local waters

This morning we begin a daylong journey through the petaluma watershed with Daily Acts, a ecology organization based right here in town that leads facinating eco-tours around the north bay. Today’s topic is “water” and when we rise in the morning it is cloudy for the first time in weeks. As the tour starts at the top of the downtown parking garage, giving us an overview of the town and watershed, it starts really raining and keeps on raining as we hear about the source of our city’s drinking water: the Russian and Eel Rivers to the north, from which the water is piped over to us. Petaluma used to receive its water from within its own watershed, in fact, the Adobe creek headwaters (our previous water source) on Sonoma Mountain, on the property known as Lafferty Ranch, are still owned by the city of Petaluma.

We board a never-used-before, brand-new city bus in the rain and ride to Trathan’s house on sixth street right in the center of town, where as a renter in one of three units in a house, he and his wife Mary have transformed the entire yard into a permaculture paradise. Part of the lawn still remains, reminding us of what was once everywhere else. There are hundreds of plants here and it is only early spring but the yard is alive with leaves and flowers. Even in the one-foot wide strip between the sidewalk and the street, all kinds of plants are bursting forth, including peas trailing up a recycled wire fence attached between a phone pole and a tree. Raspberry and blueberry plants peek out of pots, kale, collards, herbs leap out of the ground among edible native plants I recognize from last week’s journey into the wild fields and forests of bolinas. Bees zip up from their hive to look around for something to pollinate, a cat walks lazily by and the compost worm bins are overflowing with beautiful soil.

Trathan’s talks are fun and postive and he is always looking for the upbeat angle. We talk about spirals in nature and the benefits of copper tools, compost and rainwater catchment contours. He explains how taking out a lawn is one of the best things you can do to save water because most of household water usage is on outdoor landscaping. And you don’t need a lawn to have a beautiful (and functional) yard—the way to landscape without too much work is permaculture. Working with nature itself helps you save not only water, but time. Layers of plants from low growing groundcover plants to mid layers like lettuces to bushes to trees, to vines all can exist in one place, stacking functions. Contouring the land creates places for water to meander and rest and sink back in to the earth instead of rushing into the street and storm drain where it then has to be treated at the wastewater plant. From Dave, a Petaluma water department city employee, we learn how to read our water meters at home and how to check for leaks which account for 12-15% of water usage in almost every house—eek!

As the drops begin again like a blessing from the sky, we ride our city eco-bus to the next stop, a straw bale house with solar panels, native landscaping, and a pond in back to catch water. The more we talk about water, the more comes from the sky—it is pouring in torrents now relentlessly, and we cheer it on and gather under overhangs.

It is like a modern day rain dance, a ritual based on our current contemporary culture. What are the ancient rain dances if not communities praising and relating with water, talking about where it comes from, the benefits of it and giving gratitude for it. All of us coming together to praise the importance of water today and talking about conserving and respecting it and making every drop meaningful is actually the same thing and meaningful for us—and the skys open.

We end out at schollenberger park near the wastewater plant, where a new trail has been started off to the south that will connect schollenberger with the new wastewater treatment wetlands park. The wastewater will be treated as it goes through through spiral forms, UV light and a marsh that is also an environmental art project by artist Patricia Johanson. This wetlands park will be an educational public resource, (will not have the odor of wastewater) and will expand the already enjoyed shollenberger park.

As the tour comes to a close, the skys begin to clear and I still wonder about saving water when our savings just end up enabling the city to approve more subdivisions. But I am more aware that the path of conservation is simultaneous with the path of awareness about our ecological environment. I can see for the first time that we can possibly conserve happily and abundantly while we also work on ways to measure those water savings and then let the savings stay in the river, not to be used except by the large salmon that used to swim in the Russian River, so many salmon that the river ran silver during spawning season, many years ago.


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