Restoring the Sponge on the North Coast: A Rehydration Revolution!

The following piece is a guest article by Kyle Keegan pictured above.  All photos in the article are his.  The article was first printed in the Trees Foundation Newsletter[, Forest & River News]. It is reprinted here with their kind permission. The first part in the series can be read here.  The second part here. In a society that sees the effects of diminishing streams and increasingly damaging wildfires, the more knowledge we can gain about the systems that affect them, the more we can act to prevent some of the damage. 


“The capacity of the soil to store water is a major factor determining the productivity of ecosystems and the sustainable support base for people.”
David Holmgren

For the past 162 years, the new inhabitants of the North Coast have persisted in light of an industrial globalized economy; an economy made possible through exploiting once abundant natural resources–propelled forward by the availability of cheap, fossil fuel energy. The journey has been tumultuous; the stories and belief systems we have adopted have now brought us the dangers of a rapidly changing global climate, diminished biodiversity, economic uncertainty, and the increased scarcity of the life-sustaining resource–water. We are in need of new stories; stories that reflect a culture that is deeply connected to place; stories that embody the actions of people living on the Earth–as if we intend to stay.

The Succession of North Coast Cultures

In Nature, disturbances such as fire and floods instigate the change and succession of biological communities. In a disturbed landscape, newly arrived “pioneer” plants quickly cover the ground, exploiting the abundance of available resources (sunlight, water, minerals) thus, establishing bio-control over the landscape. These immature ecosystems tend to be energy intensive, highly competitive, and more simplified than later successional communities; yet they provide the early foundation for the mature ecosystems that follow them.1

As an ecological community evolves, it increases in complexity and diversity; the processes of mutualism, symbiosis, efficiency, and cooperation become integral for the maturing system to persist under increased competition for available resources. Through this process of succession, an ecological community becomes more resilient and able to rebound from catastrophic disturbances.1

We can use analogous terms to describe newly arrived, early successional human communities here on the North Coast–“pioneers” scrambling for abundant resources, energy intensive, competitive, and applying simplified economic systems. As we come to mature, our thrive-ability will depend on cultural adaptations that foster increased economic diversity, resourcefulness, efficiency and cooperation. Central to that adaptation, will be in how we design and restore our communities to engage in a reverential relationship to water.

This is the final article of the “Restoring the Sponge to the North Coast” series. (The sponge is defined as the ability of a watershed to receive, hold, and retain, incoming precipitation, slowly releasing that water over time–to support healthy stream flows.) Part 1 and 2 can be found at: and or here and here.

Restoring the Sponge for Climate Change Resilience

Swales (contour infiltration trenches) can be built into existing orchard/food production systems to catch and store excess surface water during heavy rains. These swales infiltrated thousands of gallons of rain during winter months, keeping this orchard and nearby garden green for a longer period. (For more info on swales check out: Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, by Brad Lancaster)


As global climate disruption increases in intensity, high-functioning watersheds will form the foundation of life-support for North Coast peoples. The climate/water budget will be a stronger determining factor of our ecoregion’s productivity and resiliency than temperature trends induced by global warming and land practices that restore and protect the living sponge, will help to moderate local climate stability.

The recent unpredictability of our region’s weather patterns warrants new strategies for resilience. Retrofitting our watersheds to effectively absorb and retain incoming precipitation will help ensure balanced groundwater budgets during extreme times of need.

Restoration Hydrology: Techniques for Watershed Resilience

“The old drain-age is being replaced by the new retain-age.”
Brock Dolman

How can we enhance the capacity of our landscapes to receive and retain water? In what ways can we design our homesteads and settlements to capture and store precipitous income? By emulating Nature’s designs into our human-built endeavors, we can learn to coax water back into the soil–lessening the severity of our extended dry season. The following are techniques to help protect and restore these processes:

Around the home: Small, strategic interventions can be made to capture, hold, and retain water both on the rural homestead, and within our suburban and urban settings. By micro-engineering our landscapes, we can enhance “spongification” through the creation of small ponds, terraces, bio-swales/contour infiltration trenches, permeable pavers, rain gardens, etc. An excellent guide to these techniques can be found at Also: Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Brad Lancaster and Design for Water, Kinkade-Levario.

