the ultimate capital of a farmer“. An interview with Zach Weiss of Elemental Ecosystems working on water retention landscapes (www.elementalecosystems.com).
Thank you Judith D. Schwartz for the introduction to Zach!
Listen to Judith’s interview “What is possible with soil?”
TAKE AWAYS OF THE INTERVIEW:
- Climate change is a symptom of the severe water cycle disturbance and there is something we can do about it!
- When the landscape isn’t being recharged with water, it leads to flooding and drought (worst case also fire)
- Humans desertified 1/3 of the earth’s cover the last 10.000 years
- We are carbon based life but the living part is mostly water
- There is much more you (as a land owner/manager) to influence the water cycle on and above your land
- Often when we talk about water we talk about big centralised water systems or the weather, Zach is focussed on decentralised water retention landscapes
- Sub-irrigated, you use a lot less energy
- Climate changes: everywhere the same story the precipitation is more when it comes and it comes less often
- Large dams and reservoirs are very energy intensive, smaller decentralised water retention systems are much more efficient
- Flood fire and drought mitigation is a sector Zach is very interested in
- Zach is building a platform to franchise his model, to pilot this in 2020
- Huge opportunity for video visual content, what have we done during the last 10.000 years, and our role and our options
- Could be something we all can get behind, water retention.
- We can’t address climate change without addressing the water cycle disturbance
- Zach tries to use most of the time with costumers on the implementation not on the consultation
Links mentioned in the interview:
Sepp Holzer (Austria)
WIllie Smits, Borneo, brought back the rainforest and the clouds
How to restore a rainforest – TED TALK
Advice for investors from Zach (not investment advice):
Rewriting natural resource policy management, very often what Zach wants to do is illegal.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW
landscape, projects, water, people, land, create, big, cycle, climate, podcast, water retention, place, wetlands, restoring, soil, year, important, piece, decentralized, farm
Koen van Seijen, Zach Weiss
Koen van Seijen 00:00
You will listen to an interview about water. Water cycles, retention landscapes and why water might be more important than CO2. Enjoy!
Koen van Seijen 00:09
Welcome to another episode of "Investing in Regenerative Agriculture: Investing as if the Planet Mattered", a podcast show where I talk to the pioneers in the regenerative food and agriculture space to learn more on how to put our money to work to regenerate soil, people, local communities and ecosystems while making an appropriate and fair return. Why am I focused on soil and regeneration? Because so many of the pressing issues we face today have their roots in how we treat our land, grow our food and what we eat, and it's time that we as investors, big and small, and consumers, start paying much more attention to the dirt slash soil underneath our feet.
Koen van Seijen 00:48
In March last year, we launched our Patreon community to make it easy for fans to support our work and so many of you have joined as a member. We've launched different types of benefits exclusive content, Q&A webinars with former guests asked me anything sessions plus so much more to come in the future. For more information on the different tiers, benefits and how to become a member, check out patreon.com/regenerative_agriculture, or find the link below. Thank you.
Koen van Seijen 01:12
Welcome to the podcast I'm calling assign your host. Today I'm joined by Zack Weiss of elemental ecosystems working on water retention landscapes. Welcome, Zach.
Zach Weiss 01:21
Thanks so much for having me. Glad to be here.
Zach Weiss 01:23
So to start with a personal question, which I always love to do is what brings you to soil agriculture, in this case, water cycles.
Zach Weiss 01:31
For me, it was a really deep and profound love for nature. And I always wanted to find something where I was working in nature outside as much as possible, and how to help people connect better with nature, and a real logical place to start is food and water because it's something that every human needs and ingests many times a day, and that's our most direct and immediate connection to nature and to the landscape.
Zach Weiss 02:00
It's funny as you were talking about it, I actually took a sip of water and realized how profound that was. I think we're going to talk a lot of water in this episode, much more than I've talked in others. Actually, we were connected by Judith D. Schwartz, who also talks a lot about water and it's still one of the most listened to episodes of this podcast. I will definitely link that one below. So let's talk a bit about, I mean I briefly touched upon water cycles, what are water cycles? What's the difference between a full and a half water cycle? Let's get a bit into water, so to speak.
