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Are swales always good?

 
steward
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Here is an interesting view on swales from Daren Doherty:

 
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Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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One size fits all isn't true for most things. It is usually told by people that only have one thing to sell you.
 
master pollinator
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I think it's important to understand that there are a variety of reasons to use swales. The most common reason displayed on the many videos, is that they prevent water from being lost to runoff in environments that receive more than enough water in one season and then not enough for long stretches. Usually, the subject property is in a zone that gets inadequate rainfall generally and it has been overgrazed or otherwise abused. It's a repair strategy, used on land where streams have dried up, the water table has dropped and absorption of precipitation has been reduced. Often, it is mentioned that the land is water repellant and allows water to run off when it is needed where it fell. Huge swaths of the Earth could benefit from swales designed to deal with exactly this type of land.

Erosion is another concern that can be dealt with by creating swales as natural settling tanks that trap soil and allow water to move downward.

For some, the creation of springs is very important. Water that falls on slopes in very dry areas is usually lost to runoff, so in some cases the slope is used as a catchment zone. There is no plan to turn the slope into a lush, productive area. The creation of a year round water source is a paramount concern for most who farm marginal lands.

For spring creating strategies to be most effective, you must own a large enough property that the spring develops on your own land. I've read a few threads here where someone is hoping to buy a few acres of semi desert with a plan to trap rain on their upper slopes and thus create a lush oasis only a couple hundred feet away. In most cases, such a strategy will fail.
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On land that is quite flat, with nice deep soil, a swale is not something I would bother with. On my own land, swales would do nothing for me. The land is a gravelly silt. I'm on a ridge above a river. Water sinks in easily and it keeps going. Any water that I encourage to percolate will come out of the ground somewhere near the Nanaimo river which lies a few hundred feet beyond my property line. For me, soil improvement and capturing winter rains in ponds can work to preserve winter rains for use during the growing season. Swales for me, are like French drains. They are a great way for me to dispose of ecess water that I will never see again.
 
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Swales are also primarily a tree growing system. On a cattle farm, yes I imagine that you'll end up with springs popping up after putting in swales. You can divide your paddocks up with trees / shelter belts on swales and a network of ponds where springs naturally pop up. As an alternative to ponds, putting in more swales where the natural springs pop up will re disperse the water and put it back into the ground.

You'll end up with long, skinny paddocks on contour separated by shelter belts as opposed to a traditional large open area.
 
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Great input on this thread already!

Here's the two cents of a desert rat.

Swales, or their flat-land cousins, "infiltration pits" are a huge boon in arid zones where soils tend to be sealed as in the case of tight clay or desert "glaze" or sometimes have too much gravel/sand that easily sheds water.

If your purpose is to rehydrate the soil, raise the water table, and grow trees to support a food forest; swales are awesome. Geoff Lawton stated in his online PDC that they have noticed in their projects around the world, in all types of landscapes, it takes about 7 years to fully rehydrate the land.

And where I, personally, on my 1/6 acre lot in downtown Phoenix will never see a spring popping up on my property (unless one of my drip emitters blows a head), what COULD ultimately happen if we began to harvest water in nature strips, front and back yards, etc, is that we could slow and sink the water and being to rebuild the ground water so that the main river that runs through Phoenix - which RARELY has any surface water in it (Salt River) would start to show ponding in low spots that might last for several months. And probably a Mesquite bosc would start to grow there, and a small riparian habitat would grow. In fact, this is one of my goals for downtown Phoenix - to do these "green infrastructure" projects and eventually see a hint of water in the Salt River. I work with a group called "Watershed Management Group" and you can see a project we did in downtown Phoenix here: http://permaculturenews.org/2013/05/18/one-desert-city-turns-stormwater-into-an-abundant-oasis-using-green-infrastructure-practices/

Interestingly, Village Homes in Davis, CA (a fantastic permaculture subdivision built in the 70s) uses swales between the homes to capture roof runoff and rehydrate the soil. They have been able to grow more food plants with less stress than they would have normally in their hot and dry (14" rain) climate.
"One remarkable element in the development of Village Homes involved the drainage concept of having natural swales and collection ponds to collect rain water and encourage it to seep down into the local water table instead of being pumped through storm drains to an evaporation pond. It was remarkable in part because during the early earth moving and shaping of the system, there was a severe drought and the system was untested. Finally, after two years, in November of 1977 it started to rain heavily. One day Mike was supposed to be conducting the "final walkthrough" for a newly completed house when he started pacing, looking outside, pacing, looking out. Finally he couldn't resist. He apologized for halting the inspection, saying, "I'm sorry, I just have to go out and see if the drainage system is working." It was and still is. In fact, the city's streets flooded that day and excess water backed into the Village Homes system, which absorbed the city's water without any problem." http://www.villagehomesdavis.org/public/about/history
 
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Here is another video where Darren talks about swales vs Keyline plowing, touching on the costs of each.

 
R Scott
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The other swale management cost issue Darren (and Geoff) all talk about when pressed is fencing. Keeping livestock OFF the swales can make paddock shift an expensive PITA.

 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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R Scott wrote:The other swale management cost issue Darren (and Geoff) all talk about when pressed is fencing. Keeping livestock OFF the swales can make paddock shift an expensive PITA.



As I recall, I think Geoff said he uses electric fences to accomplish this (solar powered). I have seen instances in dryland or "brittle" climates where one makes swales really really wide and grows trees INSIDE the swales, where animals are desired to imprint the soil and add nutrient like in Savory's HRM. I'm always fascinated by the tweaks to the system depending on what climate you're in.
 
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