Sponge friendly development: Construction projects should result in no net decrease in permeability to the landscape and include the restoration of legacy wounds.

Re-thinking roads: In appropriate locations, can existing road networks be retrofitted to rehydrate the landscape? Careful, long-term observations of road networks can help us to identify key areas for groundwater recharge within our watersheds. Water that is concentrated on roads can potentially be diverted into natural basins, ephemeral ponds, and bio-swales, to help mitigate high run-off losses caused by roads. (This technique is most feasible in low gradient areas and NOT on steep or unstable slopes.)

Permeable pavers can be used to enhance groundwater recharge, while also allowing soil organisms to breakdown and filter pollutants that would otherwise be drained and piped directly into streams and rivers.

When possible, road drainages should be disconnected from stream networks to reduce run-off losses and sediment impacts.

Biochar: Biochar may hold potential in repairing degraded soils on the North Coast. Biochar, sometimes called “Terra Preta,” is a stable form of carbon (charcoal) that is created by burning biomass (brush, wood, etc.) in the absence of oxygen (pyrolysis). Biochar can be used as a soil amendment to increase water holding capacity, reduce nutrient loss, and to increase biological activity and stability in soils.2 The use of biochar in temperate climates is still in its infancy. Scientific trials are beginning to show its potential in increasing productivity in agricultural systems, while mitigating climate change impacts by sequestering carbon in soils.3 Google “Biochar Application to Soils” for an excellent peer reviewed document on biochar. Also read: The Biochar Solution by Albert Bates.

Fuels reduction for the sponge: Reducing fuel loads in forests can help heal and protect the sponge. Thinning small trees and brush reduces evapotranspiration levels, while also increasing the through-fall rates of rain by reducing interception evaporation. In other words, more rain hits the forest floor. With the aim of reducing fuels, we can also achieve multiple goals by “stacking functions.” For example, leftover brush/poles can be used to: enhance groundwater recharge, build soils, nourish remaining trees, raise the water table, reduce erosion, and produce an economic yield (Douglas-fir poles, firewood, biochar, etc.) Funding sources are available as a cost-share to do thinning work.

* California Forest Improvement Program(CFIP):


* Also, Contact Southern Humboldt Fire Safe Council (FLASH): &

Brush and rock check-dams: In small ephemeral streams and gullies, check-dams can be created out of brush or loose rock to help elongate the water cycle. By temporarily slowing water down, water is able to seep into adjacent soils, rather than being rushed out of the system.

In Baker Creek, a tributary of the Mattole, research is being conducted to monitor the effectiveness of similar rainwater harvesting techniques, by installing log checkdams to increase stream flows during the dry season as well as providing critical habitat for salmonids.

These check-dams were constructed using brush from a nearby fuels reduction project. In one season, these sponge-enhancing structures captured several yards of sediment, raising the water table two feet. The lower check-dams are “living structures” built out of willow.

Collaborate with and facilitate the long awaited return of salmon: The recent historic runs of salmon offer us the opportunity to collaborate with a keystone species–to restore keystone processes. Annual returns of salmon ensure the upstream transport of marine-derived nutrients to North Coast ecosystems–boosting the recovery of our forests and watersheds.

Actions that can help support returns of salmon for generations to come include: the continued restoration of impaired watersheds, the expansion of water conservation programs (such as those being implemented by Sanctuary Forest in the Mattole), dam removal on both the Klamath and Eel River systems, community dialogue and education surrounding water diversions and nutrient pollution, and community-based watershed monitoring by organizations such as the Eel River Recovery Project (ERRP).

Bring back the beaver: Reintroducing beaver to appropriate locations is a cost effective and ecologically sound way to restore incised channels, increase floodplain connectivity, recharge groundwater, and improve habitat for anadromous fish and other riparian creatures.4

Restoration of native prairies: The restoration of native perennial grasses can help rebuild the living sponge in our prairie ecosystems. Through meadow reclamation (removal of Douglas-fir), prescribed fire, and re-seeding, native prairies can be restored over time.5 The Mattole Restoration Council (MRC) has been active in educating the public on the importance of native perennial grasses, and operates a nursery providing local seed and starts for restoration.