Zach Weiss 02:33
Yeah, so if you think water is really moving through the landscape. It's moving through the air, it's moving through the ground, and it's it's constantly in motion. And so the full healthy water cycle is forests that are seeding the moisture in the air, causing clouds and then precipitation. That phase change draws in more precipitation and so you have this pump. It's called the biotic pump, where the living ecosystems of the continents actually draw moisture from the oceans from the evaporation inland to the different continents. And so that's what we call the full or the natural water cycle. Now, the half water cycle is the increasingly disturbed water cycle, and so it's a water cycle of extremes where the landscape is cleared so for one, the water that used to infiltrate runs off quickly downstream, leading to flooding, but then followed by drought, and in the worst cases fire because the landscape is not being recharged with the water. It's been desiccated. And so that to a very long extreme, we're now in the situation where humans have desertified one third of Earth's land in the last 10,000 years. And that's from modification of the surface cover, resulting in modification of the precipitation and the climate.
Zach Weiss 04:04
And obviously every farmer will tell you water is very, very important, but it's not something we talk about a lot and usually it's about either irrigation or it's a weather discussion - like we're waiting for the clouds the come etc. - but you're saying there's a much more direct connection between soil, what's on and in the soil, and actually the water cycle.
Zach Weiss 04:26
Yeah, and we have much more control over it than people think.
Zach Weiss 04:30
That's going to be the next point, like it is not something we just sit on the land wait and hope and maybe dig very deep well and start irrigating. There's much more we can do right as land users and owners.
Zach Weiss 04:41
Exactly. And if you think water is the ultimate capital of any farmer.
Koen van Seijen 04:46
Which is great because not only on this podcast everybody keeps saying soil, soil, soil, but you're saying water is the ultimate capital. Can you explain?
Zach Weiss 04:54
Well, water is life. 70% of all life is water and without water, there is is no life. And so it's the element upon which life builds. We're carbon based life, but the living component of us is water. We're mostly water, all life is mostly water. So the soils are very important, but without the water, there's no place for anything to even start taking place.
Koen van Seijen 05:22
And so when you say there's much more that we can do, even if I'm maybe not owning the full landscape and I can imagine maybe I can work on a landscape scale. You're working on smaller scale projects, bigger scale projects, what are some things you advise, or actually you work on with your clients that they can do on the land to help maybe restore part of the water cycle so we get closer to the full one again?
Zach Weiss 05:50
Yeah, exactly. And you brought up a really good point earlier. A lot of times people are talking about water, but we're never talking about this natural water management. We're talking about more extractive water use, how to set up irrigation, how to move water around with these large centralized water systems. And so what we're creating is decentralized water retention landscapes, so where water is being held at different points all throughout the landscape. And what this does is it makes it so that your irrigation is underground, your landscape is sub irrigated. So you don't need to apply all that energy to move the water. But you're also in this very long term vision with the water, where the actions you're doing in this year are going to be felt for the next century. It's going to take a little bit of time and inertia to really start seeing the results, but then they're going to really start growing. And you see it all over. If you take a landscape that is in this half broken water cycle, where it's a cycle of flood, followed by drought, and then you balance that out, and you make it so that there is consistent year round water. The result is just incredible. You literally see life come back to the landscape. And so once this transition has taken place, it's very apparent for people to see how big of an impact this has. But a lot of times the techniques are, we're creating beaver mimicry structures or water retention ponds along different water ways and they're pretty small interventions, but that really have a big impact on not only the immediate site, but the surrounding area as well.
Koen van Seijen 07:38
And we're going to ask it to make it concrete as I'm sure a lot of people think "yeah, of course, water is super important but I'm on a piece of land, or I'm in a continent, or a part of a continent, where it's very dry, or we have only have rains for certain amount of time" etc. Can you talk about a concrete project you've worked on with your company? And as we're on audio and not video can you make it as visual as possible? Like the before and after? What did you find when you started working with a client and how is it going now? As an example?
Zach Weiss 08:08
Yeah. So those are actually the situations where these techniques deliver the best results in landscapes where they have this really extreme seasonality of precipitation. I'm thinking of several but for example, one in Mexico. It's on a mesa and there's no water source on the mesa. So no one lives on the mesa year around, and fires come through every year, and it gets so bone dry that it's basically uninhabitable. But we created a couple of water retention structures and now this first year, even though they had really low rainfall, basically no precipitation for their normal, they still have water. Now, the water returning features aren't full because of that off year, but they're the only person on the mesa with water. And so that's, you know, it opens up a lot of avenues. Now you can start to have animals, you can start to have tree crops. This isn't a place where it's so dry it's deciduous because of how dry it is. It gets too dry for the trees to hold on to their leaves and if you return water to that kind of landscape you go from this brown desiccant desert to literally a patch of oasis in the desert during the dry season.
