How to Improve Our Altered Environment

By Ed Beaulieu


Without fertile soils, clean drinking water, healthy forests, and a stable climate, the world’s economy would face disaster. By imperiling our environment, we imperil the economy.

Drought is on a lot of people’s minds these days, Californians in particular. However, drought is a threat beyond California that needs to be addressed for more than just its occurrence in a specific locale. This is a simple yet very complex issue since water is the compound that differentiates our planet from the rest. The true solution to battling drought is to raise awareness about water in our daily lives, and then create long-term solutions that alleviate the stresses of future water challenges and our altered environment.

Droughts are a normal occurrence in the Southwestern United States, and knowing that it can happen in any given year is important. The key is to educate others about the water cycle and how it impacts us all. In order to lessen the effects of drought, but more importantly future droughts, we need to start today! Water as we all know is critical for our survival, along with the countless other organisms that call California (or any other place) home. Let’s begin with a little background information on the water cycle.




We have the luxury of being able to turn on our faucets to get a drink; wildlife does not. Unfortunately for them, we have destroyed large tracts of land and in turn, all of the native ponds, streams and other freshwater wetlands when we construct homes, roads and farms to sustain our lives. This is all done at the expense of natural areas.

During this construction process we’ve not just eliminated natural spaces, but we’ve also changed the hydrology of the area. In other words, we’ve created an impervious cap that does not allow rainwater to soak into the subsoil as it has done throughout history. The problem we are seeing nationwide, and even worldwide, is that homes, roads, parking lots, roofs etc., are designed to not allow water to soak into them. Instead, the rainwater runs directly off into sewer systems that take the water to the coast or other area for disposal.

There are many problems associated with storm water runoff, which varies according to the geographic area and intensity of the rainfall. Every day we pump huge volumes of groundwater from our aquifers to provide drinking water and irrigation. But due to the vast amounts of impervious surfaces, rainwater is not able to soak back into the ground and we are left watching our groundwater reserves getting lower and lower. Unfortunately, they are not replenished because we’ve changed the hydrology/watershed.

As we pump water from deeper layers of the earth, the cost of pumping the water gets higher and higher since water is very heavy. I’ve actually read articles about farmers in California’s Central Valley where the cost of electricity to run the pumps is greater than their profits for the vegetables! As the groundwater becomes depleted, it leaves void spaces in the soil, which over time slowly compresses through a process known as subsidence. The ground actually sinks, causing problems for any structures, roadways, underground pipes, etc. As the ground compresses, it eliminates the void spaces so even when it does rain, the water-holding voids are gone and the aquifer is changed forever.

Deep groundwater can also be contaminated with dissolved minerals, making it unfit for consumption. And in coastal areas we see saltwater intrusion. Saltwater intrusion occurs when the pressure gradient changes underground. In a normal, healthy situation, freshwater is pushing itself towards the ocean because the adjacent coastal plains are at a higher elevation than the ocean. This constant push of water keeps saltwater out, and when coastal wells are depleted the pressure switches and saltwater creeps inland. If it mixes with the well, it’s ruined as we cannot drink saltwater without an expensive desalination system. This is a huge problem on the east coast, but happens in California too.

Another problem that occurs when we change the hydrology or watershed with impervious surfaces is pollution, especially after long periods without rain. Our daily activities produce contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides, fertilizers, hydrocarbons, you name it! Hundreds if not thousands of compounds are deposited on our terrestrial surfaces and when it rains, all of this stuff is washed into our lakes, rivers, streams and oceans wreaking havoc, to say it nicely. The number one cause of coastal pollution is from rainwater runoff!

Water is known as the universal solvent. More compounds dissolve in water than any other compound which is good for us earth dwellers, because when it rains it literally cleanses the earth. But it’s bad for aquatic systems because all of this stuff gets dissolved in the water. Aquatic systems are traditionally very stable, but when they’re inundated with pollutants, it kills the ecosystem. Sadly, aquatic species are being eliminated at a rate 5 times faster than terrestrial species because of these problems.