Restoration of oak woodlands: The clearing of Douglas-fir and the application of prescribed fire can ensure the health and continuance of oak woodland ecosystems, while also supporting sponge-enhancing understory plants, such as perennial bunch grasses.

Restore riparian gallery forests and deltas: Riparian forests and deltas must be restored and protected in order to reconnect ground/surface water processes, increase groundwater storage capacities, mitigate flood energies, provide nutrient/mineral/carbon retention, and support aquatic habitats.

Work to halt the development and fragmentation of rural landscapes: The integrated legal, technical, and environmental efforts that went into insisting that “cumulative effects” are the law, was a monumental cultural victory achieved by the determination of thousands of people. This effort was sparked over 30 years ago in response to the renegade “cut and run” ideologies perpetuated by the industrial logging boom.

Recent “booms” in rural development continue to threaten the recovery of our watersheds–contributing to the cumulative effects of past and present land practices. The health of our watersheds (and our communities) are dependent on cultural behaviors and actions that challenge the old paradigms of private property “rights” vs. private property “responsibilities.” Renegade road building and endless development objectives must be stopped in order to protect vital watershed processes.

Community-based Forestry to Nurture the Sponge

“The global economic importance of forests will increasingly lie in their non-timber products and especially in their environmental functions.”
Leslie- 2005, Forest Ecosystems

In the Western United States, forests supply 65 percent of our water.6 Past and present legacies of industrial timber extraction have severely altered the ability of our forests to effectively capture and store precipitation.7

Traditionally, forestry methodologies have been focused on a single yield–trees. Despite the advances that modern sustainable forestry has made in reducing cumulative impacts, the continued application of “single yield” methodologies has mostly failed to embrace the complexities of natural systems. A holistic approach to forestry will require a shift from focusing on the sum of a single yield–to focusing on the sum of multiple yields, (i.e. the biological sponge, fog harvesting, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, biological nitrogen fixation, climate moderation, sustained stream flows, healthy salmon runs, and other non-timber forest products and functions.) The Institute for Sustainable Forestry’s (ISF’s) “Ten Elements of Sustainability” embodies much of this vision.

Community-based Forestry holds the most promise in promoting the long term stewardship of North Coast forestlands. Forestlands that are owned and managed by local community stakeholders stand the best chance in applying accountable land stewardship and ethics, vs. forests that are managed by outside corporate entities. The recent purchase of Usal Redwood Forest by the Redwood Forest Foundation (RFFI) exemplifies this opportunity.  Nonindustrial Timber Management Plans (NTMP’s) may also provide opportunities for innovative sustainable forestry practices.

Interweaving Non-timber Forest Products into Community-based Forestry

One of the greatest challenges of Community-based Forestry will be in producing sustained long-term economic yields, without compromising the integrity of vital ecosystem services–such as the biological sponge. Seeking economic opportunities from the forest aside from traditional logging practices that rely on mechanized equipment that compacts and damages the living soil, can be a part of our future design goals.

Economists in tropical forest regions have been persuaded to realize that the annual harvest of so-called “extractive reserves”–nuts, fruits, rubber, etc., yield more per hectare incomes than a single harvest of the same area for teak, mahogany, and other high-value tropical woods; while leaving the rainforest and its fragile soils intact.9

On the North Coast, non-timber forest products could similarly provide supplementary economic yields to help offset the impacts of traditional forestry practices on soil resources and hydrologic functions. Edible and medicinal mushrooms, huckleberries, basket- making materials, medicinal plants, forest botanicals, floral products, acorn, wood carving and craft materials, biochar, and forest oils, resins and dyes, are examples of potential forest products that could be marketed in our temperate region. These products can be harvested at much more frequent intervals than normally required for timber production, thus providing more sustained flows of income. The traditional ecological knowledge of local indigenous tribes holds the most promise in helping restore forest ecosystems to provide such products.

