DesignEarthworks & Earth ResourcesEducationGeneralLandStorm WaterSurveyingSwalesWaterWater ConservationWater Harvesting

Drought-Proofing California…not in the news


Digging our well-surveyed swales.

I woke up this morning, put on my gum-boots and went out for a walk around our family farm in the rain. This in itself might not seem to be anything special to many folks, yet this was a 2”/5cm rainfall after several intense years of drought here in Southern California. I cannot express how exciting this morning has been for me as I was thinking of our entire thirsty state getting an average 2-6 inches/5-15cm of rain during the past 48 hours. I was also exuberant this morning as today marked our fifth-day after completing an epic and highly successful “Earthworks for Resiliency” course for an area of our farm that was transformed into using earth structures to harvest water for our market garden area.

During the course we installed three large swales (one of them integrated with 150 feet of hugelkultur growing bed), a Zuni Bowl diversion structure, some key drains with associated stone and urbanite “armor,” some one-rock dams/gabions, and we used a keyline plow in the interstitial spaces between the swales for our main crop gardens. We then mulched and cover-cropped all of the sites disturbed by our excavator, tractors, and shovels. It was amazing to see how much was learned and accomplished by the 18 students who participated.


Building our Hugelkultur bed that will be incorporated into our lower most swale. You can see the yellow contour survey flags to the right.

This first rain nearly filled the top two swales with water that would have formerly passed quickly off our property, carrying a significant amount of our top soil and hence our land’s fertility bank account. With some simple volume calculations, I estimate we slowed, spread and sank over 41,000 gallons into the landscape in the past few hours all of which will soon grow food for our family and community. With our mulching and cover crops, we will lose very little of this harvested water to evaporation and much of it will infiltrate into our microbe rich soils. Eventually, the water that is not taken up for use by plants in the market garden, will infiltrate its way down into the aquifer to help recharge the groundwater.

After playing in the mud and water with the exuberance of my one-year old Granddaughter, I went up to my wife’s parent’s house to see how they had fared in the rains. My Mother-in-law was watching the news which was hyping their viewers by showing scene after scene of devastation from flooding that occurred all around California during the night. It was all “bad” news as there was not a single news story about the abundance of water and how it was reticulated into the landscape to stave off future droughts.


Our three tiered swale system with level spillways lined with discarded marble and granite. Each swale has a spillway that allows water to move to the next lower swale until it exits our property down at the willows and the natural drainage of this landscape. The straw-mulched areas have been keyline plowed.

Just a few short weeks ago the same news organizations were sensationalizing the effects of the drought. Why is it that the state did not use its resources to set up water harvesting for the times we would get water? What the news was saying was that the “flood waters” existed because of our lack of foresight. This type of accepted lunacy reminds me of some words of Joel Salatin from Polyface farms. He says, “What’s wrong with the picture here folks?” We need to be smarter than this if we are truly going to navigate the extremes presented to us by climate “wierding” and the natural long-term drought cycles.


Our water filled swale just before reaching the level sill spillway. Our solar array is in the background and is used to pump our well water. These swales will help to keep the well charged with water.

In digging deeper and doing some rough water harvesting calculations, I found that our state has 163,696 square miles of varied catchment surface area. Each square mile would average 17.38 million gallons of water received for every inch/2.5cm of rainfall or approximately 52 acre feet of water. This works out to be about 8,512,192 acre feet of water over the entire surface of California.

California’s agriculture covers about 67,187 square miles of land. This works out to 3,494,000 acre feet of water that hits the surface for every 1” of rainfall. On average, our state’s agriculture alone uses 34 million acre feet of water a year and most of it is diverted using non-sustainable methods that carelessly wastes 20% of our state’s energy budget. From a cost perspective, the average cost per acre foot for water in California is $70 an acre foot. This translates into an annual cost of over 2 billion dollars for agricultural water not to mention the high cost of ecological damage that is caused through poor diversion practices coupled with extractive agriculture processes.


