Have you hugged your local watershed today?

My creek on Feb. 18, 2011

One of the many reasons I love living in the central part of North Carolina known as the Research Triangle is the abundance of very smart, dedicated, innovative people who live here. The presence of three major universities (Duke University in Durham, University of NC at Chapel Hill, and NC State University in Raleigh) provides regular folks like me with access to information that might not otherwise be so easy to find.

Fueled in part by this abundance of enthusiastic intelligence, a diverse number of non-profit groups provides a means to focus on and at least ameliorate some of the many important concerns of our times. For example, the Triangle Land Conservancy is doing much important work in the counties that comprise the Research Triangle region of NC. That includes occasionally hosting what they call regional conservation summits on key environmental issues. The one I attended yesterday was on “Conserving Land to Safeguard Clean Water.”

No, this does not mean the solution is to buy all the land and leave it in its pristine state, although certain key areas adjacent to our waterways and reservoirs usually function best when clothed in native vegetation. It does mean that local, regional, and national governments need to be thinking much more seriously about how we can ensure that future generations will have enough clean water to survive, even flourish.

It’s a much bigger concern that most of us realize. Many wise people believe that clean, abundant water will be the resource we run out of first — not petroleum. The free summit I attended yesterday was open to anyone in my region interested in the issue. Besides regular citizens like me, I saw government officials, government employees, and academic and other professionals who study the future of water on our planet.

Most interesting to me was the message from the keynote speaker — Al Appleton, former Director of the New York City Water and Sewer System. He said the same thing about water that I say about Piedmont gardening: It’s all about knowing your place.

In Mr. Appleton’s case, he means we need to help everyone better understand and appreciate their local watersheds — the topographic complex of hills and valleys around us that directs stream and rain runoff into the low points, such as lakes and man-made reservoirs, from which we draw our drinking water. In the case of well water users like me, the health of my local watershed is even more important, because I drink the water that filters down to become the groundwater deposits I count on.

In the case of Piedmont gardening, I think we are all more effective, happier gardeners when we understand and appreciate our local environment. That includes understanding where the water goes, as well as what the native vegetation around us tells us about our yards, so that we can improve our landscapes with well-adapted plants that enhance the native environment, beautify our yards, and feed and shelter native wildlife we enjoy.

When you live near water, it’s easier to see these connections. The creek that forms the eastern boundary of my yard serves as a clear indicator of the health of my local watershed and the plants and animals that depend on it.

Female wood duck paddling my creek, March 1, 2011

By last April, for example, the impact of the multi-year drought on my region was obvious:

Note the water level of the creek

If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you can see that many of the roots of that large tree are dangling above the water. Water levels in my creek have been too low most of the time now for the past five or so years. Increasingly rare floods scour the curves of the creek, undercutting adjacent trees, whose roots then hang dry above the water when the floods recede. The photo above was taken after a minor rain. Still, it was enough to cloud the water with sediment carried there by upstream developments with poor, or broken, sedimentation controls. It happens every time it rains now, and the freshwater snails and clams that once thrived in my creek have been gone for over ten years, their habitats buried beneath the sediment load.

In the southeast Piedmont, our precipitation patterns seem to be trending toward prolonged periods of drought punctuated by occasional, often destructive, flood events. As an obsessed gardener, my constant challenge to is grow a landscape that can thrive under these conditions. Pampered lawns of non-native grasses maintained by chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not the best option. Native plants — and well-chosen, non-invasive non-natives — arranged to mimic the layers of the native forests of the Piedmont — seem to work best for me.  A resilient landscape is my goal, one that can handle floods like this one that overwhelmed my creek a few Septembers ago:

My creek, Sept. 6, 2008

You can find many excellent Web resources to help you nurture your local watershed by searching on “watershed protection.” A great place to start is the information provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency here.

The next time you’re looking at your backyard landscape, consider where the water is going, and ask yourself: What have I done for — or to — my local watershed lately?

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