Category Archives: Water

Permaculture Principle 5: Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

This principle brings our attention to ecosystem services. Those are services that the natural world handles for us, like providing us with clean water and handling waste by decomposing it into non-toxic elements that can then be reused in the system. It provides a heating and cooling system – though not quite as well regulated as we’d like it to be.

So how do we work with natural systems by using renewable resources? And when we do use them, do we truly value them? Are we mindful to consume only what we need? Do we think about how our actions will impact the ability of the system to regenerate?

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Permaculture Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy

I love this principle because it fits with my belief that we should look at every building and bit of land as having the potential to fulfill multiple functions and that each function should be maximized together as a system, not maximizing one discrete function at the expense of others.

For example, this house and yard are not just a place to house people and store things, but can also be a space to:

  • Create energy (or reduce energy use through good design)
  • Collect and store rainwater for later use
  • Move rainwater down to the soil and not into the storm sewer
  • Grow food for people, for pollinators, for critters
  • Promote learning
  • Heal people
  • Connect people and create community
  • Create beauty and appreciation for nature

Some would say that a green lawn is beautiful and that is its function. My personal belief is that beauty is not sufficient unto itself but that it should be part of each and every function mentioned above. Beauty and function should both inform the ends to which we hope to arrive.

So how does this principle of storing energy inform our decision making? We start by identifying where energy exists in our landscape and then look at ways we can capture it.

This is a simple, portable solar cooker.

This is a simple, portable solar cooker.

The Sun: Our solar panels collect sunlight and convert it to electricity, but there are a lot of less expensive or zero-expense ways to use the sun’s energy. We use solar lights in the garden and on our front porch to bring a bit of enchantment and illumination to the evening. For example, solar heating:

  • While we use solar hot air panels on the side of our house to collect heat from the winter sun, any house with a south-facing window can benefit from passive solar heat gain.
  • You can use the sun to make sun tea in a large glass jar or to cook food with a homemade solar oven.
  • You can dry herbs, berries, fruits and veggies with a solar dehydrator (or the back window of a car).
  • You can heat water either with panels for solar water heating or for camp showers. (Check out this kickstarter for a cool on-the-go hot water heater.)
  • You can build a greenhouse or cloche to capture solar heat and extend your growing season.

Wind power: A small wind turbine can generate electricity for home or garden use (if it’s not illegal in your area). A row of tall trees can “catch” wind and store it to prevent it from reaching your home or yard.

Biomass: Compost provides a lot of heat at certain times of the year. Our grape vines are planted near the compost, which keeps their roots warmer. I don’t know if that’s good for them but the ones by the compost are twice as tall as the one’s next to them that aren’t by the compost. Of course, little critters also know it’s a warm space and it’s not unusual for a mouse to jump out when we turn it over in the spring.

Biomass-intensive landscaping can also be used to store water in drought-prone areas. Swales and berms can direct the flow of water.

Food is energy, too. We can preserve food using the natural enzymatic process of fermentation. One permaculture website I read talked about the energy of milk being captured and stored by cheese. I’d never thought of it that way, but I quite like that idea.

Personal Permaculture: The Big Picture

Permaculture principles can also be applied in our lives and the folks in the Transition Longfellow Saturday group had lots of ideas for how to capture personal energy when we have it so we don’t need to expend it when we’re tired.

  • Prepare food in advance and put it in the freezer for quick reheating.
  • Get work ready the night before. Set out your clothes in advance.
  • From the women with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, don’t put things off until tomorrow if you have the energy to do it today.
  • Work with your personal energy pattern (whenever possible). Plan to get things done during the time of day when you feel most alert and then rest.

Money is another form of energy. It can bring growth or stagnation, depending on how it is used or hoarded. For example:

  • Money spent at a local business rather than a chain store stays in the local community and is reused many more times, creating a lot more economic activity. Money spent at a chain store typically leaves the community.
  • Money deposited in a community bank is used to lend money in the community, building even more economic activity. Money deposited at national – too big to fail – banks may actually become a drain in the community, especially if that bank is responsible for a large number of foreclosures in your area.

Kitchen Remodel & Energy Efficiency: Natural Gas

Taking The Leap FROM Natural Gas

Like most Minnesotans, we use natural gas to heat our home and our water, and we used it to cook our food. It’s an accepted fact that “natural gas is cheaper and easier to cook with.” But this remodel was all about looking into the future and rethinking common knowledge.

We had to ask ourselves, is it time we disconnect from natural gas?

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How Thinking of Sustainability Affected our Kitchen Remodel Project

We really USE our house. We host neighborhood soup nights, community meetings, discussion groups, game nights … all with a side of food and drink. We can tomatoes and pickles, sprout seeds, brew beer and wine, bake bread and culture the occasional yogurt. We do it all in a typical South Minneapolis bungalow kitchen that measures 9′ x 10′.