Our Zuni-Bowl diversion structure where we divert the incised unnatural drainage to our upper most swale. The entire structure is ‘armoured’ with Urbanite. In larger storm events, the water will continue on down the canyon over the sandbags, thus limiting excess storm water from going into the swale system.

If all of California’s agriculture landscape was drought-prepared like our small farm and many other permaculture designed farms as well as used holistic management grazing processes, it would only take an average of 9.7 inches/24cm of rain to meet most of our water needs for agriculture in our state with little irrigation delivery infrastructure or storage costs. This is because the most efficient place to store water is in the soils when we have agricultural practices that builds soil.

Imagine if the news broadcast this morning had a different message like: “Today with an intense 2” rainfall event, the state of California harvested over 17 million acre feet of water for our future food, fuel and fodder. Even with this heavy rainfall, the people of the state had created a sponge and no flood related damage was reported. Once again the citizens of this sunny state are saving money, building an ecology worth inheriting and quenching the thirst of future generations…” Now this is news worth hearing…

We have the knowledge to be able to mitigate much of the effects of long-term drought if we have the wisdom to put our minds, hearts, shovels, and excavators to work. With less than one year’s of our state’s current agriculture budget, if the political will could be mustered, I believe we could convert this entire drought-prone state into a living water sponge. I believe we must do this as our legacy to the future generations. Now let’s get to work….

Warren Brush

Casitas Valley Farm

December 2014

Warren offers educational programs and permaculture design consultation worldwide. His website is:

Warren will be offering a Permaculture Design Certification Course at Zaytuna Farm, the home of the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia and Geoff and Nadia Lawton, from November 30 to December 12th, 2015. To find out more go to: The Permaculture Research Institute programs page.

Warren Brush is a mentor, storyteller, educator, and a certified Permaculture designer and teacher. He has worked for over 25 years in inspiring people of all ages to discover, nurture and express their inherent gifts while living in a sustainable manner. He is co-founder of Quail Springs Permaculture, Regenerative Earth Enterprises, Sustainable Vocations, Wilderness Youth Project, Casitas Valley Farm and Creamery and his Permaculture design company, True Nature Design. He works extensively in Permaculture education and sustainable systems design and implementation in North America, Africa, Middle East, Europe, and Australia. He has taught the following courses: Permaculture Design Certification, Resilient Small Farm Design, Permaculture for International Development, Rainwater Harvesting Systems, Ferro-Cement Tank Building, Spring Rejuvenation and Watershed Restoration, Compost Toilet Systems, Water for Every Farm, Drought Proofing Landscapes, Ecological Restoration, Cultural Mentoring, Introduction to Permaculture Systems, Permaculture Gardening, Food Forestry, and Origins Skills among other offerings. He can be reached through email at [email protected] or by calling his offices at 805-649-8179.


Warren Brush

Warren Brush is a global permaculture design consultant, educator, lecturer and storyteller. He has worked for over 25 years in sustainable systems design for communities, private and public organizations, households, small holder farms, and conservation properties worldwide. He is co-founder of Quail Springs Permaculture, Regenerative Earth Enterprises, Sustainable Vocations, Wilderness Youth Project, Casitas Valley Farm and Creamery and his Permaculture design company, True Nature Design. He is also an advising founder of the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya. He consults for the USAID’s TOPS (Technical, Operations, Performance Support) program where he trains technical field staff, for their African Food for Peace programs, in a Resilience Design Framework. He works extensively in North America, Africa, Middle East, Europe, and Australia. He has taught the following courses: Permaculture Design Certification, Earthworks for Resiliency, Resilient Smallholder Farm Design, Permaculture for International Development, Rainwater Harvesting Systems, Ferro-Cement Tank Building, Community Design Using Permaculture, Permaculture Investing, Spring Rejuvenation and Watershed Restoration, Compost Toilet Systems, Water for Every Farm, Drought Proofing Landscapes, and Ecological Restoration. Contact or write: [email protected]. Websites:


  1. Awesome story. I can’t wait to get my system set up on our small 8 acre Kentucky homestead.
    About the bad news. Bad news sells. Unfortunately, the worse the news, the more people tune in. Most don’t “hear” good news. They are on a fear diet of bad news.
    So I want to have the good news. Which is why I am in this whole Permaculture movement in the first place. It is good news. And doable. On small as well as large scales.
    Keep on keepin’ on!

