Tag Archives: Natural Capital

Floods force us to confront returning land to nature

I’ve just returned from two wet weeks in northern England visiting my family for the holidays. Let’s just say it was wet. Very wet.

Over the last few weeks, England has suffered historic floods with no end in sight. The evening news showed town centers such as Kendal, Carlisle, Appleby, Leeds, and Manchester inundaded.   Talking with the old farmers around Sedbergh who have lived on the land for decades, they cannot recall the rivers being so high, or in flood for so long. Their memory is born out by the sight of medieval bridges that have seen centuries of water flow under their arches being washed away. And of course, it’s born out by the rainfall gauges that are recording record totals day after day, week after week.

We ventured out onto the fell in one storm and could see the fields come alive with traces of rivers and streams where none normally existed. Every drop of rain fell on saturated ground creating sheet flow across the fields until it found or created a channel to rush onward to the rivers which quickly rose to fill their banks.  For a few hours, Sedbergh was cut off as the main road flooded and in Kendal the river broke its banks and flooded the homes yet again.

But despite all of this, Sedbergh was spared the floods. Why?

Sedbergh is a small market town set in the northern part of the Yorkshire Dales. And while the river flooded a few holiday caravans, the town was spared because of where it’s located.  The town itself has grown nestled along the base of the Howgill fells, set back from the river. My hunch is this happy accident is a result of open land being maintained along the river because it’s largely owned by two schools – Sedbergh School (founded in 1545) and the local state school, Settlebeck. Rather than develop the land, it’s been maintained as estate land and sports fields.  Not only does it provide a great place to walk or kick a ball about, or raise a few sheep, but it’s a natural source of flood protection that needs little in the way of maintenance.

We need to do what we can to protect open space that provides flood protection where it exists – it’s simply crazy to continue to issue building permits for land we know will flood. But the recent floods in Britain also force us to think the previously unthinkable — to recreate openspace where it once existed.  The alternative is to further harden our cities at vast expense, with the inevitable consquence that when the concrete fails the impact will be catastrophic.

A long-time friend was visiting for New Year with his family. He’s an actuary working for one of the UK’s largest insurace companies. While he doesn’t work in the property market, he’s come to the same conclusion from a financial risk perspective. Namely that it’s time to have a serious conversation about managing retreat and giving back a little of our developed footprint to nature.  It’s going to be a hard conversation – but after some homes have flooded three-times in a month, it’s a conversation we desperately need to have.

And with record floods in the southern USA, sea level encroaching on Miami Beach during high tides, and El Nino poised to slam into California, it’s a conversation needed around the world.

[An interactive 3D model of Sedbergh and it’s projected flood zones was developed by Garsdale Design and can be viewed online here.]

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FLOODED SPORTS FIELD AT SEDBERGH PRIMARY SCHOOL
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THE RIVER RAWTHEY LAPS OVER ITS BANKS, SEDBERGH, UK

 

Working with Nature in Sonoma County

Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of discussion in the conservation community about ecosystem services.  It’s a pretty abstract concept that is being brought to life at the Benziger Family Winery in the Sonoma Valley.

The winery is one of a small handful of Biodynamic producers in the world. It’s basically an organic winery that takes it one step further by farming with the rhythm of the  both the sun and the moon.  The result is a tasty glass of wine that is also good for the land.

Almost everything that makes up the wine in your glass comes directly from the earth in this beautiful corner of the valley. Soil fertility is maintained through cover crops and composting the clippings from the vines.  All the water used on-site is filtered through a series of ponds that clean it up before recharging it into the groundwater. Insect gardens located throughout the property attract beneficial bugs that keep invaders at bay.  Bird boxes help keep rodents at bay. Even the aging process takes place in a series of caves dug into the hillside that keep the casks cool as they age.

To be clear, this is not a natural ecosystem. But it is much closer to working with nature than most farms and vineyards.

While a conventional winery uses fertilizers, pesticides, wastewater treatment, and an air conditioning system. The Benziger winery uses nature to perform the same functions.  It’s a great example of ecosystem services at work and shows how working with nature lessens our impact on nature.

Attracting bats and birds keeps pests at bay
Attracting bats and birds keeps pests at bay
Beneficial bugs do the work of pesticides
Beneficial bugs do the work of pesticides
Deep fertile soil is replenished with compost and cover crops
Deep fertile soil is replenished with compost and cover crops
Cool wine caves save on the cooling bill
Cool wine caves save on the cooling bill

 

 

Cold beer, clean water and natural capital

Barely a day goes by that I don’t read a news article about the economic values of the natural world. The most recent one was the Forest Service’s estimate that the economic worth of all the urban trees in the United States could be as much as $50 billion based upon their capacity to store carbon. Although I understand it in principal, I find much of it abstract. The numbers are so large and the concepts far removed from my everyday life.

But this weekend down on the Big Sur Coast I finally got it. My beer had got warm. And even though I am from England I really don’t like warm beer (that’s another story in itself). Like you, I like it cold. Especially on a hot sunny day. What to do when the nearest refrigerator was miles away? Simple: plunk the warm beer down in the cold river and let nature do the rest. After half an hour the beer was the cold and delicious. I’d have paid good money for a cold beer — and that in essence is the concept behind “ecosystem services” or “natural capital.” If we take care of nature, it will take care of us and provide us valuable services that we’d otherwise have to pay for.

Warm beer cooling in Big Creek
Warm beer cooling in Big Creek

The constant flow of cold, clear water cooled the beer down as effectively as any refrigerator. If it didn’t require electricity to cool, what did it require? In this instance, all of the water flowing past my beer originated in the Big Creek watershed. This watershed, located south of the town of Big Sur, is part of the University of California’s Natural Reserve system. Between the Reserve and the adjacent Los Padres National Forest all of the land that surrounding the creek — from 3,000 foot plus ridge to rocky Pacific Shore — is protected from development, logging and conversion thanks to a purchase completed in the 1970s by The Nature Conservancy and Save the Redwoods League.

The Big Creek watershed reaches back to the Los Padres National Forest
The Big Creek watershed reaches back to the Los Padres National Forest

In addition to cooling my beer, the cold clear water provides a home for native steelhead trout; the surrounding land is home to condor, ring tailed cats, bob cats, rubber boa snakes, and a myriad of plants and animals — some common, others rare; the trees capture and store carbon; and the Reserve as a whole provides an important place for scientists studying redwoods, chaparral, geology, marine life and river life and other facets of coastal California.

I am sure an economist could calculate the economic value of all these services and assign a net value to the Reserve. That would certainly be interesting. But so what? Could you ever really realize that value?   To me it was simpler than that. For a few hours on a warm sunday afternoon it was cooling my beer: for free. And that was priceless.