Koen van Seijen 09:29
And in this landscape, on this farm, or this land owner, what kind of structures did you make? Or what kind of structures did you put in place? You mentioned they're quite small, but still to imagine them what what should we imagine?
Zach Weiss 09:43
Yeah, yeah, so we did two different water bodies which were both about 25, 30 meters across. And then we did a series of terraces.
Koen van Seijen 09:55
So small, but not super small. Yeah.
Zach Weiss 09:57
Yeah. Small but not super small and always sized according to the rainfall, and the climate. So in a dry hot climate, you need deeper water bodies that are bigger to get you through. Whereas if you are in a climate where it's always raining, you can create a lot smaller interventions to get the same result. And it's important to notice that it's not just the water bodies, but it's a whole ecological system, because the forests are a very important part, the animals are a very important part. And so on this farm, we created two water bodies and then we created some of the terraces is feeding into those but those also create the framework for. what in this case will be a silvopasture system where they have animals grazing in between the rows of trees on the terraces that are also directing the overflow water to the water bodies.
Koen van Seijen 10:51
So it would be a full integrated, regenerative agriculture system, basically. But taking the water as the first design principle, or the main limiting factor or the main opportunity here.
Zach Weiss 11:04
Exactly!. And the first thing that you figure out and build upon. So another thing I try and have my consultations be as quick as possible so that people aren't eating a lot of their money in the design of the project, but we're actually putting the money into the implementation. And so really, in those short consultations what we lay out is the water framework and then from that everything else becomes very clear. Because once you realize, here's where we can hold water, here's where we can have water, and here's where we can move it, that defines the rest of your operation.
Koen van Seijen 11:38
Yeah, and I think it's a nice bridge to a part about your company. So can you explain a bit when you get started with Elemental Ecosystems, how many people you are, what's your typical customer, and - many questions in one I know - and what's the typical process look like? I mean, you mentioned a short consultation and then practice, but since when are you operating as a company?
Zach Weiss 11:59
Yeah. So I started a business doing this kind of work in 2010. And then I rebranded as Elemental Ecosystems. in 2015, I believe? We're a team of four people now. And so the first step is that on site consultation, and this is where we're looking at the goals of the people and the capabilities of the landscape, and how do we best harmonize those two things. So what are the actual features or interventions that we might do? And then sometimes, if there's a lot of travel involved, I'll go right from that consultation into implementation. But more often, we do that consultation, we figure out, okay, here's phase 1, 2 and 3 of the project, here's an estimate for each, the right time of year to do it, and then we actually come back and implement the project. For a lot of people, we're doing one big intervention that sets them up with what they need. And then for other clients, we're doing it over a course of years and continuing to add to it every year or every couple of years. And typical clients range from -they're always people who care about the earth and care about the impact that they're leaving - they range from farmers, to organizations, to education centers, agro-tourism, and family homesteads. And I'd say that's kind of the bulk of our main clientele fit into one of those niches.
Koen van Seijen 13:36
And when you look at the farmer side of things can you name an example of - I mean actually the farm you just mentioned - is it usually the more extreme landscapes that reach out to you? Or are you also working more moderate climates?
Zach Weiss 13:52
I definitely am working in more moderate climates. It's because I trained with Sepp it's oftentimes the rocky steep ground that no one else know.
Zach Weiss 14:02
Sorry, who's Sepp? Just for the listeners.
Zach Weiss 14:04
Yes so Sepp Holtzer, the agro rebel is a really incredible lover or nature and practitioner.
Koen van Seijen 14:10
Based in Brazil, right?
Zach Weiss 14:12
No, no, he is in Austria.
Koen van Seijen 14:14
Ah, sorry. Yeah, no, I've seen the terraces, the extreme terraces and I think there's a video somewhere. Yeah, yeah.
Zach Weiss 14:20
Exactly, exactly. And so he worked on a very rocky steep ground in Austria and created what is really an incredible farm there, the crumbs are off. And he's worked around the world restoring deserts doing all sorts of amazing things, but because he's known for turning crappy, steep land into really productive farmland I oftentimes end up in the very steep difficult projects where, you know, someone who didn't know what they're doing would get into a lot of trouble very quickly.
Koen van Seijen 14:53
And videos sometimes do you do the easier ones? Or it's always this tricky one?
