Koen van Seijen: I’m joined by Zach Weiss of Elemental Ecosystems working on water retention landscapes.
Zach Weiss: 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 in a real logical place to start is food and water, because it’s something that every human needs and ingest many times a day. And that’s our most direct and immediate connection to nature and to the landscape.
Zach Weiss: Yes. 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 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.
Zach Weiss: 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 being desiccated.
Zach Weiss: Water is the ultimate capital of any farmer.
Zach Weiss: So what we’re creating is decentralized water retention landscapes. Where water is being held at different points all throughout the landscape. And what this does, 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.
Zach Weiss: 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.
Zach Weiss: 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.
Zach Weiss: With these large centralized dams and reservoirs that are actually very ecologically destructive and then very energy intensive to move the water around.
Zach Weiss: 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.
Zach Weiss: The people with a lot of money and influence are really starting to see what’s coming and starting to put in place the solution for the coming problems ahead of time. So, for example, Sepp Holtzer’s son, Yosef, is working for the oldest organic winery in Europe because they can see that all of these water shortages are coming and they want to get their water retention put in now before it really becomes dire. And so we are seeing more and more of these big players in the agricultural sector, but also other sectors.
Zach Weiss: One of the areas whew I see 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.
Zach Weiss: We do certainly need more and more people trained up in doing this kind of work. That’s something there’s a huge shortage of right now.
Zach Weiss: 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. So, 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.
Zach Weiss: I think that there’s actually this huge untold story here that when it comes out, it’s going to be something that’s actually immensely hopeful and is something that could also bridge the two sides, because this is going to kind of open up another discussion, which we may not want to get into.
Zach Weiss: 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. So there’s all this water vapor in the atmosphere. There are ways that can warm the planet.
Zach Weiss: 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.
Zach Weiss: 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 was all neutral and that carbon was this big regulator of our climate. I think that’s totally false.
Zach Weiss: So 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. 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 it’s 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.
Zach Weiss: 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 if it wants to balance itself out, if we just stopped disturbing the water cycle, it would rebalance itself.
Zach Weiss: 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.
Zach Weiss: There is in dire need to rewrite 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 for 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.