Summer 2011 pg4


Can people live on the land and restore water?

Written by Tasha McKee, Bob McKee, and Marisa Formosa

“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ~ Aldo Leopold

No matter where human societies settle, we have an impact on the natural environment. People in watersheds around the globe are grappling with past and present water and land use practices that, along with climate change, are resulting in water scarcity. Here in Humboldt County we have witnessed rivers drying up within the last decade. Our water use and the ways we have interacted with the land affect the health of the river and our ability to continue living here. Fortunately, through more efficient water use and active stewardship of the land much of the damage can be reversed. There are many conservation and restoration techniques already being applied with positive results.

In the Mattole River watershed, community members began working on solutions for the low streamflows of summertime over thirty-five years ago. Bob McKee and Howard Orem had the idea of slowing down winter run-off by building “recharge” ponds that could slowly seep into adjoining fields during the dry months. They were the first to use recharge ponds to improve streamflows in the Mattole and their work has been instrumental toward the development of streamflow solutions. Over the last decade, Sanctuary Forest has taken the lead in researching causes and solutions to the low flow problem in collaboration with the community, fisheries agencies and scientists.

Both changes in human use and active land stewardship are needed to restore flows. In 2008, the most severe low flow year so far, eleven out of thirteen tributaries and most of the 9.4 miles of the Mattole headwaters mainstem stopped flowing. Since many of these tributaries are not used by humans, it is clear that changes in water consumption are not enough; if all the people that live in the headwaters had evacuated, the river would still have stopped flowing.

This article outlines water use and land stewardship strategies to keep the river flowing. We encourage you to do more research, and contact your local restoration groups for possible assistance. We are hopeful that the County will soon join the effort and develop policies that support water security for people and restored flows to our streams.


During the dry season, if we divert water from rivers, creeks or springs, we impact streamflows. Reducing usage in the household and garden can be inexpensive and quite effective. A brief summary follows:

Water Conservation – a Few Techniques:

Gardening and Agriculture: No-till and sheet-mulch methods; dry farming; drip irrigation; drought tolerant and native plants; evening watering; and avoiding over-watering.

Household:Installation of water efficient fixtures and appliances; reduction of water waste by turning water off when brushing teeth, etc.; gray water systems; and composting toilets.

Leak Safety and System Maintenance: Check and maintain your water system before every dry season, and install leak safety devices on storage tanks to limit water loss.

Storing Water from the Wet Months for Use during the Dry Months: The Whitethorn Junction community has learned how to use stored water during the dry months and the result has been measurable improvements in streamflow. In the extreme drought of 2002, Whitethorn Junction residents gathered with local restoration groups to find out what they could do to help the river. In response, Sanctuary Forest developed a water storage and forbearance program with support from the California Department of Fish and Game and other fisheries agencies. By the summer of 2009, 65% of pumps in the Junction reach of the river had been “turned off” and for the first low flow season since monitoring began in 2004, the downstream end of the reach had as much flow as the upstream end.

Water Storage – A Few Options:

  • Domestic: Tank storage adequate for domestic use during the entire dry season.
  • Agriculture: Tank, pond or water bag storage for gardening and agriculture.
  • Fire water storage: Tanks, ponds or water bags may save your house and outbuildings. Ponds can be used by fire crews and helicopters to control wildfires.
  • Road association water storage: Pond and water bag storage for fire and road maintenance could benefit every road association and neighborhood.


Groundwater is the source of water that keeps streams flowing during the dry season. When the land’s ability to absorb rainfall is decreased, groundwater storage is also decreased as a higher percentage of rainfall runs off into streams or the ocean. By reducing groundwater storage we also reduce dry season streamflow.

Past and present land use impacts have caused higher winter run-off. In the past, people did not understand how watersheds function and significant damage was done. Old logging practices caused substantial erosion and loss of the “sponge” layer of duff and organic material that allows land to absorb water. Roads increase run-off by creating impermeable hard surfaces, and by allowing groundwater stored in the hillslope above a road to drain out through the cut bank. Overgrazing of livestock causes erosion and compaction, exacerbating run-off.

Much of the land in Humboldt has been negatively impacted by land use practices. Most of the past restoration and stewardship work has addressed sediment issues, while the work needed to restore streamflows has only just begun. Active stewardship is needed to restore the lands ability to absorb rainfall and store groundwater. Many landowners already practice better stewardship and are teaching others. Restoration groups have developed landowner assistance and incentive programs. Restoring the land to improve streamflows can be achieved if we work together. The list below includes techniques that we are learning about in the Mattole.