Small diameter poles are perhaps the most under-valued and least appreciated resource in North Coast forest lands. The use and marketing of small diameter (2-10″) peeled poles (roundwood) can provide a valuable incentive to do the necessary, but often costly, work of thinning/fuels reduction. Poles can be viewed as a valuable byproduct of forest stand improvement, as we nudge our recovering forests towards late seral characteristics. (The potential of small diameter roundwood to boost economic/ecological productivity will be covered in detail in the next article.)

The Future Value of North Coast Forest Lands

While trees are widely understood to be a “renewable” resource, we must acknowledge that trees are dependent on soil building processes that are nonrenewable within human time scales. Past and present forestry practices have mostly disregarded this reality. Likewise, the long term sustainability of exporting large stores of carbon from o
ur North Coast ecosystems must be continually questioned.

We might surmise that in a future of declining fossil fuel energy and increased global climate instability, the primary value of our forests will not be in the promise of an export commodity, but rather in their localized ability to serve as guardians of our watersheds; providing a buffer to moderate the effects of global climate disruption; and as the protectors and providers of clean, cold water. Of lesser value, will be their ability to supply high quality timber products.

Forestry practices for the living sponge:

* The continued pursuit of, decentralized, community purchased and operated forest lands.

* Upper forested catchments (headwaters) being restored and protected as “guardians” of our watersheds.

* Facilitating forest trajectories towards old-growth characteristics.

* The use of prescribed fire in fire-dependent ecosystems to protect and enhance forest resiliency.

* Storm-proofing active roads (out-sloping, diversion-proofing crossings, etc.) and decommissioning old roads to restore natural flow patterns.

* The use of mycoremediation (bio-remediation with fungi) to repair and heal legacy skid/haul roads can be explored. Biomass can be chipped on site to cover roads, and then inoculated with indigenous keystone species of fungi–to boost the recovery of damaged soils.

* Logs and remaining slash placed on contour. Brush and logs can be used to heal legacy wounds (gullies, skid roads, etc.)

* Feeding streams large woody debris to help reconnect floodplains and recharge groundwater.

* Designing for human scale where possible vs. mechanized scale.

* Striving to keep accrued carbon on-site and considering the application of biochar into forest landscapes.

* Develop partnerships with downstream water providers/consumers to encourage investment in forest restoration practices.

* Seeking and promoting a bioregional market based on high quality timber and local, value added products (furniture, cabinetry, flooring, etc.)

Prescribed Fire to Enhance the Sponge Effect

“Water, an essential wildland resource, can be increased in numerous areas by prescribed burning, whether in oak woodland savannas, chaparral, or commercial forests.”
Harold Biswell, author of Prescribed Burning

The fire cycle and the hydrologic cycle are intimately linked. Prior to Euro-American contact, frequent low-intensity ground fires helped to maintain balanced groundwater budgets by periodically cleansing vegetation from the understories of forests.

In appropriate landscapes, prescribed fire can be utilized as a tool to restore fire-dependent ecosystems; increasing the efficiency of the land to receive, store, and use water.

Reintroducing fire back into fire-dependent ecosystems (after fuels treatments) will be necessary to help reduce the risk of catastrophic fires, while enhancing the productivity and resiliency of North Coast watersheds. The application of prescribed fire to appropriate landscapes can provide: reduced evapotranspiration rates by consuming shrubby vegetation, reduced interception evaporation, creation of water absorbent charcoal, control of invasive species, suppression of pathogens, and increased protection against mega-fires.9

Modern fire suppression tactics that include bulldozing roads and fire lines can severely alter natural flow patterns of water. Now, and into the future, communities will increasingly be faced to ask the difficult question, “Which is worse for our watersheds? Wildfire, or the active measures intended to suppress it?”

Seeking Indigenous Wisdom

Pre-contact ecosystems on the North Coast were comprised of a mosaic of highly productive landscapes shaped by direct human interaction and manipulation for thousands of years. Fire was the main tool employed by the original inhabitants of the North Coast to maintain the structure, function, and composition of these landscapes.

The traditional ecological knowledge utilized by indigenous peoples, serves as the foundation of place-based wisdom, instructing us on how and when to apply fire as an ecological enhancement tool. In the words of Winona Laduke, “This knowledge (traditional ecological knowledge) represents the clearest empirically based system for resource management and ecosystem protection in North America.”

