Working with Water at Wellspring Forest Farm
by Steve Gabriel
From the moment we stepped onto the land that became our farm and livelihood, water was a central element. We found ourselves on about ten acres of old hayfield in central New York that had been harvested and compacted for decades, and the effects of it were evident - the smallest rainfall event caused water to pool everywhere. Before our driveway was installed, we had to park at the property line and walk up the hill to our yurt (our home the first four years we lived on this land) because the slick mud wouldn't even give our four-wheel drive vehicles any traction. In our first year here, we tried drilling a well but after 80 feet pulled the rig back, as the drillers were only finding water veins laced with thick clay sediment. Erosion and gullies abounded on the slopes and low-lying areas of the landscape, and sediment was actively washing downhill and into our shared 2-acre pond - one of the major elements that drew us to this land in the first place.
It was because of these layered forces that our eventual farm name, Wellspring Forest Farm, emerged. Definitions for ‘wellspring’ include “an original and bountiful source of something” and “a source of continual supply,” with the origin being old English welspryng that more directly references a living spring, fountainhead. For us, this word spoke both to the abundant and overwhelming force water offered the landscape, as well as the recognition of the creative and proactive thinking and design we would need in order to work with (not against) water to build our farm and home.
We consciously embraced the attitude that water was not a problem, but a gift, part of a solution - it just needed some direction. For several decades, the previous farmer clearly had no interest in working with or harnessing the water in positive ways. For us, beyond the functional or productive elements of water, we also saw it as an important element - just like soil - to caretake as responsible stewards of the land.
Our farm is located on the traditional lands of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ people (named Cayuga by colonizers), and I was fortunate to have the opportunity a few years ago to attend a language class and not only learn some of the language but also some cultural perspectives around land and culture. I was able to ask our instructor, Steve Henhawk, as well as chief Sam George about what they wanted to see of people who find themselves tending to traditional homelands of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ. Their requests included caring for the sacred waters we encounter, and to speak words of their Indigenous language to the earth and the waters. We feel a deep honor and responsibility in upholding these requests, along with other acts we try to do to support their ongoing struggles as a community and in response to the history of settler colonialism and continued racism.
In our early days on the farm, when we had almost no infrastructure, we focused first on our own needs for domestic water. Since the well was a bust, we decided to try living off rainwater collection as a source of water. This meant that every roof we built had a plan for harvesting water and that systems would need to keep water as clean as possible. Water from the sky is essentially distilled, quite clean and usable for potable demands. But once that water hits roof materials, flowed into gutters and collects into tanks, it’s exposed to all sorts of contaminants.
The easiest and most cost-effective approach was a rain gutter off the yurt roof, with a first flush that diverts the initial rainfall that “washes” the roof of sediment and separates it from the water being stored. After the first flush, rainwater was piped to an underground 2,000-gallon cistern - we essentially used a common septic tank but outfitted it with potable water seals and fittings. This proved to be a very cost-effective way to capture water and meet our humble personal needs (at that time, we used about 90 gallons every two weeks for domestic needs in the yurt), but as we got into livestock and other farming requirements demand began to climb.
There were many inspirations and influences that helped us think broadly about water and to design approaches to working with it. We employed the permaculture practice of observation and mapping - observing before making changes - into our decision-making. We also benefited from the concept of “catch it, store it, sink it” - slowing the flow of water and sinking it into the soil as much as possible. While this is ideal, in many cases draining water to another location quickly is important, it just needs to be done thoughtfully.
We took time to learn about the larger watershed we’re in. We sit at the top of our local watershed, which drains to the north, eventually over Taughannock Falls (the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi) and into Lake Cayuga, which then flows north to Lake Ontario and out the St Lawrence Seaway. We walked the land frequently and noted the smaller ‘micro’ watersheds, the sources and sinks of water and problem areas that needed attention. Another resource of great help was the writings in both of Brad Landcaster’s Water Harvesting for Drylands books, which focus on a climate much different than ours but still offer the foundational elements of good water planning for anywhere. Taking the time to learn and build relationship with the land is especially important with water since the subtle details are so key to finding solutions that will really last in the long term.
As we moved into action, it was clear that many things could be done, but that some were more expensive than others. The cheapest approach for improving water on the landscape as a whole is to support the soil to hold more of it, in other words, to increase the organic matter content and decrease compaction. We have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly this has been achieved with the combination of committing to maintaining permanent pasture, planting trees, and engaging in rotational grazing of sheep and poultry. The number I have seen is that each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 16,500 gallons more water per acre.
It has been our experience that grazing our small flock (20-25 ewes, about 40-50 sheep per season) is a barely profitable enterprise in terms of dollars earned, but it has been exceptional in building biological health on the landscape - increasing ecosystem services with multiple benefits to the farm and land. The soil now readily soaks in rainfall in most places that we’ve rotationally grazed since 2014. We’ve seen soil organic matter increase in soil tests and vegetation both forage and trees thrive. Animals truly are a force to heal the land at broadscale and have been a very worthwhile investment of our limited time and energy.
Beyond this foundational approach, we have also done a fair amount of moving earth - by hand and machine - and reshaped aspects of the land to catch and infiltrate water, as well as move it along when necessary. Almost annually since we started in 2011, we’ve rented an excavator from a local dealer, an approach that is still more cost-effective than purchasing and maintaining a large piece of equipment that we only need for a week each year. My learning curve using this machine efficiently and for better than destruction was steep in the beginning, but now, the confidence and skill I have with a mini excavator save significant money compared to hiring a contractor to do this work - plus, the contractor won’t have the vision and familiarity of the landscape as I do.
