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Rethinking Water: A Permaculture Tour of the Inland Northwest

Ever since I’d first read of it, I felt I would never understand the state of my bioregion until I saw the Milner Dam. So, when a road trip finally brought the opportunity, I made a somber pilgrimage. Unlike its famous counterpart, the Grand Coulee Dam, Milner Dam is not a tourist destination. It has no museum, no bronze statues, no gift shop, and no laser light show. Finding Milner required navigating the ambiguous grid of numbered and lettered roads that cover much of the Snake River Valley in Idaho. On my map, the square and orderly roads seem reminiscent of city blocks, but buildings of any kind were sparse. The nameless roads and the checkerboard of crops between them stretch as far as the eye can see in some places: potatoes, alfalfa, sugar beets. As conspicuous as the crops themselves was the ceaseless artificial rain. Despite the oppressive summer sun, the air was heavy with humidity and the chirp of giant motorized sprinkler systems.

Outsiders who think of the Northwestern United States as an expanse of evergreen forest neglect the predominance of this other landscape. Even locals tend to forget that before there were crops, much of the region was semi-desert, a sea of sagebrush seldom more than waist high. Long before I reached Milner Dam, hundreds of square miles of irrigated desert told me of its presence.

The dam was unimpressive in construction, and not more than eighty feet tall. It did not cling to scenic canyon walls like the famous Hoover Dam. The reservoir it backed up was shallow and weedy. There is only one thing notable about Milner Dam; it is where the Snake River ends. The Columbia Basin is the most heavily dammed watershed on the planet. But of its 76 large dams, Milner is the only one that halts a whole river. The day I visit, a mere trickle escapes over Milner’s walls. The resulting stream is small enough to step over. In the past, there have been occasions when no flow escapes at all. Starting in Yellowstone National Park, and draining over 35,000 square miles, what is left of the mighty Upper Snake is whisked away by Milner’s massive twin canals.

I’d long known about the depletion and pollution of my region’s aquifers, the near extermination of the salmon runs, the saltation and erosion of the soils, the loss of habitat to agriculture, and everything else the big dams meant. I knew of the brutal water wars, of plans for the construction of still more dams and canals. I knew of droughts, and still more drought anticipated with the changing climate. But seeing Snake die had me more concerned than ever about water. And as it turned out, water became a pivotal theme in my trip.

My next stop was the FNA Ranch, in West Central Idaho, to see my friends, the Pagliaros. The Pagliaro’s property occupies the margin between the vast Palouse wheat growing region and the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states. The family had recently moved here from Las Vegas, eager to pursue a lifestyle they refer to fondly as permaculture. Idaho is overrun with urban refugees and homesteaders stalking the simple life. The mountains are dotted with hobby farms and cabins of all kinds. But from the moment one sees it, it is obvious that the Pagliaros are doing something unique with their land.

A large pole barn with steel roof has become the base of FNA’s operations. Such structures are commonplace in the vincity, but the Pagliaro’s is the only one I’ve ever seen fitted with gutters, pipe, and large tanks. In fact, in my entire life, the Pagliaros are the only people I’ve met who collect rainwater. As a child, I remember helping my father route the rain gutters of our home to a gravel filled channel that ran off of our properly. The idea was to keep the rainwater from washing away our lawn (which we irrigated from the aquifer with automated electric sprinklers). At FNA, the policy is to collect as much rainwater as can be contained. The full brilliance of this strategy can be fully understood only when one considers the constraints of the local climate.

The reason that evergreen trees cover much of the Northwest is because they are supremely adapted to dormant season precipitation (unlike deciduous trees, which require more growing season rain). Despite plentiful snow, the shrub steppes and lower forests of the Northwest are so dry in the summer that they are considered semi-arid. In other words, the Northwest bears the misfortune of receiving most of its moisture in the winter, when plants cannot use it. And because of the region’s mountainous topography, much of this winter moisture runs off, into swollen rivers, when the snow melts in the early spring. Climate models predict that snowmelt will be happening earlier in the years ahead, making things still more precarious for thirsty plants.

Lack of growing season water presents a crucial problem to farmers growing non-native crops. The agriculturalist’s solution has been to store winter runoff behind massive in-stream dams. The Pagliaro’s solution is contrastingly small scale, simple, and rational. Using rain-fed water tanks that never seem to go dry, this family has plenty of water for their garden, their animals, and their household. Their pipes and tanks represent one less straw sucking away at the West’s diminishing stream and ground water. It’s reason to hope.