Zach Weiss 14:58
No, no, definitely a lot of the easier ones. And really, it's incredible, a lot of times people don't realize what they have when they have a climate that rains an inch every month, they don't realize what a blessing that is. And so it's nice to be able to share that with them as well.
Koen van Seijen 15:15
And in terms of I mean, climate change is definitely hitting, I can imagine how difficult it is for you as a designer, and then a builder to, I mean, you look at historical models I can imagine and historical figures, but is it getting more difficult to predict how big a certain water retention system needs to be?
Zach Weiss 15:34
It's becoming more extreme. So everywhere that I go, this year, I've worked on five continents and every place it's the same story where the precipitation is more when it comes and it's less often. And so that's something that we design for. And because everything that we do we're over engineering to a pretty significant extent. We're not sizing things for the 100 year flooding event, we're sizing things for bigger than that, because we're starting to see that the 100 year flooding event is now the 50 year flood event, is now the 10 year flooding event. And so these are becoming more common and more intense. And so it's kind of the same pattern, actually. So I wouldn't say it makes it more difficult, it just makes it more urgent.
Koen van Seijen 16:28
Yeah, because obviously, I mean, that just creates a market much bigger for you guys and many others to work on water retention landscapes.
Zach Weiss 16:39
And it's really about balancing out those extremes, and so as those extremes get more severe, there's gonna be more value in finding balance.
Koen van Seijen 16:48
Which is a nice bridge, or a nice way of also looking at the the energy landscape, obviously, as renewables are getting more and more common in many places, the grid or the storage, or the retention is going to be more crucial.
Zach Weiss 17:03
Absolutely, absolutely. And same thing, de-centralizing it really makes a lot of sense, you start to have a lot of efficiency gains. If you think, for example, in Vermont where I grew up in the United States, 90% of the energy produced is lost in transportation. And that's a pretty common figure for a large electrical municipality. And so the more you can decentralize that you're losing less to transmission, and so you're actually creating more efficient systems. And the same is true with water. With these large centralized dams and reservoirs, that are actually very ecologically destructive, and then very energy intensive to move the water around. Whereas if you create it in harmony with nature as a decentralized infrastructure, it's actually cheaper, it functions much better, and it's easier to build.
Koen van Seijen 17:57
And, I mean, I'm imagining we're going the same route, actually, as the renewable energy space where it started really as a - I saw some prices the 1990s of solar panels on roofs in Berlin, or in Germany which were really very different from the prices now. I mean, there's a huge change there. And from the investor point of view, you can now really put quite significant amount of money to work but you can also, from the crowd investing perspective, small investors can get into the transition. I mean, there's a whole industry evolved around renewable energy and that transition. I hope to see the same on the land transition side, and the regenerative ag space, but we're still very much early in that space. Have you seen a lot of change? I'm getting to my question, like from 2015 when you rebranded it and now for your company, and also in the industry actually, what have you seen changed in the last years?
Zach Weiss 18:50
You know, I just seen it grow and develop and every year, there's more and more people contacting us. every year there's more and more projects that people want done. So I think it is certainly growing. And more and more I've seen the scale and the size and the scope of projects is becoming bigger. Whereas I used to be working on a lot of 10 to 20 acre projects, now it's a lot 100s to 1000s of acres projects. And so the the people with a lot of money and influence are really starting to see what's coming and starting to put in place and the solution for the coming problems ahead of time. So for example, Sepp Holzer's son, Yosef is working for the oldest organic winery in Europe because they can see that all of these water shortages are coming, a they want to get their water retention put in now before it really becomes dire.
Zach Weiss 19:52
And so we are seeing more and more of these big players in the agricultural sector but also other sectors. One of the areas that I look at a lot of potential here is in flood, fire and drought mitigation and prevention. If you think one fire in California is two and a half billion dollars of damage, and these events are happening every year. And so it actually, even if you don't care at all about the environment, you don't care at all about the quality of the earth and the quality of the humans living on it, just from a financial standpoint it's much cheaper to do this type of land management and to do preventative care instead of this heroic catastrophe remedy system that we have in place right now. And so I think more and more the large insurance conglomerates and the governments of the world are going to start buying into this work and becoming very interested.
Koen van Seijen 20:50
And when that happens, because I absolutely agree, I mean it makes so much sense from an investor perspective, and from a taxpayer perspective, and from all of us. Will we be ready? I mean, if an insurance company calls you now and says "this part of California" Huge, like not a few 1000 but actually few hundred thousand of acres. Is the sector, I'm asking you specifically because you're running company in it, would you be ready to work on something so big, with four people?