Not a lot of space to move in the old kitchen

Not a lot of space to move in the old kitchen

One evening, while watching 4 people bump into each other getting ready for a potluck, I thought to myself, “This is just not working! I’ve GOT to do something with this kitchen, NOW!”

What had stopped me in the past was, of course, the money. Kitchens are the most expensive room to remodel and ours would be no exception, since little had been done to it since the house was built in 1921. But this time, exasperation pushed me all the way to the doors of the community bank. We weren’t getting any younger – or richer. If we didn’t do something now, it was increasingly unlikely we’d do it later. Loan in hand, we were ready to begin.

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Emergency Preparedness and the Long Emergency

Preparedness Discussion Group

This group began in November 2012 after a few members watched the video Peak Prosperity and began talking about how to prepare for immediate emergencies and the “long emergency” of climate change. We aren’t showing the video to the group because it is too sales-oriented, but we do find information on the peak prosperity website to be useful, particularly the “What Should I Do?” list.

This is a complex, and emotionally challenging topic for many in the Transition movement. The majority of websites that discuss preparedness – and that sell preparedness products – have a distinctly militaristic and apocalyptic attitude. The peak prosperity site also has some of these discomfiting elements, but we encourage people to read the section on Community to understand that we are not advocating disregard for one’s neighbors. Chris Martensen uses an airline emergency as a metaphor: By taking steps to prepare ourselves, we are putting our own oxygen mask on first so that we can then assist the person next to us. We ARE in this together.

The group meets on the Third Tuesday of each month (various locations) from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. Topics include:

  • December 18, 2012: Water — How do we meet our personal need for water, and our food garden’s need for water, in the event of a short-term emergency or longer-term drought? How would our community/city provide safe drinking water if our water system were to be damaged or compromised by storm or flood or loss of electricity?
  • January 15, 2013: Heat – How do we heat ourselves in an emergency situation, such as being stuck in the car in a snowstorm or while camping? How do we heat our home in the event of a power outage (remember, gas furnaces use electric fans to move heat)? In the event we have no heat, how do we prevent cold-damage to our homes? What are the environmental consequences of different types of backup heat? How can we minimize that damage?
  • February 19, 2013: Electricity – What are your household’s critical electrical needs? In the event of a short-term power outage, what backup system do you have in place? What are the environmental consequences of different types of backup electricity? What alternatives do we have to the electrical grid should electricity become unreliable or too costly over the long term? What can we do as a community to bring improvements to our grid and our energy future?
  • March 19, 2013: Food 1 – How much food should one keep on hand in the home or in the car in case of short-term emergency such as a weather disaster? How does one’s food storage outlook change when considering the “long emergency,” when drought and weather instability may lead to crop losses and increased food prices? (What did our foremothers do to get through the winter?) What has been done on a governmental/ community level to store food in case of crop loss/food shortages?
  • April 15, 2013: Food 2 – What kinds of food should be in the “deep pantry?” What is the best balance of growing your own versus buying from local farmers versus buying from the store? What would a good food storage area look like?
  • May 21, 2013: Food 3 – What are the best methods for storing or preserving food? In what situations might one need a backup system for cooking food? For freezing food? What are the environmental consequences of different types of backup systems?
  • June 18, 2013: First Aid and Health – How prepared are you to handle a sprain, a broken bone, an infection or burn? Do you have adequate emergency supplies in your home and your car? Do you have a small kit on your bike? What health maintenance resources are available within the community? Who in your area understands  no-cost or low-cost natural health treatments?
  • July 16, 2013: Finances – If your home is destroyed by a tornado, will you be able to access your money and credit? Are important documents stored safely offsite? In the face of the long emergency, how might our financial system change? What constitutes real wealth?
  • August 20, 2013: Community – What does a resilient community look like and what steps can we take to help build resilience? How can we take what we’ve learned and share it? What institutions in our community can be a resource for preparedness? For example, if a tornado destroyed homes in this area, are there churches that would open their doors to those made homeless?

Acknowledging Trade Offs when it Comes to Saving Water

Oil and Gas versus Water

The greater the distance your food travels to get to your table, the more oil-dependent your lifestyle. Saving energy is one reason why we’ve expanded our fruit and vegetable production. Freshness and knowing that it was safely grown are other reasons. But gardens themselves take resources, particularly water.

Although we’ve had somewhat decent rainfall this year in Minnesota, fresh water is a valuable resource that really needs to be conserved. We have only one rain barrel and we haven’t always used it well. We want a multi-barrel system with a pump but we’re not there yet. Even the multi-headed sprinkler system I set up hasn’t been working properly. Next year I’m going try the newest low-tech watering trick every garden website is showing – plastic pop bottles planted upside down near voracious plants like tomatoes.

