Rain water harvesting – swales in action

Walking near the well, we heard the rustle of leaves, and some movement. A yellow rat snake came toward us, reared up its head, paused for a few seconds, and then decided to run away. The other snake was grey, and the person managing the farm said that it was a cobra. The belief is that cobras dance with rat snakes. It was hard to say if that was true. The snakes were obviously of two different colors, and they seemed to have come from the same spot. It could have been a cobra chasing a rat snake, or two rat snakes, males, in a ritual dance. May be the next time, will have a camera handy. But the snakes proved to be a  good omen.

Dry pond

Dry pond

The day at the farm started off dry and terribly hot. Barefoot, your feet will almost get cooked.
I just took a walk to see the swales , dug during the previous visit. `After the swales were dug, there was some moderate rain, and you can see the indications that water flowed into it, and went underground.

When you are into restoration of land, there comes a time, when the garden or farm goes pop, all the elements, the soil, the water, the fungi, the micro-organisms, the insects, birds and other life, connect with the plants, and work in a positive, enriching cycle. The first part of this process, would be to get the water to flow into the land, seep underground, and provide the base for the rest of the things.

Hot and dry - Amla (gooseberry) trees, and palmyra trees

Hot and dry – Amla (gooseberry) trees, and palmyra trees

In a case of wonderful synchronicity, at the end of a hot and harsh day, the clouds opened up, and a moderate rain fell for almost an hour and a half. This was an opportunity to look at how the swales were handling the water. This required synchronicity, since my visits to the farm were few, and the rains too had become less frequent. One part of the land, where the first pond was dug, was in the way of water flowing from vacant lands upstream. Half an hour after the rains ended, we were able to see how it all flowed. In fact we redirected some of the residual flows of water into the farm. You can see the pond with a feet or so of water.

Pond with harvested rain water

Pond with harvested rain water

The gravelly soil quickly absorbs the water. Inspite of having done the swales with simple visual determination of the contours, some of the swales turned out to be surprisingly level. Of course, the swales are short, and curved, so any minor mistakes in determining the contour do not negate its ability to send water underground.

A fairly level swale

A fairly level swale

Generally we don’t want the soils to erode, silting up the swales and ponds. In our case, most of the erosion was within our farm. So we can plant some vetiver, and trap the silt, leaving clear water to fill up the ponds. Also silt will seal the bottom of the swales and ponds, as it combines with organic matter, and this organic matter decays. The best way to store water, is to store it underground. This water flows too, but quite slowly, emerging at some other place as a clear spring. These springs create creeks, that have water in them long after the rains stop. As these creeks flow into bigger ponds, or in some cases rivers, the fish from the ponds or rivers swim upstream to breed. This process used to happen even as recently as twenty years back. And you will find about 10 or more species of native fish in these creeks. Not anymore. The ponds get stocked with various carp varieties, land is leveled, and vegetation around the creeks  removed. Water flows overground, and quickly, eroding the soils, and drying up right after the rains. Can we bring back this annual cycle of water, of life, and beauty back to the rural landscape?

The farm needs a lot more swales to store and redirect water underground. Possibly after most of the land is re-engineered to harvest water, the water level in the well will rise up, along with ground water level. Palmyra trees may survive and thrive. What is unusual is that we seem to be headed in a different direction, digging up swales and ponds. While the rest of the population are into using excavators for leveling land, and cleaning up vegetation.

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