Zach Weiss 21:18
You know, I would have to... I think the sector is not at all ready for that. I know one other person doing the same type of work that I'm doing to the same extent, where they're actually doing implementation and follow through rather than just the planning. So there's a huge hole in the people who can actually implement this work, and a huge dearth of them. But, you know, in a case like that, and I actually have a few cases like this where it's people with access to big investment funds, to large amounts of capital. And when one of these projects go through, I might have to put all my other projects on hold for a year or two, and just focus on one of those to really get it to the place that it needs to be. And we do certainly need more and more people trained up in doing this kind of work. That's, you know, something, there's a huge shortage of right now,
Koen van Seijen 22:15
Because that's one of the things you mentioned, as one of the big differences, you actually do the implementation, not just the modeling the scheduling, the design, part of the work, but and actually, the implementation, which I'm imagining often is quite intensive, labor intensive, meaning you have to either revisit the place and that puts quite a constraint, obviously, on the company, how many projects you can do? Or how many hectares or acres you can manage...
Zach Weiss 22:41
Yeah, exactly. And if you think a lot of our projects, a bigger project is about one month. So we can only manage, really, you know, right now we do maybe five or six big projects each year, and then a lot of smaller ones in between. But you're exactly right. Each project takes its time. And, and it's not a quick process. And it's a lot of different details that you need to know to really be able to implement the systems that you're putting in place. Well, I can see why the regenerative ag community, and the permaculture community pushes itself towards design and consulting because there's no risk, there's no work. I mean, you need to have some rough skill set but you don't really need a skill set. And so it's very easy to do. It's very easy to make a living doing that. But you're not actually creating restored landscapes. And that's where we really need people putting their time and energy.
Koen van Seijen 23:46
And so what's your vision, like a year from now or two years from now to to get you and your company ready for a phone call like that from an insurance company or from a region or from a big client, the big land owner that says "okay, we listened to the podcast" - maybe I can play a small role in that - or "we saw your talk somewhere" or "we've seen your work and let's do it a scale". What would be the steps for you and for the sector to get to, in this case, a more serious and thus a more impactful phase?
Zach Weiss 24:19
Yeah. And so I know how I'm approaching this. And this is something we haven't really come out about yet. But basically, I'm building a platform to franchise my business model. And so right now, the typical setup for regenerative agriculture is: if you Coen want to learn what I'm doing, you pay me, and you come and work on my farm for a couple of weeks or a couple of months and then I say goodbye, good luck and you're off. And odds are you didn't learn enough in those couple of months to actually go forward and do this work. And so what I'm setting up for - we might trial our first group in 2020 - but basically where I'm bringing in people, I'm training them for a couple of years, working on the crew, working on these projects, and then they go and start their own business, their own franchise of Elemental Ecosystems within a given area. So I'd love to see an elemental ecosystems in every country on Earth, because there's the need for this work. We're getting contacted from people all over the place, there's tons of interest, and that's without any marketing or any real outreach yet. And so how do we get people trained up where (1) they know how to do the work, but then (2) they also have the business infrastructure set up to really thrive because the people who want to be restoring landscapes, they're not the same people that know how to run their spreadsheets and know how to do all the different pieces. And so how do we create and build a platform where we can very quickly take someone, train them up to be an earth steward, and then put them into a role where they're functioning as a business entity, restoring landscape.
Koen van Seijen 26:11
And, I mean, you're mentioning 2020, this is going to take a bit of time, what are your next steps for that? What is the main barrier at the moment?
Zach Weiss 26:20
Right now, so we have too many projects going on and I can't really dedicate my time to training those people. And so over this next year, I'll be trying to get it... my crew's very close to being able to do projects without me and once we reach that point then they can be working on projects and I can start this training model. And then also, we're likely going to couple that with a project that will also be an ecological development. So as opposed to an intentional community, this would be an intentional neighborhood, where everyone has their own home, their own place but they own a share of the commons, which is this holistic farm with lakes to swim in, and orchards, and animals and all the pieces. And that would give us a canvas to basically set these people out working on and developing for the next handful of years. So that I can keep taking in groups working with them on that site as we develop that project, and then pushing them out as they're ready onto projects around the world.
