Collaboration, Not Control

Understanding what water wants can help protect built environments from floods and droughts, store carbon, and restore homes for other-than-human life.

ON A SUNNY WINTER DAY in San Francisco, Joel Pomerantz brakes his bike in Alamo Square Park near that famous spot where Victorian houses, the Painted Ladies, front the city’s modern skyline.

“Do you notice anything?” he asks me.

I brake too and look around, flummoxed. I lived in this city for seventeen years and have been to this park countless times. Everything seems ordinary. On the paved path at our feet, Pomerantz points to an oblong puddle, which I would assume was left over from the last sprinkler watering.

“That?!” I ask, incredulous.

“Look closer,” he says, pointing to its ring of mossy scum. “That’s a sign that this water is nearly always here.”

This diminutive puddle, which I have likely passed without noticing many times, is actually evidence of natural springs beneath the park that seep continually, he tells me. It’s a small sign of water’s hidden life, the actions this life-sustaining compound continues to pursue, despite our illusion that we control it. As climate change amplifies floods and droughts, people like Pomerantz are recognizing the importance of such minutiae that highlight water’s agency.

In his free time, Pomerantz hunts and maps ghost streams, the creeks and rivers that once snaked across the San Francisco Peninsula before humans filled them with dirt and trash or holstered them into pipes, then erected roads and buildings atop them. Such treatment of waterways has become standard practice in cities, where more than half of us live worldwide. Pomerantz has devoted three decades to exploring the city with water on his mind, making him a kind of water detective. His eyes see what others miss — like this puddle, or certain water-loving plants that are clues to lost creeks. He gestures toward the trees that line the park’s edge on Fulton Street. “Willows are like a flag,” he says. In fact, the name of this park is actually a plant clue: álamo means “poplar” in Spanish, a species related to willows and other streamside trees.

Water finds its chosen path through a landscape, molding it and being directed in turn.

A few blocks away, he checks for traffic, then guides me to a manhole in the middle of residential Turk Street near busy Divisadero. Cocking our heads, we hear the sound of rushing water. When that sound is constant, he says, especially in the middle of the night, it’s a creek imprisoned in a sewer pipe, not somebody flushing.

Later, Pomerantz and I bike to Duboce Triangle, another small park, this one between the Lower Haight and Castro Districts. Duboce lies at a low point of The Wiggle, San Francisco’s beloved bike path. Although unmarked for many years, bikers have long followed this route, weaving through valleys at the base of hills. A stream, now buried, was the original traveler of The Wiggle, and along its path through Duboce Triangle the city has now built bioswales, vegetated ditches to hold runoff from heavy rains. Although I’ve biked the route myself frequently, I never knew it was pioneered by a stream. It makes sense, when you think about it. Cyclists, like water, look for the path of least resistance.

Pomerantz — who has published a map of San Francisco’s lost waterways on his Seep City website, advised local agencies as a consultant, and leads walking tours to share his hard-won knowledge — is not alone in his obsession. In Brooklyn, urban planner Eymund Diegel has mapped Gowanus Creek’s lost watershed. In Victoria, British Columbia, artist, poet, and environmental activist Dorothy Field worked with local historians and First Nations to track the hidden path of Rock Bay Creek, then installed signs and street medians inlaid with salmon mosaics to draw attention to where it still flows underground. As curiosity about buried waterways grows in the popular imagination, the quirky passion is now a global phenomenon. Subterranean explorers, featured in a 2012 film called Lost Rivers, are discovering buried waterways encased in pipes below Toronto, Montreal, and Brescia, Italy. The Museum of London had a Secret Rivers exhibition in 2019 to reacquaint Londoners with their lost streams.

SECRET RIVERS, GHOST STREAMS, hidden creeks: Learning of their existence arouses our innate attraction to mystery and our passion about the places we live. What we learn about the past triggers amazement because our quotidian landscape is so transformed. We’ve dramatically altered waterways outside of cities too. We’ve straightened rivers’ meanders for shipping, uncurled creeks to speed water away, drained and filled wetlands and lakes, and blocked off floodplains to create more farmland or real estate for buildings.

In the wreckage of disasters like Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Harvey revealed how homes built along shorelines are extremely vulnerable. Aerial photo of Mantoloking, New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Greg Thompson/USFWS.

The Wiggle, San Francisco’s beloved bike path, was pioneered by a stream. The city has now built bioswales, or vegetated ditches, along the path of the long-buried stream to hold runoff from heavy rains. Photo by waltarrrrr/Flickr.

The daylighted Saw Mill River in Yonkers, New York. In the 1920s, the Army Corp of Engineers buried the river in concrete in order to manage sanitation and floods. The river remained underground for 90 years, impacting local plants and wildlife while robbing the community of public park space and a flowing river. It was daylighted in 2012. Photo by Meg Stewart.

But our curiosity about water’s true nature is not idle, nor an indulgent wish to return to the past. Water seems malleable, cooperative, willing to flow where we direct it. But as our development expands and as the climate changes, water is increasingly swamping cities or dropping to unreachable depths below farms, generally making life — ours and other species’— precarious. Signs of water’s persistence abound if we train ourselves to notice them. Supposedly vanquished waterways pop up stubbornly, in inconvenient ways. In Toronto, tilted houses on Shaw Street near the Christie Pits neighborhood were long a local novelty, but most people didn’t know that the ghost of Garrison Creek was pulling them out of plumb. Worldwide, seasonal creeks emerging in basements are evidence that those houses encroach on buried streams. In my partner’s mom’s neighborhood in suburban Boston, most houses come with sump pumps because the development was built on the local “Great Swamp.” And in the wreckage of disasters like Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Harvey, we see that homes built atop wetlands are the first to flood.