The rain-tanks aren’t the only way the Pagliaros are trying to store water. Plans are underway for a series of level earthen water catchments called swales, which will intercept runoff on the sloping land and soak it into the soil. But these swales won’t be planted to conventional crops like wheat or potatoes. The swales will receive a planting of tree and shrub crops, which are better adapted to using deep soil moisture. I am helping the Pagliaros come up with a diverse mixture of food producing trees and shrubs which will be suited to the local conditions, many of which are native. The result will be a “food forest”, a situation in which plants and associated animals coexist and benefit each other mutually, much like a native forest. Eventually, the food forest itself will help conserve water, by shading the ground, and protecting soil moisture with a thick layer of humus.

My next stop is in Southeastern Washington State. Despite being famous for Seattle’s rain, parts of Washington receive as little as 12” of precipitation annually. My friend Bill is tenacious enough to live in one of these parts, getting his own permaculture homestead off the ground. His property is surrounded by the bleakness of wheat growing country; dry, empty, and ugly. It is not well known what Southeastern Washington looked like before the wheat fields. Intact examples of this particular ecosystem are rarer than old growth forests are on the coast. However, I am fairly certain that trees have not naturally occurred here since the Ice Age.

Bill has a water problem. This wouldn’t be so bad if Bill could grow desert crops (palms, mesquites, and olives come to mind). But Eastern Washington winters are only barely conducive to peaches, freezing solid any hope of a desert oasis. As if to spite Bill further, Washington State has made it illegal to harvest rainwater. Helping Bill make an Eden out of his freeze-dried forty acres has been a fascinating puzzle.

A breakthrough in that puzzle came as a lesson from nature. “Scabland”, is a term used to describe the parts of Southeast Washington which are too rocky to grow wheat on. These scablands are comprised of coulees, cliffs, and mesas, eroded into basalt bedrock. The walls of such formations often have piles of broken rock about their base. Being a berry enthusiast, I noticed that the best place in the steppe to find serviceberries was on the north side of such rock piles. In fact, the north sides of a rock piles are about the only places that stay green in the summer. Research revealed that botanists had already named this phenomenon, calling it a “talus garland community”. I’ve since become obsessed with talus garland communities.

Such communities support plants that would otherwise be found only along streams. Talus garlands support the primary native pome and stone fruits (Amelanchier and Prunus), two species of currant, an elderberry, several hawthorns, roses, edible greens like nettle and goldenrod, as well as naturalized species like cherries, plums, apricots, grapes and apples.

It seemed obvious to me that mimicking a talus garland would be a great way to grow woody plants on Bill’s dry land. But before we tried to build such a mimic, we tried to understand how they work in nature. Why are talus garlands so green? We came up with several theories:

  • Shade from the southern sun minimizes evaporation and causes winter snow to melt later in the year
  • Drifting snow collects in the loose rock
  • Piled stones condense moisture from night air (thanks to the Designers Manual for the hint)
  • Stones protect soil moisture from sunlight and arid air
  • Stones minimize competition from grasses
  • Stones protect plants and debris from fire
  • Freshly eroded basalt provides ample mineral nutrients
  • Stone provides an ideal growing surface for lichens, which speed the breakdown of rock and fix nitrogen (lichens are the primary nitrogen fixers in some deserts)
  • Loose stone provides some protection from browsers, especially during early growth
  • Stone piles provide habitat for animal associates, like packrats, cottontail rabbits, marmots, chipmunks, snakes, lizards, etc. Animal associates distribute seeds, provide manure, control pests, ext. (Rabbits and marmots are very tasty themselves)

Research revealed that “stone mulch” had been used to grow everything from grapes to cotton in Old and New World deserts since ancient times. However it worked, rocks were the trick we needed. And so Bill and I formed plans to build a waist-high wall of stone mulch over his long abandoned lawn.

Ironically, homesteaders of the past had made every effort to rid their land of stones, and finding large piles of this unwanted material was fairly easy. Bringing the stones back to the land felt somewhat vindictive. In a matter of hours we constructed a pile a few meters long. The finished product was crude but natural looking, a Zen rock garden of sorts. I’d brought along some Cherry Plum pits I’d collected at the Pagliaros and scattered them about the rocks.

Only time will tell how our experiment will fare. Yet as I drove back to work, whizzing past the grandeur of the land I love, I knew that the answers where out there, somewhere. Seas of green forest, roving herds, and wide clean rivers were still thriving in spite of human mistakes. It seemed that if we could only tap into that wild vitality, there would be no need to suck the West dry.


  1. I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you. Hear about what folks are doing in their local areas is not only motivating, but it’s a great way to gather information and ask questions. So 1 question I have is why is it illegal to harvest rainwater in Washington state? Talk about puzzling. What reasons are given? Is it to do with ground stability in the event of major earthquakes?

  2. I live in North Central California and our area is much the same with incredibly hot dry summers and rain all in the winter months. These past few winters we haven’t gotten nearly enough rain. Thanks for the great examples of using stone mulch and stone walls to create shade and micro-climates. I also have an abundance of rock! Use what ya got! :)

  3. Great Article! I live in a similar climate up here in Alberta. I have been contemplating a move to our desert to show what is possible without the help of massive irrigation works.

