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Convergence of Issues Leads to Southern California Permaculture Convergence, August 29-31, 2008

Cooling off after the first day of the Southern California Permaculture Convergence,
hosted by the Quail Springs Learning Oasis and Permaculture Farm

Yesterday the Southern California Permaculture Convergence got underway. The word ‘convergence’ is the operative word here, and, ironically, to me at least, has a double meaning. Over the last couple of weeks, being here at Quail Springs just reminds me of the convergence of issues we face as a race, just as we ‘converge’ to network, share instruction and ideas, and find new ways to work together to face those same issues.

Let me explain, using an example very close to where we are today.

Quail Springs is situated in a high valley in the New Cuyama region of southern California. You can get an idea of the landscape from the panorama below (click for a larger version – you’ll also see an arrow pointing to where Quail Springs is).

Click for full view

As you can see, these are arid, desert lands. But, as mentioned before, it wasn’t always like this. Before Spanish and European settlement, this area held a vast swath of forest, with the New Cuyama River gliding slowly through. Now it’s a bone dry landscape in need of reconstructive surgery.

The picture below shows the New Cuyama River today. Deforestation and modern agriculture has totally undermined the natural watershed – a previously perpetual and abundant system that sustained the Chumash Indians for thousands of years.

The New Cuyama River – Pacific Steelhead Trout used to swim up here.
The river hasn’t flowed year round since the 1930s

This week we drove from Quail Springs, and followed the river as it wound its way to the sea. With the exception of a few small puddles showing up in a couple of places, it was bone dry all the way to the coast.

So, with the natural hydrological cycles disrupted, and the lands now converted to a virtual desert landscape, how do the many farmers here irrigate their crops? They dig wells and pump from the underground aquifers of course.

Quail Springs’ closest neighbour is a perfect example of how it works. This is a monocrop carrot farm (see above). The soil is fed each Spring by hundreds of thousands of tons of composted sewerage sludge from surrounding cities like Las Vegas, Santa Barbara, Bakersfield, etc. After it’s transported and dumped, heavy earthmoving equipment spreads it over the fields. The carrots are sown, and then watered through the hot spring and summer months by pumping the fast-depleting aquifer using two diesel generators.

The pumping has become a literal race-to-the-bottom. Smaller farmers cannot afford the costs of drilling deeper and deeper wells, so get priced out of the race. Larger farmers, whilst benefiting from more water, are also outcompeting their neighbours in both gaining a market share and depleting the precious aquifer.

Meanwhile, the remaining farmers are continuing to kill their own lands, as, amongst other things, the water they’re pumping is high in salt content. The irrigation runoff at the bottom of this slight slope dries out and has the telltale white surface crystalisation as evidence, and the carrots themselves, despite the huge energy expenditure to feed and water them, are not looking good this year – the high salt intake affecting their ability to take up water and to photosynthesize. As we look down the rows, we note that the foliage is a mix of green and sickly yellow.

Why is the water so salt laden? Well, it’s because the extraction rate from the aquifer is higher than the replenishment rate, and so pumping is driven deeper and deeper. Salt water has a higher density than fresh water and tends to sink. They are now pumping near the bottom of the aquifer.

For this particular farm they are pumping at about 600 feet below, and some of the farms in this region, on a different aquifer, are pumping at up to 1,200 feet deep.

A New Cuyama Vinyard…

A ‘resting’ carrot field. No cover crop,
but just left to erode by wind and rain

The ironic thing about this particular farm (and many others in the area) is that it is ‘organic’. These are the carrots that show up at places like Whole Foods, etc. Although slipping through the technical loopholes of organic standards, and, even aside from concerns over the source material for the compost, the production methods for these foodstuffs are obviously not sustainable. The aquifer is dying, and so is the soil, and the fossil fuel dependency is well entrenched (some farms use planes and helicopters for spraying). Local water experts believe these farmers have just a few years left.

This leads me to the ‘other convergence’. The Southern California Permaculture Convergence, where we’re hearing more positive news and success stories from people who are implementing land, water, energy and waste management techniques according to permaculture principles that lead to sustainable abundance.

This 1st Annual Southern California Convergence is the brainchild of Wes Roe and
Margie Bushman (pictured above) of the Santa Barbara Permaculture Network.
We thank them for the determination and effort that has made this important
event possible.

Warren Brush, who heads the 13-strong Quail Springs team,
welcomes attendees to the convergence

Warren and his wife, Cyndi, are the very gracious hosts of the convergence, ably assisted by the great team of people I’ve had the privilege of getting to know a little over the last couple of weeks. Geoff, Nadia and I thank them all for their hospitality and their vision.

