Water Attention

A month ago I was at a gathering of neighbors where we were talking about what the Grande Ronde Valley was like before the wetlands were drained and diked. My friend Bobby kept talking about “water attention.” I thought about “water attention” for weeks, and asked him to explain this new concept to me. He set me straight.

I said water retention, referring to the natural function of a stream including braids, meanders, log jams, eddies and pools. To store the water in the land throughout the year. It is good to have “water attention” too though! That is beautiful. I have spent a lot of time just listening to the water and she has a lot to tell us.”

In this time of extreme flooding in northeast Oregon, she does have a lot to tell us–she is forcing us to have water attention.

What is water attention?

The idea of water attention has been bouncing around in my brain long enough to be defined. To me, water attention is understanding how water moves on the landscape and in our lives. And not just how, but where and when; its quality and quantity; and how it has changed over time.

Flooding in 2011; My view from Mt. Harris.

Water attention is helpful in everything we do. I also think of this silly thing my dad always says me to when we’re doing a carpentry project: “Imagine you’re a leeetle drop of water.” That is to say, when we’re placing tar paper on a roof or sealing in a window, imagine how water moves.

Evidence we lack water attention

If we had water attention, we wouldn’t be surprised when the river returns to its old braids and channels, through our basements and yards, hopping roads and leaving culverts.

If we had water attention, we wouldn’t waste it; we wouldn’t expect it endlessly; we wouldn’t defile it.

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We love water. We waste water.

If we had water attention, we would show appreciation and deference to water not just in waterfall or ocean form, but at flood stage, when creeks get muddy, when the aquifer bubbles up in unexpected places and we must move to high ground.

In every river valley, we build our homes on banks, in the floodplain, and atop former marshes expecting the river to conform to our needs. But our understanding of “river” is as narrow as the incised channels we have put her into. Water moves vertically and horizontally. “The floodplain is the river,” as my husband likes to say. It is also the shallow aquifer, the marsh, and every ditch called “Dry Creek.”

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How does water move through the landscape? “Imagine you’re a little drop of water.”

As a farmer, I know the importance of water–in the right amount at the right time. Last year when the dike in lower Cove busted, many farmers were flooded for months and were never able to plant. Two years ago, we struggled to finish cattle when the lack of rain and snow dried up our pastures early. A few weeks ago homes and property and safety were threatened and inundated by the rise of the Umatilla River when the Blue Mountains picked up a remarkable 10 inches of water in a few days.

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Every year we expect flooding in our upper terraces. We are lucky to have sub-irrigation; we just have to plan around it.

How should we respond? More dikes and flood insurance? Planned retreat from the floodplain, like they are starting in the Florida Keys? I don’t know, but we are living the consequences of the narrow view of the river and overconfidence in our ability to control water–a lack of water attention.

What if we practiced water attention?

Water attention for me starts with understanding how water moves around our homes and through the valley. Here are questions we should be able to answer about water on our landscape:

  • Where are the confluences of major creeks and rivers around me? Have I visited them?
  • What do creeks and rivers look like from high points? (This can help us understand where water is moving on the landscape.)
  • What is my water source? Shallow or deep aquifer? Where does city water come from?
  • How long ago was my drinking water rain or snow?
  • Where does my “waste” water go?
  • How does water change through the season around me? Where is is perennial or seasonal? When is it high or low?
  • How many bridges and culverts do I cross daily?
  • How does water affect plants I see here?
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Why do we have camas on the farm? Water and cultivation by native people.

Water Use & Water Attention

In addition to the movement and source of water, I think we should bring attention to how we use it. So, as always, here are some tips we use at home and on the farm for conservation.

1. Use water as many times as you can.

When I was in college, I did a class project/experiment to live on 20 liters of water per day–the amount the UN budgets to each person in a refugee camp. What I learned from this experiment is that you have to use water more than once.

A small kitchen bucket can be the most useful way to conserve water. I rinse produce over a kitchen bucket so I can collect the water to wash dishes or fill the dog bowl. If you’re defrosting something in water, don’t pour the water out! Use it to water house plants or rinse off muddy boots.

2. Don’t lose excess water down the drain!

If you’re running the tap to get hot water, there should be a kitchen bucket under it to catch the excess water. Use that water to fill your tea kettle or fill your water bottle. You can even shower with a small bucket. Just collect the water before you start soaping up. Go water a tree or favorite plant with what you’ve collected.

3. Passively collect water

Besides kitchen and shower buckets, we can passively collect water with gutters, rain chains, and rain barrels. I designed our horse water tank to sit under a gutter with a rain chain. I don’t want the tank to overflow and create a muddy mess, so I have a drain at the top of the tank (like bath tubs have) that runs into PVC pipe and into our creek. It has worked for a decade and directs water away from our horse corral.

4. Use timers and timing to conserve.

I have never been able to remember to turn off a hose or sprinkler. I use timers on my phone and on the stove to remind me not to waste water. I also recommend inexpensive irrigation timers that work like Christmas light timers. Finally, in college, we had tiny hour glasses stuck to the wall of our dorm showers that helped us keep showers shorter.

5. Use low flow, targeted water systems

We use drip irrigation on our farm to conserve the water we use. Anyone watering a garden or flower bed can use drip irrigation. This year, I am offering a bunch of classes at the farm so folks can employ some of the techniques we use at home. We will have an irrigation design class in April. Check out the rest of the classes here.

Thanks for reading!

Sincerely your farmer,

Nella Mae Parks

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