Building It Higher, Digging It Deeper


We wanted it. We’ve got it. Now what do we do with it?

As this article reports, recently drought-stricken California has so far this year received enough rain to provide a year’s worth of water for 14 million people—more than a third of the state’s population— if only we had a place to store it. Instead, much of it ran into the ocean.

We’ve explored the idea in Stormwater magazine of designing stormwater management facilities with an eye to enhancing water supplies, but for the most part, few cities have large-scale plans of this sort.


One of the traditional ways of capturing water—building dams and enlarging reservoirs—has fallen out of favor. No new dams have been built in California since the 1970s, when the state had only half as many people as it does today. Suddenly, some people are seeing the need to build them. So are officials in other states, including Florida and Colorado. But dams—many of which have been removed in recent years for environmental or safety reasons—are controversial and hard to get approved. Diverting rainwater to fields where it can infiltrate and replenish groundwater supplies is another strategy being considered in many places, including Los Angeles County.

The Wall Street Journal article mentioned above quotes the chief of infrastructure investigations for the California Department of Water Resources: “The system we have was built more than 40 years ago, and it is doing more than it was planned to do.” That statement, unfortunately, could be made about much of the country’s infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers released its 2017 report card on America’s infrastructure on March 9; as with the last one in 2013, the overall grade is still a dismal D+. Dams, levees, and drinking water infrastructure each received a D. In addition to the condition and safety of the various pieces of infrastructure, one criterion for grading it is its capacity: will it meet current and future demands?

Besides building new dams, dredging new reservoirs, or expanding existing ones, are you aware of smaller-scale projects in your area to capture and use rainwater, even on a lot-level but widespread scale like distributing rain barrels?SW_bug_web

  • Anne McCormack.

    Last year I learned about Brad Lancaster and his methods for capturing rainwater in our own yards. Imagine how great it was to go out during this year’s storms and see how well it works. Now, whenever I get frustrated by slow movement by the government, I can build a swale, add mulch or pick up litter. It helps.

  • Jonathan McClelland.

    The major reason no new major dams and reservoirs have been built since the ’70’s is that they are economically unrealistic. The most productive sites had already been used. Conservation efforts yield approximately 50 to 1 in terms of $$$ spent, and continues to yield more over time with less maintenance cost than any of the proposed new surface water storage projects. Usable yield from surface storage is further reduced by evaporation. Those figures don’t even take into account the energy required to build “storage” or the environmental degradation including endangered and threatened species such as salmon and the smaller fish and invertebrates they feed on. Any new expenditures in water storage should be to recharge overdrafted aquifers. They are our “savings account” and are unlikely to be any more forgiving of overdraft fees than B of A.

  • B.C. Braskerud.

    In Slovakia, Europe, they have made 80000 brushwood dams, log dams, stone check dams and small soil dams to store and infiltrate water to recharge groundwater. Download the book “After us, the desert and the deluge” by Michal Kravcik from 2012 (for free).

  • Clint White.

    Permaculture has many answers (swales, etc), including the 80,000 small water projects mentioned above. Grassroots efforts begin with the farmers and residents. Here is the organization link to the PDF writeup – with hundreds of photographs of the projects:

    For decades, ecologists wondered why the forests were failing. Finally someone connected the pieces… Dams prevent salmon from spawning, removing a key energy source. Bears would catch the salmon, drag them to the forest, eat only the skin and fat, and would then leave the remains to the scavengers. The creatures who survive off such leftovers would move those nutrients throughout the forest. The balance reached over millennia has been upset by unsustainable human practices. The answer… to reassess our way of living.

  • Adrienne - Mulholland Energy.

    Redirecting rainfall to fields where it is most needed makes the most sense to me. Something simply MUST be done. After CA spent such a long period of time watching their lakes dry up into disturbing dry beds of nothing, to finally receive the needed rainful but to watch it run out to sea is so disheartening to all CA residents. From a concerned team member at


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