After an excellent and inspiring introduction by Warren, one of the world’s youngest PDC graduates lit the flame for the weekend – using local materials (wood, leather, etc.). Cody (currently 13 – but who graduated at aged 12) used a bow drill to light a candle that is to burn through the convergence, symbolising how the permaculture knowledge that has developed worldwide over the last few decades must be passed on and developed by new, young permaculturists (the emerging canopy, as Warren eloquently put it) who will have to go on to do much more than the present generation, and for whom these skills will be even more pertinent than ever (imagine this land in another few years…).

Brad Lancaster illustrates water runoff
principles for urban environments

The main speakers for the Convergence are Geoff Lawton and Brad Lancaster (inset). Honored guest speakers are Larry Santoyo, Bill Roley, Ed Mendoza, Gabriel Howearth, and Art Ludwig.

Geoff Lawton’s talks and slideshows made people aware of some of the wide-ranging work going on internationally. On Friday night attendees were also treated to the final cut of our soon-to-be-released Food Forest DVD, which went down a treat. Brad Lancaster had a great presentation on water harvesting in urban environments – showing the win-win-win implementation of simple techniques that have, until recently, eluded modern city councils. These simple low-cost solutions stop flooding and erosion, save money and precious water, and also make homes and neighbourhoods more habitable and comfortable. The good news from Brad is that some localities are taking note.

An example of this is can be seen via the clip below, where a Los Angeles home was fitted with water harvesting systems as a demonstration site – before invites were sent to city officials and others to come and see the site get bombarded with a (manufactured) one in 1500 year rainwater event. Despite the deluge, the site soaked its water and no damage was done. The impressive demonstration resulted in a proposed multimillion dollar stormwater upgrade getting shelved, in favour of diverting funds towards sustainable water harvesting methods instead.

As I type, the sun has set on the day – groups of permies are talking in the relative cool of the evening, discussing ways to work more effectively together in the months and years ahead. Recent events worldwide – in political, social, ecological and energy arenas – are driving more and more people to pound on the permaculture door. Interest is coming in from all directions, and at the highest levels. We certainly have the solutions; the mission now is to coordinate and escalate our efforts to meet the demand.

Not a good time to rely on fossil fuel dependant food

At least New Cuyamians have a sense of humour…



  1. Excellent report Craig. I hope you can post a follow-up article to this story showing how Permaculture Design Principles could bring this region back into stability, the river to flow naturally once again and the arid mountain range brought back life with a living forest system – the way it once was. You’ve highlighted the problem – now we need to see the solution.

  2. I agree – great report! And I too would love to hear what permaculture solutions you might suggest for an area like New Cuyama and all the other “desertified” areas of Southern California that were once lush and green.

  3. Thanks Frank and Linda. You’d need to do a PDC course to get the finer details, but the main principles for regenerating land like this is to implement water harvesting strategies that ‘slow it, spread it, sink it’ (the water, that is). The Quail Springs team have already begun by putting in several ‘gabions’ (otherwise known as ‘leaky weirs’), which are rock walls placed across a stream – not to stop the water, but to slow it. These walls also stop the soil from being carried away – silt builds up behind the wall, which can later be transferred to other parts of the property to improve fertility.

    The Quail Springs property can be without rain for several months at a time, and when the rain does come, it comes all at once. This water can just fly through the property, taking lots of soil with it, and be gone before it’s had a chance to soak in. These gabions are built with large rocks, allowing water to filter through (you can see an example of one of these here, a picture from a previous post). Several of these placed in the right locations slow the water so it has a chance to soak in. Additionally, if some of the gabions have swales running off from them, then the gabions can be used to direct a portion of the larger water flows out onto the land, where it can soak in and start to make the area productive, and also help to raise the water table below the property.

    These earthworks are the first step. Once you have water in the soil you can begin to raise the organic matter content of the soil by growing appropriate plant species and with the addition of compost. Humus can hold up to 90% of its own weight in water, making a huge difference to the otherwise sandy soil, and the shade of crops and trees can dramatically reduce the amount of water lost through evaporation.

    Of course, to green an entire region would take an epiphany amongst a great many property owners. Such a collaborative effort is perhaps not realistic – although as the lands further deteriorate, and other factors like peak oil and climate change exacerbate the already difficult enconomic situation, you never know what may happen in the future…

  4. hey craig, mike from the Quailsprings PDC, I love this story, the positive people doing positive dynamic things in line with their vision and sustainability. I think folks can get overwhelmed and turn off to discouraging news, but inspired and motivated by stories like this, thanks, peace out, mike

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