Collaborating and seeking the instruction of local tribes and elders is an essential step in furthering our understanding of how to work more intimately with fire. The Klamath Fire Safe Council and the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council are both examples of groups utilizing this multidisciplinary approach.

Ecological Agriculture to Restore the Sponge

“When we came across this continent cutting the forests and plowing these prairies, we have never known what we were doing because we have never known what we were undoing.”
Wendell Berry

Our expansive agricultural lands on the North Coast can serve (once again) as a natural reservoir for groundwater. By implementing ecological design principles, no-till practices, and perennial food production systems, we can nurture the sponge while supporting a resilient and productive local food economy.

Soil carbon (humus and glomalin) and an intact soil ecology, are the two primary elements of the biological sponge. Both of these elements rely on functioning and diverse plant communities to supply the energy needed to fuel the soil food web–which in turn, creates both humus and glomalin. Traditional agricultural methods rely on excessive tillage, which rapidly depletes (oxidizes) soil carbon, while also disrupting the soil food-web.

Organic farmers, ecologists, and scientists have increasingly realized that we need new systems of agriculture in order to preserve remaining topsoil and to help mitigate climate change impacts. Extensive research and trials have been conducted to design methods of food production that work with–rather than against the soil food-web. Of those methods, organic no-till and perennial agriculture hold the most promise in restoring the sponge to North Coast agricultural lands and beyond.

Organic No-Till Farming

The practice of organic no-till farming has increased worldwide in response to the decline of soil resources caused by the plow.10 The benefits of no-till farming include increases in: soil carbon (humus), soil biodiversity, infiltration, yields, and water holding capacity–while reducing the inputs of energy and fertilizers.10

The Rodale Institute, as well as other innovators, have advanced the design of new machinery such as roller/crimpers to aid in large scale no-till systems, and small scale farms are utilizing tools such as the broadfork to help aerate soils without inverting them.

No-till agriculture is dependent on cover crops to provide fertility/prevention of weeds, and requires the investment of new tools and design principles.

Towards a Perennial Agriculture

Modern traditional agriculture has historically relied on annual plants (grains, legumes and vegetables) to form the basis of our food production systems. Annual food crops, though productive in the short-term, rely on the continual disturbance of soil (tillage) to incorporate fertilizers, reduce weeds, and to replant crops.

The Land Institute in Kansas is internationally known for its research and breeding of perennial grains to help prevent the continued decline of agricultural soils. Their vision, now shared by many others, is to emulate native prairies ecosystems by planting diverse polycultures of perennial grains, thus keeping the soil ecology intact. In decades to come, as this seed becomes commercially available, their efforts may be of great benefit to the agricultural soils of the North Coast.

In 1929, John Russel Smith’s book, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture was written in response to the devastating effects of plow-based agriculture. Smith’s answer to the destruction was to shift agriculture towards the use of perennial tree crops to protect soil resources. He based his argument on the historical evidence of cultures that perished under the plow, vs. cultures that persisted through the use of perennial tree crop systems. Smith also advocated “two-story” agricultures, which utilize rows of perennial tree crops planted on-contour as an over-story, and the planting of annual crops spaced in between. This design ensures the protection of soils, while also providing the economic security of a diversely planted system.

In more recent history, the permaculture movement has emphasized the need to establish perennial food production systems to prevent topsoil loss, while also providing long-term food security. The creation of “food forests” is an example of this strategy.

Agriculture & Gardening Methods to Restore the Sponge

* Keep soil covered with mulch or cover crops.

* Plant on-contour and use swales to catch and store water in orchard/garden sites.

* Design for human-scale vs. tractors to reduce compaction.

* Consider the application of biochar to increase soil carbon and habitat for sponge-building microbes.

* Use Actively Aerated Compost Teas (AACT’s) to enhance and restore soil biodiversity.

* Abandon the use of chemical fertilizers.

* Restore and expand riparian forests on lowland floodplains adjacent to farmland.

Holistic Range Management

By emulating the natural movements and dispersal of large herbivores through grassland systems, we can build and restore rangeland soils–rather than degrading them. Similarly to how predators once moved buffalo through the Great Plains, rotational grazing, also called “holistic range management” uses ecological principles to stimulate soil formation.