Koen van Seijen 27:28
Basically, meaning it would be a like a campus, not a university structure, but a physical place where, which both will be developed at the same time as a project, but then ends up being also the hub for all of this global organization.
Zach Weiss 27:44
Exactly, exactly. And so we're just in the phases now figuring out where exactly that should be what exactly it should look like all of those pieces. And hopefully, to really start in earnest on that project in not 2019, but 2020.
Koen van Seijen 28:02
And when you look at, I mean you for sure have been approached, I mean, you mentioned already with by investors, what is it normally that you tell them? If it was Hey, I want to invest in this space? What's your normal response to that?
Zach Weiss 28:14
Usually people have a specific project. And so it makes it quite clear.
Koen van Seijen 28:19
Okay, so they come with land, or they come with a landscape? Yeah.
Zach Weiss 28:22
Yeah, exactly. Even, I'm thinking of someone I just recently spoke with who wants to set up models around the country and they have access to all this capital but they always have a place that they want to start. And so it's quite easy. It's rare that someone says, I want to stick a bunch of money into this, but they don't have a project in mind. Usually they have a landscape that they really love that was from their childhood or a place that they found and are really attached to. And so they don't want to just invest, but they want to invest in a place.
Koen van Seijen 28:58
And if they don't, let's say so hypothetically, somebody comes and says I've got a million, or10 or 100, and I want to have most impact on water. Let's make it an even more interesting one. What would you say to be the first step for them?
Zach Weiss 29:12
Yeah, there are a couple of different options. So there are lots of projects that I work on that are more financially limited. So for example, this coming March, I'll work for a school in Bolivia, where they're teaching the kids in La Paz about water retention landscapes about agroforestry as part of their normal school curriculum. And so this is a project is doing incredible work teaching hundreds of young Bolivians how to really cultivate and tend the landscape. Projects like this can use financial support, they could really go a lot further with their efforts if they had someone - and they don't even need millions of dollars, e're talking tens of thousands of dollars - would deliver huge results for people like that. Now, another piece that I could see is in media development. So this would be in video content, basically. Bringing all of this to light. Letting people know what's gone on over the last handful of centuries on our planet with regards to water, and also that this isn't something that's happening that we have no control over, there are very specific things that we can do to be part of the solution.
Koen van Seijen 30:27
So that will be a separate project obviously, but a bit like it's happening with soil now, like in some niches, some corners, to really put the spotlight on our role, the role of land use in the water cycles and what could be, and like not taking the current situation as fixed and we can never go back or forward.
Zach Weiss 30:48
Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that there's actually this huge untold story here that when it comes out is going to be something that's actually immensely hopeful. And it's something that could also bridge the two sides because there's - this is going to kind of open up another discussion which we may not want to get into - but if you look at the first climate models, they assumed our impact on the water cycle was neutral. And water vapor is the main greenhouse gas.
Koen van Seijen 31:20
It's the stuff we see coming out of the chimneys of the coal plants, etc. right? Partly.
Zach Weiss 31:26
Yeah, exactly. And there's all this water vapor in the atmosphere. There are ways that can warm the planet, and there are ways that it can cool the planet. And because it's so complicated, it's going back and forth between three different phases. There's a ton of energy in each of those transitions of phases, and so it was too difficult to model. And so the first scientists looking at climate change just assumed that that was all neutral. And that carbon was this big regulator of our climate. I think that that's totally false. And actually, if you look at any climatology textbook, it will tell you that most of the heat dynamics on Earth from 75% to 95% - depending on which numbers you're looking at - are determined by water vapor, or water. And so we have on one side, we have climate change, which is this huge thing that's going to destroy us all, that we don't really have anything that we can do about. Which now I actually think that that's a symptom of the severe water cycle disturbance that we're having. We can have a very real impact in that severe water cycle disturbance. And it's something that is not invisible where this molecule that none of us can see is slowly heating up the earth more and more. This is whether people have clean water to drink. This is whether your animals have water to survive. This is whether your crops have water to grow. And so it's very tangible and actionable. And I think it could actually be a unifying force that we could all get behind. Because we all want to make sure that our children and future generations are going to have clean water.
Koen van Seijen 33:08
And so you're saying that by getting behind restoring water cycles, we stabilized quite a bit of the climate, obviously we still have huge things to do with the CO2 and the energy system etc. but through land use, nobody's against water retention, nobody's against clean water, and it might be much easier and very impactful and much more concrete to work on over the next 20 years, or 30 years or 50 years.