    Thanks for the inspiration.


  4. wow… thanks for the Stone Mulch Idea!

    Reno NV only gets 8″ of rain (only 4-6″ in some of the areas where land is affordable). We have a goal of finding land nobody wants using the Desert Land Act and using Permaculture techniques to “make it productive.” The Act allows you to obtain up to a sq mile of land for under $100 and requires that at least 20% of the land obtained be “irrigated” and within 8 years be producing crops enough to sustain the workforce needed to grow the crops.

    If we use permaculture techniques and (mostly) extremely low water crops the “irrigation” could be from a single well and decent piping. As long as we show the ABILITY to move water to 20% of the property that portion will be fulfilled whether we choose to actually move the water or not.

    We’re studying as much as we can to maximize crop production using a mixture of swales, cisterns, other land shaping and whatever possible techniques come our way… Thanks again for one more tool!

  5. I too appreciated this article. I, now, have a small dry land property that will benefit from this kind of rock work design. I have plenty of rock. Not much soil but I see with permaculture a real resource in the stone. I have just started the observational first year on the property in San Diego County. I look forward to more articles of this type. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for the encouraging responses guys! After a long spell of just trying to get by, I’m mustering up the courage to write again.

    Paul, the way Bill explained it to me. Rainfall in Washington is the property of the state, as are all bodies of water. You probably gathered from my article that water rights are fiercely debated in the region. The spirit of the law is probably environmental. Since there is already so much strain on the watershed, outlawing rainwater harvesting is one way to keep water in the rivers for the salmon. From a few perspectives it makes a lot of sense. I could easily see how a commercial water harvesting operation could get out of hand, and be a problem. But for household purposes, there is obviously some civil disobedience in order.

    Magewars, I’m quite interested in your plans, please let us know if you aquire property, I might want to visit. I have a few ideas pertinent to the Great Basin Desert. The talus garland is very suited to this environment.

    Rob, being a Canadian you must certainly recognize the potential of serviceberries aka “saskatoons” and chokecherries. Nobody eats saskatoons in America! It’s as crazy as not harvesting rain! I am also very curious about your plans.

    And thanks for the website Mike. My countrymen may eventualy catch on. I think many Americans associate drinking rainwater with poverty. On the radio the other day, I heard about how an Indian reservation, absorbed in the sprawl of Pheonix, Arizona, overcame poverty by offering un-regulated space to developers. Ick.. They used to drink out of rain barrels, but now they drink floridated tap water like the rest of us “affluent” Americans. I guess it’s the price we pay for socio-economic one-upping. As for me, getting Washington’s law changed is pretty high on my political agenda, right up there with banning GMO wheat.

    Good luck to all of you. If enough of us can get permaculture sites estabished, people will start scratching thier heads as to why we ever bothered with the water-wars in the first place. Hopefully, the Columbia River will still reach the ocean by then.

  7. I really appreciated the article, too! Good info, and well written.

    I noticed a few typos, I hope you don’t mind me pointing them out.

    “seldom more than waste high.”

    “the Northwest bares the misfortune”


  8. I’ve been studying talus garland communities near me since your article Kyle, and pondering how to adapt the synergies you describe here (I’m the “Bill” Kyle describes above). It occurred to me that I have a semblance of the rock formations you mention in the form of the numerous buildings here. Their roofs collect water in much the same way as a basalt outcropping and their bulk shields from the wind on the leeward sides.

    So, instead of a complicated, integrated roofwater capture/distribution system, I’ve come to the point of designing a sort of talus garland community for each of the eleven buildings I’ve got. While I can still use the plentiful stones laying around as mulch, it won’t require the labor intensive build-up of a “rock formation” as we did in our experiment.

    I greatly appreciate your insights. You’ve helped me come a long way in understanding this unique environment here in eastern Washington. = )

  9. Great article. I currently live in Ak but long term plans are to move to the Spokane area. Plan to purchase acreage within a hundred miles of Spokane, develop a home farm based on permaculture principles. As I’ve started doing my research I’m finding a hundred mile radius out from Spokane give a very large variation in climates and therefore strategies.

  10. The Washington State law outlawing rainwater harvesting was repealed this past year. It is still illegal in Colorado. The purpose of the law is to protect the aquifer recharge zones.

  11. The manmade “talus garland” sounds kinda like what Frank Herbet described in his sci-fi novel Dune. (I think they protected the plants from sun by planting them in ditches (the shade effect you mentioned) and then used somesort of manmade material around the plants that cooled faster than the surrounding sand and thus gathered condensation to the plants at night-but I’m not sure….I’ll have to read that book again. It’s been a couple decades, but that image of the huge effort to grow plants in such a harsh environment stuck with me.) Nice to see there was some actual science behind such a fun book….

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