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 BLOG >> April 2018

Walking the Watershed [Nature
Posted on April 18, 2018 @ 09:31:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Last weekend I decided to walk the watershed at my ridge top farm property. The lowest area of our property has a marsh area that eventually turns into a running stream. It is the headwater area for the stream. The stream then runs for about 500 feet to the end of our property onto our neighbor's property.

As I followed the stream down I noticed 5 tributaries that joined the stream. In some cases these "tributaries" appeared to contribute almost the same volume of water so it would be difficult to say which stream was the "main" stream. A watershed does not have to end where the water meets an ocean or lake. You can arbitrarily stop at any point in your journey down a stream and say that you are only interested in the watershed before that point. For me, the end of my journey and my watershed was about 2 kms (1.25 miles) down the stream where the first large pool of water forms. Because it is next to a road called MacKillop's Road, I decided to call the watershed the MacKillop Pool Watershed.

It came as a bit of a surprise to me that intimate knowledge of a watershed is now within my reach. All I had to do was follow all the tributaries back to their headwaters and I could better understand how the landscape creates the flow that is observed draining into the MacKillop pool.

I walked one tributary which took me far into the woods and increasingly into wilder country. Some bears are waking up and some coyotes are roaming so I decided to stop my journey before reaching the end. I'll finish the walk with a partner in the near future to see where the headwaters lie.

The next tributary I walked was the first tributary that meets the stream after it exits my property. I followed that stream quite a distance to a neighbors farm where the stream originates around a wet area of his field. I encountered the most debris so far on that tributary which I intend to clean up on my next walk when I have something to transport it out with. One of the main causes of debris in this area is the open fields and wind blowing stuff off properties that end up in low points in the landscape such as streams. One item that blew into the stream was Santa Claus (and some white silage wrap).

I still have 2 or 3 more tributaries that I will need to walk in order to visit the full MacKillop Pool Watershed. I'm looking forward to what I might observe and learn on these walks.

Fallen trees, dense alders, and spruce thickets are some of the obstacles that I frequently encountered as I walked the watershed. It is not a walk you do for pure pleasure. I carry a Fiskars billhook to help me get through really dense areas (and if I encounter some animal that wants me for a meal). One way to walk a watershed is by looking for "reaches" along the watershed. The term "reach" is used in geology to refer to a level, uninterrupted stretch of a stream. I find myself wanting to use the term "reach" to refer to the land beside and/or accross the stream that looks like the best way to get to the next point along the stream. When you are in the midst of many obstacles to your path, your plan is reduced to trying to "reach" the next viable point ahead.

The term "reach" is one that might be useful for entrepreneurs to have in their vocabulary. On the one hand you have a business plan which tries to map out the equivalent of a watershed, and then you have a reach which is how you actually navigate that watershed in a world full of obstacles. From where you are at, you need to continually look around you and figure out what is the best way to get upstream. There is no point in planning too far ahead given the uncertainty of the obstacles in your path so you look for a "reach" that at least keeps you moving in the right direction. And as you find and cross a series of reaches, you may eventually achieve the goal of getting to the headwater.

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Observing Flow [Agriculture
Posted on April 13, 2018 @ 09:42:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This blog is a continuation of my recent blogs on rivers and flow patterns (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

I didn't have a chance to go for my river walk for a few days so was restricted to only thinking about flow. The last couple of days I have resumed my walks and vividly observed an interesting feature of water flow called backflow.

If you watch the water in a river go past you, you probably noticed areas in the stream where water seemed to swirl away from the main body of the river flow and go backwards. It can be difficult to visualize what is going on in these areas just from observing the water ripples. Fortunately, the last couple of days there have been ice plates floating on the river that can be used to help visualize these backflow forces. In this video, you can observe the ice plates whirling back into the eddy pool.

An observation is not really an observation until you make a statement about that observation that you believe to be true. For example:

The residence time of water in a stream is increased in backflow sections of a stream.

Water stays in the river longer where there is backflow because it cannot escape the backflow forces. This seems to be what is going on based on seeing the release and continued recruitment of ice plates into the backflow section of the river.

The art of observing is also the art of making observation statements that have some generality and importance. I could formulate the observation statement "there is a yellow rock protruding from the stream" but who cares about that observation statement? It is, however, important to make mundane observations in certain contexts. If you are designing a garden or landscape for a client, it would be important to note things like "ditch is overflowing", "client has 2 dogs", "sun at noon is over the bird feeder from center of deck", etc... In the case of my backflow statement, it is a useful reminder that water does not flow at a uniform pace down a stream, the residence time of water may differ in different sections of the stream.

In Lean Startup Theory the goal is to learn about your market as quickly as you can by interacting systematically with it. There are some specific recommendations from lean startup theory about how to measure this learning progress, but one simple metric might be how many significant observation statements you are able to come up with about your market and the running of your business.

These observation statements do not have to lead to immediate benefits in performance but the idea is that as you build up observation statements, and a truer picture of the world, that there would eventually be benefits in terms of better design or better running of your business.

We are not passive observers of nature and the observations that we make are often to see what effect various manipulations might have. These active observations are also an important part of the observations statements you might generate.

One way I intend to learn more about rivers to by making more observation statements. The backflow observation statement is a starting point. It leads me to wonder if I would be more likely to catch trout in backflow sections of a river than in other sections. If true, this could be regarded as the payoff for making these observations, but the payoff for me is to enjoy my river walks more by observing and learning from nature. A more general point is to suggest that a good way to measure learning (business or otherwise) is through the number and quality of observation statements generated from passive and active observation contexts.