Zach Weiss 33:35
Exactly. If we want to start working on the heat dynamics on Earth, we need to work on the main forces, and that is water.
Koen van Seijen 33:44
Which we need for every farmer on the planet. I mean, the big problem is the temperature swings above, or on his land or her land, plus water cycles that are either not coming or destroying everything in one swoop.
Zach Weiss 33:59
Exactly, exactly. And so if you can balance out the climate, you're basically solving all the potential problems that climate change could create. And I would even say stabilizing the climate. And so I think we could go so far as to say if we actually want to address climate change, we can't do it without addressing the water cycle. When you have less water within the landscape, you're going to have less life within the landscape, which means you're going to have less carbon sequestration, which means you're naturally going to have higher CO2 levels, which actually increase the rate of growth in the plants. And so it wants to balance itself out, if we just stopped disturbing the watercycle it would rebalance itself.
Koen van Seijen 34:50
Obviously, we stop burning fossil fuels that have been underground for a really long time. But I've seen some like very early research on I think it was no till farms in Montana, and they measured the temperature above it and they measured the extreme rain events, and both of them dropped quite significantly. And it was just no till there was, I mean, it was the real basics of, I would say even conservation agriculture. Have you seen any large scale projects that take this really to another level that could serve as: look, you can actually stabilize - let's start with the local climate, not the national or the continental climate, but you can start locally - you can stabilize the climate, you can get rid of these extreme water events, and basically restart a whole cycle. Are there, what are the main projects at scale that you have seen? Or you're working on maybe?
Zach Weiss 35:43
Yeah, yeah. And there are many different projects. So the lowest plateau in China is a great one. But even more so Willie Smith's project in Borneo. By generating these agroforestry systems, they've measured a 10% increase in rainfall, not only for their place, but on in the places downstream. And so that's basically restarting that biotic pump.
Koen van Seijen 36:09
I've seen the video of the clouds coming like above the piece they re-forested it's quite an interesting sight. I will try to link it below.
Zach Weiss 36:19
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And then in India, a movement of peasant farmers has created just under 12,000 small water bodies and they've actually restored five rivers as a consequence of that action. Rivers that in the past never went dry, that were going dry, and now they run again, year round, and sometimes overflow. And they've restored 250,000 wells. And these are just peasant farmers, with very little means, creating small decentralized water retention, but really having a huge impact when you think they're restoring entire river systems.
Koen van Seijen 37:00
And what was the driver there? Was it a complete bottom-up project? Was in a region training them? How did that start? Compared to other states in India, where it didn't start?
Zach Weiss 37:13
It was a movement started by the people and carried out by the people and still carried out by the people. And they actually started this water congress, where the people started to have a say in how their water resources were used and managed. And this allowed them to start to manage them in a more long-term sense. And they were able to achieve these results, not with some grand oversight, or some grand vision to restore the whole area, but just people taking local initiatives, looking at their water, and how to really become stewards of their resources and their landscape.
Koen van Seijen 37:49
And what do you see as the biggest barriers to get this focus on water retention and water cycles to get it to a much higher level of impact? What are the two biggest barriers that you see or your work with?
Zach Weiss 38:04
I think the biggest barrier is awareness. People just don't know that this is possible. I run into so many people and explain what I do, and almost always they love it and they think it's great and they think "oh, why aren't we doing this everywhere?" and it's just because people don't know that it's possible. The incredible things that we can achieve, once people see examples, they very quickly want to move down that path, quite urgently, even. And so I think the barrier is just in understanding what's possible.
Koen van Seijen 38:37
And how have you been - I mean, you're extremely busy, you're speaking at a number of occasions, there are quite some videos on YouTube - how have you been working on that? Apart from your franchising platform idea, do you have a place for that awareness? As it's so crucial, but of course, it's not a very, it's not a business generating unit, I can imagine for your small company.
Zach Weiss 39:01
Yeah, that's very true. And it's definitely, it's not an income generator. And this isn't a project we've really gone public with yet. But we have been for the last year now working on a documentary to bring all these points to light. And it'll probably even launch a whole video series so that people can really start to find whatever they're looking for, and really move into action, create an impact piece.
