The Permaculture Podcast

    Episode 1476: Regenerative Earthworks with Craig Sponholtz


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    My guest for this episode is Craig Sponholtz, a permaculture practitioner who operates Watershed Artisans. One of Craig’s specialties is in building regenerative earthworks to capture water and restore degraded land, which forms the basis for our conversation today.

    What I like about this conversation with Craig is the role we have as designers to act as preservers of the land. We can use the design tools presented in permaculture to create solutions that stop erosion with structures built from natural materials that harvest water by slowing it, spreading it, and sinking it, all while keeping that water from cutting through the earth. Craig does this in a way that doesn’t disrupt the natural flow of water, but takes the path into account. For all of the avocation for the use of particular technique, this approach takes us back to observing the landscape first, and deciding on what is most appropriate rather than looking for a one-size fits all solution.

    The strategy of water harvesting leads to a number of techniques. Some that Craig mentioned include check dams, one rock dams, rock mulches, and zuni bowls. In the show notes you’ll find a link to a document Craig made, along with Avery Anderson, that explains these techniques in detail, and one other called media luna. I also found a nice piece written by Bill Zeedyk about induced meandering. For those of you who have a copy of Mollison’s Designers’ manual, Chapter 7 Section 3 includes a number of great techniques as well.

    Erosion Control Field Guide by Craig Sponholtz and Avery C. Anderson. This article includes information on Top Down Watershed Restoration including one rock dam, rock mulch, zuni bowl, and media luna techniques.
    An Introduction to Induced Meandering by Bill Zeedyk (PDF)

    Projects for Children
    Grainy: What Kind of Particles Make Up Soil?
    Percolating Water: The Movement of Water Beneath the Earth’s Surface
    Exploring Erostion, Sediment, and Jetties
    Eroding Away

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    1. RLM McWilliamsRLM McWilliams
      March 5, 2015    

      Thought provoking; always a good thing. It is interesting that Craig Sponholtz sees water-harvesting – if those techniques include keyline sub-soiling and/or swales – as being somehow selfish ‘keeping the water for our own use’, since these techniques are used to ‘slow, spread, and sink’ water into the soil, which replenishes groundwater and deeper aquifers which replenish springs and springs, (and wells).
      Context is always crucial to consider, and in the end the techniques he describes (however sketchily) are apparantly designed to also slow, spread, and sink water also, right?
      On swale overflow potentially causing harm, this could be an example of a good technique in the wrong context OR a very poorly designed swale system. Earthworks to manage water should ALWAYS be designed for the maximum water flow/rain event, and always be designed to accomodate any overflow in a benign, or beneficial, manner. Aren’t these principles central to Permaculture? Swales could silt in, yet there are swales in existance around the world that have been in place for decades, even hundreds of years (or longer), with no ongoing human management. But if a swale does silt up, could this be a better result than allowing that topsoil to be lost to rivers or the sea?
      The message of diligence, observation, and gaining knowledge before making huge changes to a landscape are wise! (And still sound like permaculture principles.)
      Land management is also central. It would be interesting to see what people like Darren Doherty, Geoff Lawton, or Sepp Holtzer might do in the same landscape, eh?
      All in all, permaculture-type earthworks re-arrange the natural landscape much less than huge dams low in the watershed (with very different effects on the overall ecology than small ponds created high in a watershed) – not to mention things like highways, subdivisions, and shopping malls.

    2. RLM McWilliamsRLM McWilliams
      April 12, 2015    

      Graziers like Greg Judy, a Holistic Management practitioner, talks about using cattle to restore streams and ponds on his Green Pastures Farm in MO, and on rented land. He’s not the only one, of course – animal impact can be used as a valuable tool to restore damage caused by poor management (often considered best practice at the time) of livestock on the land.
      Cattle under HM are not allowed 24/7 access to streams, but high density herds can be used to break down the banks of incised streams, undercut banks, etc – and create wider streambeds with gently sloping banks that allow floodwaters to ‘slow and spread’ with minimal erosion – much as illustrated in the ‘Introduction to Induced Meandering’ PDF above.
      This practice mimics the effect that large herds of big herbivores had on stream and riverbanks, basically all over North America – herds now long gone. And, with good intentions, cattle have been either totally removed from the land, or at least excluded from stream and riverbanks in many areas, including arid regions.
      Judy also allows cattle (and/or other livestock) to maintain streambanks and pond edges through controlled planned grazing/browsing at periodic intervals. These intervals are timed based on observation, goals, desired plant communities for the area in view of the goals, feedback – and readjusting based on observation of how the land responds (to oversimplify the process).
      That sounds totally compatible with permaculture, to me, or am I missing something?

      • June 15, 2015    

        To your question regarding whether or not this is compatible with permaculture, it is when we combine it with observation and applying it to a specific sight where the choices is designed, planned, and implemented. Where things no longer work is when such a cattle management method is applied as a general solution across landscapes.

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