Land Stewardship – a Few Techniques:

Slowing the Water Down – Reducing Runoff
  • Recharge ponds: Recharge ponds are built for the sole purpose of slowing down winter rain and increasing groundwater storage in the adjacent field or hillslope, where the groundwater elevation is maintained at the same level as the pond. These ponds also slow the flow of groundwater from the hillslope above through back pressure provided by the saturated soil.
  • Rainwater harvesting at your house site: French drains, earthen berms and basins, pervious pavers, and mulching can be used to collect run-off from impervious surfaces and store it in the ground. Incorporate these techniques into all landscaping.
  • Rainwater harvesting at your garden site: Earthen berms and basins, sunken garden beds, terraces and mulching increase groundwater storage and significantly reduce irrigation needs.
  • Road run-off: Capture water from culverts into retention and infiltration systems. Retention systems include check dams and retention ponds. Infiltration systems include gravel infiltration trenches with or without perforated pipe, seepage cisterns, infiltration basins, and bio-infiltration swales.
  • Gullies: Capture the flow above the gully using techniques described above, and repair gullies through installation of check dams and vegetation.
Restoring Topsoil, Duff and Mulch
  • Forest and brush thinning: where feasible, leave cuttings (chipped or lopped) on the ground to reduce erosion and build mulch and soil. (To avoid fire hazard, spread cuttings on ground away from trees or buildings.)
  • Grasslands: mow fields and leave mower cuttings to build soil, reducing evapotranspiration and fire hazard.
  • Landscape and garden: use mulch and compost to build soil and increase ability of the land to absorb water.
Livestock Management
  • Use rotational grazing to reduce compaction and erosion.
  • Restore native grasses with deeper root systems that increase infiltration of rainwater.
  • Install fencing along water courses where feasible to protect from devegetation, compaction, and sediment and manure in streams.
  • Install watering troughs away from water courses or areas easily damaged by livestock. Because livestock graze most heavily around their water source, strategic placement of troughs can help control grazing while providing a source of cool, clear water.

Historically logs and woody debris were removed from streams by many landowners and fisheries agencies. The lack of these obstacles causes streams to flow with more force, resulting in a channel that cuts deeper into the land until the stream becomes separated from its floodplain. When a stream is no longer in contact with its upper banks, the soil in the banks drains more quickly; a chain effect is then initiated whereby all of the land that drains to that stream also drains more quickly because there is no back pressure in the form of saturated soils. If your stream contains logs and/or woody debris, do not remove it without obtaining technical advice (unless it is posing a significant hazard). If you think your stream could benefit by strategic placement of wood, contact a local restoration group or agency.

Forest Management

Mattole forests are denser and younger than they have ever been in the past. These conditions are due to wildfire suppression and the vigorous forest regrowth after the industrial logging of the 1940’s -1980’s. The higher number of stems/acre is hypothesized to result in higher evapotranspiration rates/acre. Research is being conducted by the Institute for Sustainable Forestry and Humboldt State University to quantify evapotranspiration rates and evaluate the factors of forest type and age for the purposes of better informed forest management.


We can’t bring about a healthy future without the involvement and education of the communities who use the natural resources around them and are directly affected by their decline. Living in the Mattole watershed, people can see firsthand the effects of their water use on the environment. The active involvement of neighbors in water scarcity solutions instills a respect and affection for the land that is invaluable in the process of restoring it. What the land and river need are educated and active stewards, people who will spread their experiences and knowledge of tried and true restoration techniques. Individuals, organizations, agencies and government must all be involved for positive change to be realized, and each has a role and responsibility to the rest. No matter which faucet we draw water from, water is of the earth and is essential to every living thing. Can humans have a hand in restoring water abundance? We have already begun – and it’s working!

Suggested Reading:

Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home Scale Permaculture, Chelsea Green Publishing Company 2009

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution, The New York Review of Books 1978

Sanctuary Forest, Water Storage Guide: Storing water to benefit streamflows and fish in North Coast creeks and rivers, Sanctuary Forest 2008

Brad Lancaster, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Rainsource Press 2008

Further Information:

Mattole River and Range Partnership:
Mattole Restoration Council: 707-629-3514;

Mattole Salmon Group: 707-629-3433;

Sanctuary Forest: 707-986-1087

Occidental Arts and Ecology Center Water Institute: (707) 874-1557 x 206


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