Rain is a beautiful thing in California. At least it is in the vast majority of the state whose climate falls under the category of “semi-arid”. Certainly rain is beautiful if you live in a section where you grow food, tend a garden, flush a toilet or take a shower and fear rationing that would severely curtail all those activities. Well, let me amend that. LA, which has some of the least water in the state, doesn’t worry about these things. I remember in the last big extended drought in the state where San Francisco water rationing had me stoppering the tub during the one shower I could manage a day on my water allotment and hauling buckets of greywater from the tub to the garden. I called my friend in LA to commiserate about rationing and he noted, “It’s a bitch. I can only hose down my driveway once a week.” We won’t go into the politics of how that was Northern California’s water he was wasting on pavement. Aqueduct be damned! When the rains of winter start in Northern California, the water that falls from heaven is ours, all ours. So before it can be piped out to the City of Angels, Two Terrier Vineyards has, for the past several years had an ambitious plan to manage and keep hold of our water in any way possible.
Of course, such an ambitious project, involving understanding and cooperation with Mother Nature, would be spearheaded by our ranch manager, John the Baptist. He has been called The Shaman of Seed, but he could equally claim the title The Wazir of Water. John has been studying water for most of his life. At least since he figured out how he could skip out of church and school to wander in the forest and ponder the mechanics of the wild creeks of the Northern California forests. (And kids, here’s one instance where truancy lead to a career.) In short, John the Baptist understands water. And he knows that you can’t make water do what you want it to do. You have to figure out what Mother Nature wants water to do and work with that.
One thing Mother Nature does to hold on to water in Northern California is to cover large areas with drought-resistant grasses. These are hardy grasses that only grow above ground for a short time each season and just to a certain height. Then, when the rains stop, the top of the plant goes dormant and brown (or Golden as we in the Golden State prefer to say). But the massive network of roots keeps growing and extending downward as much as six feet. That network of intertwined tiny roots acts as a net to hold in water — and the fragile soil — protecting it not just from erosion but from the pummeling it gets during our gullywashing winter rainstorms. Throw that ecology out of whack and you are asking for trouble — as I would like to tell the various suburbanites around here who insist on putting in green Kentucky Bluegrass lawns — which are unsuited and unsuitable to our climate and precious water supply.
But then the ecology sometimes gets out of whack in other ways, such as on our property. About thirty years ago, a devastating fire roared over our hill reducing everything to cinder. Wildfires, in the way they occur naturally, are an important part of the ecosystem around here. Lightning strikes used to cause fires every year that burned fast and relatively cool, cleaning out only the dead grasses and underbrush, and thus reducing the available fuel load. As our fire policies have stopped ALL fires, that fuel load builds up, so when we get a fire, it burns like an inferno. The problem then compounds as the plants that come back after complete devastation tend to be high fuel plants such as the oil-rich creosote plant and chemise. Those plants have their own unique way of conserving water. They literally poison the ground and grow so thickly that nothing else can establish and compete for their water.
Enter John, his crew and the Great Pasture Reclamation Project. Step 1) Clear out the creosote and chamise. Step 2) cover the hillside with coir mat. 3) Spread generously with native grass seeds.
Coir mat, like water, is a beautiful thing. It’s basically large rolled sheets of cocoanut fiber sandwiched between netting of biodegradable cellulose based netting. Pinned down correctly, it provides an erosion barrier for vulnerable hillsides and loose earth. The fibers also catch and hold spread grass seed and, as it degrades, provides food for the fledgeling grasses. As the grasses put down roots, they anchor in the coir mat even more.
Of course, John will tell you, the secret is that he spread seed from our existing native grasses — plants that were already uniquely suited to this particular terroir. (And clearly, felt right at home.) Also, the coir matting must be cocoanut fiber and the wattles must be rice straw. Both of these are plant materials that can’t seed out with invasive plants. Because rice and coconuts growing in an unirrigated Sonoma pasture? Not likely.
We won’t even address the many ditches, drains and swales John and his crew have built to direct water into those seasonal creeks. The goal is to keep the lower meadow from becoming a swamp and to bring water to the creeks where the endangered Pacific Pond Turtles and Pacific Giant Salamanders can enjoy it.
Meanwhile, the rain continues to fall and be channeled effectively and non-destructively to where it can productively nurture our native flora and fauna.