We eat something from the garden almost every day, but I’m also learning to process vegetables for winter. I’m most familiar with water-bath canning. I can tomatoes, sauce and pickles – things with high amounts of acid. It takes quite a lot of water to wash the vegetables and to fill the canning pot. And it takes a fair amount of natural gas to heat all that water. If I’m going to be canning two days in a row, I save the water in the canning pot, but I have a very small and inefficient kitchen. I can’t keep a huge pot of water sitting around. If it’s not going to be used soon, we “water” the compost bin (compost breaks down faster when it’s got the right amount of moisture) or the veggies with it.

Canning together saves resources and is a lot more fun.

In the past month, I’ve been canning with my neighborhood Transition group (Transition Longfellow). As part of our reskilling efforts, we’ve been teaching folks how to pickle veggies and can tomatoes. By doing these projects together in small groups — many people using the same water bath — we save water and natural gas.

I recently bought a pressure canner so I can process low-acid foods like beets and green beans and meat. At first I couldn’t understand why people said it was more efficient because a pressure canner takes far more time to process foods. Now that I’ve done my first batches of soup and broth, I understand. The pressure canner uses only a couple of quarts of water – as opposed to many gallons used in the water canner – and once it reaches boiling, I can turn the gas to the very lowest setting. Pressure keeps the heat high.

I’ve got two more food preservation methods to learn: dehydrating and fermenting. I’ve just bought a pickling jar to ferment cucumber pickles and a glazed crock to ferment cabbage for sauerkraut, both from EggPlant Urban Farm Supply. They also have a glazed water-seal pot for pickling, which is locally made. I’m in love with it but it’s too expensive for me.

Ultimately, I need to learn more about methods of food preservation that use fewer, or more easily available resources. I’ve ordered two books on this:

Irrigation-Free Landscaping Workshop

Some of the effects of global climate instability are increasingly violent storm activity as well as high temps and droughts. Many north Longfellow homes are already challenged by occasional basement flooding during heavy storms and it’s not uncommon for water to collect in the street when the sewer system becomes overburdened from heavy rains. Landscaping can help both of these problems – providing a way for rainwater to stay on the homeowners property and out of the sewer, and minimizing the impact of drought and water needed to maintain plants in the yard.

On Saturday, July 28th, from 11:00 am to noon, the landscape design firm PRAIRIEFORM will lead a workshop on irrigation-free landscaping for residents of the Longfellow neighborhood. Irrigation-free landscaping combines drought-tolerant planting techniques and “drought training” for plants. It creates a landscape that does not require supplemental watering and that minimize rainwater runoff from a property while still providing an animal- and people-friendly yard. The irrigation-free landscape is formal enough to fit in a front-yard setting.

The workshop will be held in a yard on the northeast corner of 28th Street & 42nd Avenue. This is the location of the irrigation-free landscaping pilot project the neighborhood undertook last year, with funding from the homeowner, the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization and LCC’s Environment & Transportation Committee.

If you’d like to attend, please RSVP (appreciated but not required) to Spencer: or call 612-722-4529 ext. 5.

From Roots to Rooftops!

Every month a group of folks meets at the Red Stag Supperclub near downtown Minneapolis to hear the latest developments from people working on energy and environmental issues. This month’s “Green Ideas & Ham” meeting looks at innovative water management strategies.

Speakers John Bilotta, an educator with the U of M Extension Service on Water, and Angie Durhman, a National Green Roof Manager with Tecta America, will talk about the benefits of green roofs and landscaping in conserving and protecting clean water. John has years of experience in education and training around soil and water resources, and Annie has worked on more than 200 green roof projects including the Target Center in Minneapolis.

This monthly breakfast forum will take place on Tuesday, March 20, from 8 to 9 am (doors open at 7:30). The Red Stag Supperclub is in near-northeast, at 509 1st Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55413.

The cost to attend the talk and for a fabulous farm-fresh breakfast (I can attest that it is really good) is $15 total. Donate $5 online at Environment Minnesota, which reserves you a seat, and come prepared to pay $10 to the Red Stag server at your table. (Note: the Red Stag does not accept checks).

Study Finds 10% of Newborns Around Lake Superior with High Mercury Levels

The Minnesota Department of Health has released the findings of a two-year study of mercury levels in the blood of newborns along the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The results?

Ten percent (10%) of newborns in Minnesota had unhealthy levels of mercury in their bloodstream. They had suffered environmental poisoning before they even had a chance to take a breath. (Three percent of Wisconsin newborns had unhealthy levels of mercury. None of the newborns in Michigan were affected.) Continue reading