When our attempts to control water fail, we are reminded that water has its own agenda, a life of its own. Water finds its chosen path through a landscape, molding it and being directed in turn. It has relationships with rocks and soil, plants and animals, from microbes to mammals like beavers and humans. Today, water is revealing its true nature increasingly often, as climate change brings more frequent and severe droughts and floods. To reduce the impacts of these phenomena, water detectives — Pomerantz and other ghost-stream enthusiasts, restoration ecologists, hydrogeologists, biologists, anthropologists, urban planners, landscape architects, and engineers — are now asking a critical question: What does water want?

Figuring out what water wants — and accommodating its desires within our human landscapes — is now a crucial survival strategy.

HUMANS HAVE SOUGHT TO control our environment throughout history. In looking for an antonym for control, I found chaos, lawlessness, mismanagement, neglect, weakness, powerlessness, helplessness. It’s a linguistic reflection of how much we crave control and fear letting go. But if we want to solve the water problems we face today, we need to open our minds. The way we relate to water is not inevitable. And in fact, our infrastructure, our laws for allocation, our striving for control are amplifying these problems. By asking, “What does water want?” water detectives are working from a philosophy rooted in curiosity, respect, and humility, rather than a too-common arrogance. They are also accepting reality: Water always wins.

Certainly that’s true in geologic time. If water were a category in the game rock, paper, scissors, water would beat them all every time. Part of the sense of awe we get at the Grand Canyon is wrapping our minds around the fact that the reflective squiggle a mile below us carved that natural cathedral out of rock over millions of years. But water also wins by breaking through our dams and levees sooner or later — in a few months, years, or decades. Today’s water detectives are acknowledging water’s power and aspiring to go with the flow rather than fight it.

The answers the water detectives are discovering in the cities, fields, swamps, marshes, floodplains, mountains, and forests lie in conserving or repairing natural systems, or mimicking nature to restore some natural functions — not building more concrete infrastructure. These ecosystems can buffer us from bigger rainstorms and longer droughts by absorbing and holding water. When we obliterate them, we make our places brittle, multiplying the intensity of these disasters.

Among water professionals around the world, these reparative approaches go by various names, including nature-based systems or solutions, green or natural infrastructure, sponge cities, low-impact development, and water-sensitive urban design. Because these solutions seek to work with or simulate natural systems, they offer myriad benefits beyond just reducing floods and droughts. For example, they help us address another threat to life as we know it: the dramatic decline of other species that we are causing. Also, because natural systems store carbon dioxide in plants and soil, they help us not just adapt to climate change but also slow its progression. Protecting biodiversity and storing carbon are not peripheral to solving water problems; they are integral to healthy water systems.

SO WHAT DOES WATER WANT? Most modern humans have forgotten that water’s true nature is to flex with the rhythms of the earth, expanding and retreating in an eternal dance upon the land. In its liquid state, with sufficient quantity or gravity, water can rush across the land in torrential rivers or tumble in awe-inspiring waterfalls. But it is also inclined to linger to a degree that would shock most of us because our conventional infrastructure has erased so many of its slow phases, instead confining water and speeding it away. Slow stages are particularly prone to our disturbance because they tend to be in the flatter places — once floodplains and wetlands —where we are attracted to settle.

Water-sensitive urban design solutions, such as permeable pavements (pictured), bioswales, and rain gardens, need to be distributed widely across a watershed to compensate for all the space water has lost over time. Photo by Miguel Henriques/Unsplash.

But when water stalls on the land, that’s when the magic happens, cycling water underground and providing habitat and food for many forms of life, including us. The key to greater resilience, say the water detectives, is to find ways to let water be water, to reclaim space for it to interact with the land. The innovative water management projects I visited around the world all aim to slow water on land in some approximation of natural patterns. For that reason, I’ve come to think of this movement as “Slow Water.”

When water stalls on the land, that’s when the magic happens.

Like the Slow Food movement founded in Italy in the late twentieth century in opposition to fast food and all its ills, Slow Water approaches are bespoke: They work with local landscapes, climates, and cultures rather than try to control or change them. Slow Food aims to preserve local food cultures and to draw people’s attention to where their food comes from and how its production affects people and the environment. Similarly, Slow Water seeks to call out the ways in which speeding water off the land causes problems. Its goal is to restore natural slow phases to support local availability, flood control, carbon storage, and myriad forms of life. For many people who study water deeply, these values have become obvious.

As our long-held illusion that we can control water is crumbling in the face of escalating disasters, we understand, viscerally, that water always wins. Given that truth, it’s better to learn how to accommodate water, to work with water, and to enjoy the benefits that cooperation can bring.

Slow Water solutions are gaining momentum worldwide, as people grapple with droughts and floods, melting glaciers and reduced monsoons, sinking ground, soil erosion, decline of other species, sea-level rise, and salt water moving inland. The water problems of every watershed and bioregion are unique — yet all share common concerns. Scale is critical. Consider that humans have filled in 87 percent of the world’s wetlands since 1700. Daylighting a small stretch of creek in a city or uprooting pavement for a few bioswales isn’t going to compensate for all that space that water lost. That’s why we need small areas for Slow Water distributed across a watershed, like solar panels on everyone’s roof adding up to a significant amount of electricity. Healing our relationship with water is a process. But stories of innovation from across the planet can inspire us to think differently about water — as a friend or collaborator, rather than a commodity or threat — so we can harvest ideas to try in our own places.

This essay is adapted from Erica Gies’ new book Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge, published by University of Chicago Press, 2022.

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