By utilizing moveable electric fencing, animals are continuously cycled through rangeland systems in order to not overgraze or compact the living soil. The brief, yet intense browsing and manuring of selected areas simulates natural “regenerative disturbance,” vs. the “degenerative disturbance” that often follows traditional grazing practices.

Grazing Practices to Protect the Sponge

* Exclusion fencing and restoration of all riparian areas.

* Restore gully erosion with check-dams to reduce dehydration of landscapes and keep pastures greener, longer.

* Restore annual grasslands towards native, perennial grassland systems.

al Restoration for the Rehydration Revolution

“Through being involved in watershed restoration, which is another way of saying–involving yourself deeply in a place, you put yourself in an optimal learning situation.”
Freeman House

What will a resilient and thriving late successional culture look like on the North Coast?

How do we restore our cultural values and belief systems to include the ecological processes that our lives depend on? What are the stories that we want to tell?

Mature and resilient cultures create “living economies,” where economics and ecology are not in conflict–they are mutually supportive. Pursuing economic re-localization will help move us towards reconnecting with our natural environments and communities; and requires a shift from competitive mono-economies to–diversified and cooperative economies of place.

As we approach the new frontier of a post-petroleum world, the health of our watersheds will naturally become the center of our collective focus; since our potential is directly linked to healthy, high-functioning ecosystems. By engaging in ecological restoration now, we can be informed by Nature, placing ourselves directly in the path of incoming information that is vital for us to persist into the future. Our ability to receive and retain this information will be critical in order for us to respond accordingly. Restoration is not a one-time event–it’s a multi-generational process that requires continuous adaptive responses.

The rehydration revolution will not be based solely on techniques–but rather on relationships; an intimate and unrelenting relationship to the land, relationships with our neighbors, and the ceaseless flow of knowledge between individuals, communities, and local governments. It will include the public celebration of outcomes, and the transparency and sharing of failures; and will be attained through countless small, meaningful, and relevant actions within a place. In the words of a close friend and neighbor,”…acre by acre, watershed by watershed, and salmon redd by salmon redd.”

(1)David A. Perry, Forest Ecosystems, John Hopkins U. Press, 2008, pp121-137(3) Harold
(2) Albert Bates, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, New Society Publishers, Canada, 2010
(3) Verhiejen F., S. Jeffrey, A.C Bastos, M. Van der velde, L. Diafas, “Biochar Application to Soils: A Critical Scientific Review of Effects on Soil Properties, Processes and Functions,” Institute for Environment and Sustainability, Joint Research Centre (ISPRA), 2010
(4) Michael Pollock, Morgan Heim, Daniel Werner, “Hydrologic and Geomorphic Effects of Beaver Dams and Their Influence on Fishes”, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Ad., NW Fisheries Sc Center, 2725 Montlake Blvd E, Seattle WA, 98112, USA
(5)Dennis Martinez, ethnobotanist/restorationist (personal communication)
(6) Michael J. Furniss, others, “Water, Climate Change, and Forests:Watershed Stewardship for a Changing Climate”, USDA, Forest Service, Pac NW Research Station, General Technical Report, PNW-GTR-812, June 2010
(7) R. Dan Moore,S.M Wondzell, “Physical Hydrology and the Effects of Forest Harvesting in the PAC-NW:A Review” Journal of the American Water Resources Board, 2005
(8) H.E (Gene) Garrett, Ritveld W.J, Fisher, R.F, North American Agroforestry: An Integrated Science and Practice, American Society of Agronomy, Inc., Madison Wisconsin USA, 2000
(9) Biswell, Prescribed Burning “In CA Wildlands Vegetation Mgt.”, U. of CA Press, Berkeley, L.A CA., 1989,pp 156-157
(10) Jeff Moyer, Organic No-Till Farming, ACRES U.S.A, Austin TX, 2011, pp 100-103

Kyle Keegan has lived with his family in the Salmon Creek watershed for the past 16 years and has been actively involved in restoration, environmental education, and local issues pertaining to land stewardship. Kyle can be reached at

This article can be found online at

Forest & River News is produced by Trees Foundation.


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