California is well known for its coastline and beaches, in fact it’s one of the main economic drivers for the state. Billions of dollars are directly contributed to the local economies through tourism as people flock to the coast, but we’re slowly killing it with excessive runoff. Beach closures after rain events are becoming a more common occurrence throughout the world and we know where to point the finger. But it’s a large problem to fix unless we think differently about how we manage our water resources. Beach closures in California hurt tourism and the local economies that rely on healthy aquatic resources.

If we were to capture rainwater in underground RainXchange systems, ponds, streams or rain gardens, we would slow down the water and cause less runoff. In turn, we would filter the water using biological filtration and aquatic plants, thereby removing pollutants from the water and lessening their effects.

If we combine a small infiltration system in conjunction with this strategy, we provide a way for excess runoff to get back into the ground to replenish our groundwater reserves. Once the water is captured with a RainXchange system, it becomes a home for countless species of animals; from microscopic zooplankton, insects, birds, small mammals and beyond, as everything requires water. Biodiversity is an indicator of a healthy environment, but we should not confuse this with just numbers of animals and plants. Biodiversity is the presence of a variety of plants and animals, which creates stability.

There’s currently a hot topic of discussion by ecologists worldwide as they try to assign dollar amounts to biodiversity and services that are provided to us by nature for free. For example, plants, trees and algae produce oxygen for our planet which we rely on at no cost. Bees and other pollinators are responsible for agricultural pollination and are estimated to be worth around $216 billion annually on a global scale. This doesn’t even include pollination for crops consumed by livestock, biofuels, ornamental flowers, or the massive importance of wild plant pollination. According to research published in Science magazine, the global worth of total ecosystem services could run between $40-60 trillion a year. Without fertile soils, clean drinking water, healthy forests, and a stable climate, the world’s economy would face disaster. By imperiling our environment, we imperil the economy.

Water is at the heart of all this. Bees and other pollinating insects require a fresh source of water and unfortunately we eliminated the natural sources with our cities. During periods of drought the remaining sources disappear quickly, causing stress on animals throughout the area by reducing their abilities to naturally pollinate plants. California is currently bringing in millions of bees from neighboring states by the truckload! There are simply not enough native bees to pollinate the vast amounts of fruit and nut trees in California because the ecosystem is out of balance. On the flip side of this ecosystem balance we see pests increasing!

As native species are eliminated, we open the door for non-native pests to creep in. We then spend billions of dollars every year to control a wide variety of these pests that damage food crops, our ornamental landscapes, and even our homes. Certain pest species will thrive because there are not enough natural predators to control them, like frogs, dragonflies, bats, and more, which require healthy aquatic ecosystems throughout their life cycle for survival. These animals alone are responsible for controlling a wide variety of harmful pest species.
So how can we help?
Small decorative water features, ecosystem ponds, and RainXchange rainwater harvesting systems store valuable, life-giving water for local wildlife and provide a fresh source of water during droughts and periods of no natural precipitation. In untouched natural areas with healthy ecosystems, this is not necessary because the system is in balance and the plant and animal communities have adapted to the areas over many years.

We’re seeing problems today because we’ve altered the environment and we consume local resources at a faster than normal rate; this is at the crux of the problem. We can reverse the effects if we so choose, but it needs to be done properly. Water is at the center of this design as it will quickly become the most important component in a wildlife survival plan.

By providing a clean source of fresh water in conjunction with the appropriate aquatic vegetation and substrates, a wide variety of animals will be able to survive. When this occurs we preserve the biodiversity of the area, which in turn protects and serves our local economies.

We can all win if we choose to.


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Author: Bobby Kenyon
Bobby Kenyon is the Creative Solutions Guru for C.E. Pontz Sons who has over a decade plus experience in the Landscape & Water Garden industry . He enjoys long walks on the beach and grocery shopping but has a strong dislike for regular cake and non brand name paper towels

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