Bill Mollison's 1983 Permaculture Design Course offers a good discussion on observation and making observation statements. Alot of his course consisted of making observation statements, debating them, relating them to other observations and to theories, and making design suggestions based on the observation statements. Bill advised new landowners to spend some time observing and making observation statements about their property (e.g., 15 Things to Observe Before Starting Your Permaculture Design) prior to making any design changes to it as this is likely to generate better designs.

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Comfort Addiction [Entrepreneurship
Posted on April 5, 2018 @ 06:06:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I'm getting ready to go out in the blustery cold wind to do some grape vine pruning for an hour or so. Sometimes I wonder why I do it? The question presupposes that we should live our lives in perpetual comfort instead of challenging ourselves against sometimes unpleasant circumstances.

The title of this blog was inspired by an essay in George Monbiot's book of essays called How Did We Get Into This Mess? (2016). The essay is called "Addicted To Comfort" and here is a sample of the impressive protest writing on display in that essay (and the book in general):

Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural prescriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves? How many would have foreseen a national conversation - in public and in private - that revolves around the three R's: renovation, recipes and resorts? How many would have guessed that people possessed of unimaginable wealth and leisure and liberty would spend their time shopping for onion goggles and wheatgrass juicers? Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chain stores. ~ p. 25

To experience the fullness of life, it is necessary to get out of your comfort zone. I expect that once I start pruning I will realize that it is not such a bad thing to be doing. I will, however, pull on longjohns to add confort. I am not a masochist.

Ben Falk echoed this sentiment in his excellent recent video on maple surgaring. Ben Falk turns philosophical in this section of the video and ends with the admonition to "Stay vigorous, don't make things too easy".

I think entrepreneurship and private investing are also exercises in getting outside of comfort zones. These snippets are useful reminders of that.

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Mapping Watersheds [Nature
Posted on April 4, 2018 @ 11:58:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This blog is a continuation of my recent blogs on rivers and flow patterns (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

If you want to understand river flow you will need to study some watershed maps. The watershed of a stream is the collector area that feeds water to that stream. Properties of the watershed determine how that watershed responds to a rain event. The watershed response determines stream flow volume.

A digital elevation map (DEM) can be used to render the surface of the watershed landscape. Other maps can be overlayed onto this map to indicate, for example, infiltration rates and hydraulic roughness. Finally, if you overlay a grid onto these maps you can compute on a cell-by-cell basis (using slope, infiltration, runoff, roughness as parameters) the contribution of that watershed cell to the stream flow. You can add precipitation to this model to compute the response of the watershed and predict flow volumes.

This is a physics-based approach (versus the more common empirical/statistical approach) to simulating and predicting stream flow. It sounds fairly simple in theory but there are many details that need to be figured out if you ever wanted to do this in practice. A good book for learning those details is Distributed Hydrologic Modelling using GIS (3rd Ed., 2016) by Baxter E. Vieux.

A Geographic Information System or GIS is a piece of software that not alot of the general public uses. Now that I have a reason to use one, to map watersheds, I began looking around for a free opensource GIS system. From my research, the premier opensource version appears to be QGIS.

I am using a windows desktop operating system for the software so I downloaded an older stable 64-bit version (2.18.18-1-Setup-x86_64.exe) from http://download.osgeo.org/qgis/windows. This is a large download that installs alot of opensource geo software for windows so expect download and installation to take awhile. The latest version (v 3.0.x) can also be downloaded and run alongside the older version if you want to experiment with a buggier version of the software without as much tutorial support as the stable version. The QGIS software can also be run on other operating systems by finding the appropriate repository to download from.

My first impression is that QGIS is full of features that would take quite a while to master. There appear to be good learning resources out there for it. It is used in industry and by governments so it is not immature software. Powerful geomatic software is now within the reach of the average Jack and Jill.

To understand river flow we have to understand the larger context of the river. That larger context is called the watershed and it can often be defined precisely based on how the land drains.

A watershed is like the market for a product or service. It may be a small watershed that supplies a small first-order stream or it may be a large watershed that supplies a third-order stream. Properties of the marketshed determine the flow of traffic to your product or service. If you have alot of time on your hands, you might use GIS systems, overlays, and grid-based computing to model how consumer traffic might flow to your product or service.

Those who advocate for a bio-regional economy often make use of the watershed concept to delimit what is considered to be the local economy. Proactively, you should make an effort to trade with those who you share a watershed with. That seems like a crazy idea in some ways but in other ways it is reflective of how things worked historically and that history still bares an imprint on current trading practices if you look at trade through a watershed lens.

Another reason to trade with someone who you share a watershed with is because if that person lives upstream or downstream from you, then you are all interconnected by the various uses that you make of the water resource. Water quality and volume is a function of the whole watershed, not just some section of it. This is a very important connection that watershed users share and could be the basis of thoughtful trade patterns. Restricting your trade to just those within a certain distance from you (e.g., 100 mile diet) can cut across watersheds. That may not be that important to you, but it is a factor that is perhaps less arbitrary than a simple distance measure for defining what is local or not.

In conclusion, mapping watersheds is useful for understanding and predicting water flows. Techniques and technologies used for mapping watersheds might also be relevant to mapping marketsheds. Finally, the quest for sustainability dictates that the marketshed and the watershed should become more aligned.

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