For earthworks, where moving earth efficiently is the name of the game, I highly recommend a mini-excavator over a common approach many farmers try - using a backhoe PTO attachment on a tractor. The excavators offer many advantages over tractor-mounted units, including the presence of rollers with tracks on them, which decreases the chances of getting stuck and helps in the final grading and compaction of elements, the 360-degree spin and adjustment capabilities for digging, and the ability to move the machine forward, backward, and sideways quickly add up to substantial time savings for a project. (I must add that whenever working with a machine like a mini-excavator, which can cause destruction and always creates bare ground, I strongly recommend you take time to map and design the project first using a laser lever and contour maps, and to be prepared with cover crops and straw to cover the worked area when done.)
For the design of earthworks, the Volume 2 calculations, which Brad Lancaster has been generous to offer free on his website, have been essential. Take some time to understand the runoff coefficient. We also benefited from the work of the Regrarians Platform for planning, which includes elements of keyline design.
While our farm’s context lends itself less to a landscape scale keyline type plan, it's been helpful to focus on inflection points, from one micro watershed to the next. These are points in the landscape useful as a starting point for water planning. Above the inflection points are the main catchments for water to fall and flow, and also the areas more prone to erosion. Lower than the inflection point are areas for water use, distribution, and connection to drainages such as creeks, streams, and ditches. Keep in mind that this pattern repeats at various scales. For instance, our whole farm is part of the “uplands” portion of the larger Taughannock Creek drainage, but within the farm boundaries, we find each of the four landscape elements (uplands, upper slopes, lower slopes, and bottomlands) showing up. (see figure x)
As an example of how we used this tool concept to implement earthworks on our farm, we found an inflection point in the slope close to our current home site. From this point, we used a laser level to map contour lines at and above this point, to see where they ended up. Maps are useful but there is nothing like ground truthing to get a real sense of the land. We found a contour line just above the inflection point that curiously connected without much elevation change to the emergency spillway of the large 2-acre pond. This meant it would be easy to direct the overflow of that pond and send water across the landscape into another micro watershed, via a swale or a pipe with a siphon. At the inflection point, we dug a small pond for aesthetic value, wildlife, and to act as a temperature moderator for the house, which faces south and in the direction of that pond. The overflow from this small pond flows into a 275-foot swale that is slightly sloped downhill (1” drop every 50 feet) to the south. On the berm of this large swale, we planted willow.
If this swale were to overflow, it would trickle downslope and into another swale, running back across the contour the opposite way, to the north, in a 450-foot swale. Since both swales are more or less on contour, they have the effect of taking any concentrated water sources flowing down the slope and distributing them evenly across the landscape, giving them time to infiltrate into the soil and creating a net positive benefit. When we sized the swales they felt a bit too large - the basin was about 3 feet wide and 1.5 feet deep. But, in the more extreme rain events of the last decade with 3 - 4” of rain, these swales are full to the brim. This isn’t the type of rainfall we routinely get, but is common more and more with the erratic rainfall patterns coming to our regional
While that project took significant planning and design, we’ve done plenty of “hack” jobs to work with the flow and concentration of water on the landscape over the years too. These have mostly been based on observation and trial and error, directing the flow of water to places where it can pool, and away from costly infrastructure such as roads, buildings, paddocks, and parking. We work from the overall goal of slowing down and spreading water out, and giving it space to be itself and do what it wants to do, rather than just trying to get rid of it - as so much “water management” tries to do.
The concept of “vernal pools” in forests has been inspiring to us, and a good reflection since water is not always abundant. Much of the design we all need to be thinking about for the coming decades is how our landscapes can best respond to the ebb and flow of water, with the gap between the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts increasing. Vernal pools are rich habitats for wildlife and yet come and go, filling as snowmelt and rainfall in the spring overwhelm the landscape and emptying to dry in the hotter summer months. To support this natural pattern, we dug some simple pools in our woods. When we had ducks on the farm, we took advantage of times when the pools were full to give the water-loving animals access and watched them play and enjoy. These pools can also be thought of as critical elements to catch and slow water, allowing sediment to deposit before the water eventually moves on - in our case, several of the larger pools we made are upstream from the 2-acre pond. Over time, some have worked well, and some were definitely not adequately sized. We try things, observe, and adjust. The important thing is we are moving in the right direction.
We still have a ways to go, and much to learn. There are also many aspects of water management planning that fall far outside our abilities. To that end, we’ve been working with local USDA NRCS and Soil and Water folks to explore possibilities. We have roughly 3 acres of wetland that could be restored and some creekbed restoration efforts are very much needed for the drainage that leaves our site. The technical support and potential funding to do these projects from state and federal resources are helpful, but not without headaches. Navigating these programs and the bureaucracy of these offices takes not only time and determination, but also it’s important to find program staff who support the land improvement work we’re trying to do.
Steve Gabriel co-stewards Wellspring Forest Farm with his family Elizabeth, Aydin, and Maiya. The farm produces mushrooms, pastured lamb, elderberry, maple syrup, and nursery trees while engaging in research and education efforts. He is the author of Farming the Woods (2014) and Silvopasture (2019) and works as a consultant on farm and land stewardship projects, helping support people to find solutions at the intersection of their goals and the restorative needs of the land.
Regrarians Platform: regrarians.org/about/the-regrarians-platform
Brad Lancaster’s website: harvestingrainwater.com
Figure 1: Example of mapping micro watersheds at Wellspring Forest Farm
Figure 2: Identifying sources and sinks of water on the landscape
Figure 3: Lower Swale filled with Water after a 4” rain event
Figure 5: Common landscape profile for humid cool landscapes
Figure 6: Map showing swale and ponds at Wellspring Forest Farm
Figure 7: Ducks enjoying a vernal pool in the Maple woods we built