Zach Weiss 39:31
And that's something where I've just been reinvesting the modest profits from my business into something like that, because I see this as very important. It's not a project that's going to ever generate revenue for me, but if it creates that awareness, it's going to be well worthwhile. And when you speak of where people could invest their money, I think something like that is one of the very best things that people could invest in because it brings all... You know once you've seen the things that I've seen in some of these projects, stuff that's done in Europe, you're driving through the desert and then you hit an oasis, and ten years ago that oasis was like desert. And once you see that, you can't, you can't help but want to create that everywhere.
Zach Weiss 40:21
You can unsee that. Let's imagine there's a - I mean you already mentioned a few things - but there's a room full of smart impact investors listening to this podcast and they're ready. They have a piece of land, of course, they're going to do things on that, but they want to do more, they want to do more than their own farm gate, and maybe the awareness piece isn't for them. What would be something they could do, not on their land if they have investment capital available, so not necessarily grants to get into. What do you see as opportunities? Or maybe it's too early and we're not ready to accept investment or to absorb and put money to work in restoring water cycles?
Zach Weiss 40:58
No, I think there's definitely potential there. So if they don't have an immediate project, I think partnering with someone to help a farmer in need actually start to take these practices on. But an even bigger piece, there is a dire need to re-write natural resource policy management. Dire, dire, dire. I can't tell you how often the things that I want to do are illegal! And therefore a benefit of the immediate property and all the neighbors, it's a better use of the natural resources. The laws aren't intended to make these things illegal, but they're written in such a way that they do. They make the destruction illegal.
Koen van Seijen 41:45
Do you have an example?
Zach Weiss 41:46
So for example, touching any water system in the US is illegal. People are not allowed to work with their water. Any flowing water through your landscape, you get in very big trouble for even creating a small decentralized water body along that. Now, the regulations were written to keep developers from destroying wetlands and to keep sewage, and all these bad, atrocious things that yes, need to be stopped, but it's very important that we start lobbying the governments of the world and start rewriting these laws, so that people actually have control to steward their own resources, and these projects that want to take place are actually allowed to. So for example, in Oregon, where I have a lot of work, the wetlands permitting is so complicated, that no one can get through it to create a wetlands. And so they created this special easy-permitting process but the the title of it, which is like the Wetlands Restoration Permit, does not allow for the enhancement of wetlands. And so even when they make these interventions to try and make it easier, they put these big limiting constraints on it, and if we're destroying wetlands, in one part, we need to be enhancing wetlands on the other to meet that same ecological function. And so it's really important that this short sighted thinking from the government starts to be rewritten. And so I'd love to see some impact investors invest in lobbyists to rewrite natural resource law and to give citizens the ability to properly steward their land.
Koen van Seijen 43:30
And would that be, I mean that's my final question, if you could wave your your magic wand and change one thing overnight in the agriculture or land use industry, what would you do?
Zach Weiss 43:41
Oh, yeah, definitely the policy things without a doubt. I mean, short of changing huge amounts of landscape overnight, changing that policy piece would be huge. There are so many projects where we're doing less than we could because of policy, or we're changing what we're doing because of policy, not because of nature. And so if we could even just create some exceptions where we know: okay, this work is direly necessary for watershed restoration, we're going to make some special exemptions, where some of these projects can get permitted very quickly. On other projects, for example, the permitting is going to cost more than the work. For building some water bodies in California, where this is so direly necessary, where people are dying in fires, and then everyone's being sued because of the fires. Yet, it's more expensive for the permitting than for the actual feature to actually put in place the solution. And so they've created an atmosphere where it can't be fixed because of the legal framework. And so if we could just overnight, snap your fingers and fix all of that, that would be a huge move in the right direction.
Koen van Seijen 44:56
I wanna thank you so much for your time, Zack, and I'll definitely be checking in with you. I wish you a very good year. I mean, we're talking January 18, at the moment and I'm pretty sure it's going to be full of a lot of clients. I don't think it's going to be less busy compared to 2018. So thank you so much for your time this morning for you, and I hope to check in with you soon.
Koen van Seijen 45:18
Yeah, thank you so much. And thank you for the work that you do Koen. I think it's really important to get this out into different circles and the investors and the lobbyists and all of those people are really important to this whole ecological system. And so I really appreciate and value the work that you do with this podcast as well.
Koen van Seijen 45:38
Thank you so much!
Zach Weiss 45:39
Koen van Seijen 45:41
I hope you enjoyed this interview and learn more about a topic we don't talk about enough: water and the role it plays within agriculture landscapes.
Koen van Seijen 45:50
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2 comments on “Zach Weiss – Climate change is a symptom of watercycle disturbance and we can fix it”