    1. James, what part of KY are you in? We’re settling a 16.5 acre homestead in Mercer Co. Always nice to hear about more premies in the area. Cheers!

      Aslo, Warren great job with the earthworks. I’m glad you finished in time to catch from this rain event. Would have been a bloody shame to have the workshop the next week! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great article Warren, I really enjoyed the read. And I totally agree about the media, there is a real need for change in the mainstream dribble, especially in the USA by the looks of it.

  3. Very true. Every time I hear about Midwestern flooding, all they ever talk about is flood walls for cities. All they can see is the bottom of the watershed – as if all that water just magically appeared there. For days I go around gnashing my teeth and grumbling about swales.

  4. Fantastic of Warren to put together that calculation and how interesting that calculation is. Those of us who are excited about swales need to spread that excitement to others. A difficult job but worth doing. I get excited about the soil that I build but I do notice how people just look at me with some sort of ridicule when I point out how good the soil looks and use ‘big words’ like biology or biomass. Simple words in my book but I do get ridiculed for using them which just goes to show how far we have got to go to get people excited about all these very simple solutions but worth doing nonetheless.

  5. Very well written, it is a pleasure to read it, also from the point of view of the style, not the content only… ;)

  6. Now that key infrastructure is in place it is time to trumpet it LOUD that THIS is the solution for much of California to avoid more of the BAD news. Timelines is key to news. In one or 2 weeks this won’t make news. The time is now. Start with the local papers and the closest larger town with tv news. Invite them out to see. Have a catchy title like : ‘More swales to use less pails’. or ‘dig now or dig out later’…

    1. Love the idea, totally agree…

      Please allow me to chime in too if that’s OK…

      Saving / Making Millions with just a bucket …

      As in front loader bucket, others will think pail or a bucket as we call mostly it in the UK / Australia. To save water is in essence to make money available for other public services is my thinking.

  7. Sad thing is that this is a no-brainer. There were big government conservation programs after the Dust-Bowl, building small dams and ponds, contour-plowing, rocks in ravines, etc — all towards harvesting water, getting it into the ground for future access and use. In 1965 (Peace Corps RPW, barren south-coast of Iran), I left a report of recommendations to survey locate and impede or capture any or all fresh-water from the minimal winter rains, before any was lost onto salt-flats or into the (Persian Gulf) sea. It wouldn’t matter if the ponds and reservoirs “leaked” with water seeping into the ground — such water would be saved, banked for future generations to tap with wells. So, just do it, anything to slow and impede, capture and hold; and to prevent energy-gain, with damage downstream.

  8. Warren, thanks for this post! If you don’t mind me asking, how much did the permits run you for this? That’s SUCH a huge challenge for us Californians, as I’m sure you know.

    Deserts are full of salt. Big heat generators are deserts – every tree
    transpire = evaporate = evaporative cooling.
    No trees in desert = hot dry desert and
    elsewhere – where hot and dry winds from desert blow.

    No big trees in desert because of underground
    saline water level is high.- close to surface
    Desalination river will lower underground

    saline water level and decrease salinity = trees with

    deep roots = greener country

    When rain falls on desert water that joins underground saline water is lost for environment – no trees in desert with deep roots to send water back to sky
    = less clouds and rain elsewhere across the country

    Sand storm = Sand + dust + salt – from desert spread salt far and wide = less fertile soil elsewhere

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