From January to July 2023, the United States experienced 15 weather and climate disasters, each with costs exceeding $1 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That adds up to a record number of events of such magnitude, from severe storms to historic floods across the nation.
How did we get here?
“We don’t have a deficit of facts and theories,” said journalist Judith D. Schwartz. However, her outlook on water management—from soil to sky—is far less dire than the typical climate scene being painted. “We have the solution. It’s all out there. What’s left is people challenges,” she said.
Schwartz’s award-winning 2013 book titled Cows Save the Planet, focused specifically on soil “as a crucible for many environmental, economic and social challenges and solutions,” she said.
Through her writing, it became clear to Schwartz that you cannot talk about water unless you’re talking about soil. But the conversation all around her was limited to “what does or doesn’t come down from the sky,” she said.
An article about the drought in California caught her attention when it estimated the state needed the water equivalent of an astronomical number of Olympic-size swimming pools to recover.
“I thought, this is meaningless. Because if the soil is all compacted, eroded and depleted, well then, you’re just going to be back in drought mode,” she said. Healthy, carbon-rich soil is like a sponge that holds water and creates a healthy impact on the environment around it. For Schwartz, that’s where the answers lie.
For decades, she has watched the climate crisis conversation follow a steady, linear path, the message being that climate change puts added stress on water sources. “But if we understand how the earth manages heat, it’s mostly through water phase changes…By working with the water cycle, we can enhance climate regulation,” she said.
That’s when she decided her book, Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, would focus on water as a verb, not a noun.
“It opens up and enlarges the conversation,” she said.
In her research, she attended conference after conference trying to glean insights from the experts. And that’s when she realized so much of the information about how we can do better is already on the table.
But getting people to act—together—remains the biggest challenge. For instance, we’ve all heard stories of rural and urban communities within, close proximity, vying for water resources, while both faced with different needs and obstacles.
“Water connects us all. It connects highlands and lowlands, and communities upstream to cities at the coast,” Schwartz wrote in Water in Plain Sight. Instead of competition, she suggests consensus.
In rural New Mexico, she attended a workshop led by Jeff Goebel, a leading expert in consensus building and visioning for sustainable solutions. In a setting she described as “really the wild west,” she observed townspeople, ranchers, and the Bureau of Land Management, who had been in a legal tangle over water access. In a matter of days, the community went from “suspicion, sabotage, and gunfire to committing to work together to restore long-held community relationships and the land,” she said.
Schwartz has since started training in Goebel’s method and following his work in other parts of the country “where people are saying: ‘We have no water; there is no hope.’ And he helped them see where they have agency,” she said.
One of the clearest places is the ground below them.
“When soil is left bare, water evaporates, carbon oxidizes and microorganisms die. The ground becomes a hot plate and can no longer sustain life,” Schwartz wrote.
It’s remarkable how rapidly this process of desertification can occur. Based on information from the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, which Schwartz cited in her writing, at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, all soil moisture is used for plant growth. At 100 degrees, only 15 percent. And at 130, all moisture is lost.
“Degraded and desertified land is the backdrop for much rural poverty, which ultimately means urban poverty as well, because when land won’t produce, people see no option but to flock to the cities,” Schwartz wrote. That’s why working together to restore land and build healthy soil can be a rural community’s best chance of transforming what may feel like inevitable water struggles.
Schwartz and many others engaged in the climate conversation have become invested in a global movement being led by Savory, an organization facilitating the regeneration of grasslands that are key to this puzzle. Savory was founded by Allan Savory, whose Ted Talk is one of the 100 most-watched due to its powerful messages about stopping desertification, as well as the mindset that causes it.
His organization utilizes “holistic management,” a framework for decision-making that factors in the complexities of land use, planned grazing, financial outcomes, and ecological monitoring. Savory has created 50 hubs globally, trained more than 14,000 land managers, and successfully brought holistic management to nearly 16 million hectares of land.
Schwartz detailed the astounding outcomes of Savory’s approach on the ground in ecologically devastated parts of the world, like Zimbabwe. Over the course of 15 years, land there has been revived, wildlife has returned, and erosion has been halted.
Schwartz has found similarly noteworthy examples of environmental wins within the United States, from water cycle restoration training to condensation catchment systems.
“It’s time to get real about appreciating that water is at once a force that drives ecological processes and a product of them,” Schwartz wrote.
It’s time for our communities to treat water as a verb, not a noun, she says.
Caroline Tremblay is a freelance writer who assists with news coverage of Radically Rural, a two-day summit on rural issues held in Keene, New Hampshire. This year’s event is September 27-28.