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Swales for extreme desert (Death Valley)

 
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Hi everyone first topic for me here.
I'm a crazy aussie who wants to take on Death Valley USA!
Got a 5 acre parcel (some others in same area but I'm working in the 5 acres first) and just moved onto land 10 days ago... Already working hard.

Omg how's the earth?! I hear you ask. I'll just put it like this:
Most of you have seen Geoff Lawton greening the desert.
That's what I have.
Same climate , same annual waterfall (less than 4"), the same "poof dust" on the top of the ground, and the soil underneath is just horrid (in fact doing a soil composition jar test  it was hard to tell where the silt ended and the soil began ...and it's like this down to 10 feet (we dug a hole that deep for another project).....dust as far as the eye can see... This used to be a lake bed..which means it's FLAT FLAT FLAT

Except:
By some miracle I managed to buy the ONLY property in the area with a little hill on it.
It's about 100 feet wide and 300 feet long ...like a giant berm.
The slope is 9℅ grade

Obviously we get next to no rain here.
We will get some soon when winter comes and I don't want to wait till next year to do swales.

So my biggest question is:

Should I make swales ON the little hill or just at the bottom of it on the flat ground ? (Edging principle?)
Keep in mind that even the coldest days (30s) here we still get full sun... If it rains. Chances are sun will come out 5 minutes later and dry everything up... so I'm thinking one deeper swale is better than a number of smaller swales.  (Guessing)

Yes yes we intend to put down lots of mulching and barriers from evaporation etc etc

I built an A frame this morning and want to get out there and put my markers down
Help me know where these swales should go

The hill is basically a big straight long mound.... 42 feet of 9℅ incline either side and about 20 feet of flattish level ground at the top which has a few creosote bushes

If it helps at all our soil composition tests were approximately:
15-20℅ clay (in the form of poof dust)
10℅ silt
70 ℅ grit (in all fairness I wouldn't could it soil at this stage)



Sorry for long winded post but after a week of reading and watching videos all I seem to find is how to make swales level and nothing about where best to place them for desert conditions.

I appreciate all input
Thank-you in advance
Happy to answer anything else you require to know
 
master pollinator
Posts: 11369
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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You might consider making diversion swales (swales slightly off-contour) across the hill to direct run-off to a basin at the base of the hill, where you can concentrate the water and organic matter.

This is the best resource I have found for rainwater harvesting for dry conditions: http://www.harvestingrainwater.com/

I recommend the purchase of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands Volume 2, which goes into tremendous detail about how to plan and construct rain harvesting earthworks for desert conditions.

I'm looking at my copy of the book and it says not to use diversion swales where there is alkaline soil because it is prone to water-logging.  So in those conditions perhaps a series of swales on contour with spillways to allow excess water to move slowly down the slope, and ending with a large basin at the bottom of the hill.
 
Posts: 947
Location: Graham, Washington [Zone 7b, 47.041 Latitude] 41inches average annual rainfall, cool summer drought
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You'll also want to look into the work of Neal Spackman in Saudi Arabia on 3 inches average annual rain.
 
pollinator
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More power to you.  I grew up in that area (the eastern California desert), and decided that it's too hard to make a living there, so I'm now in a much more rainy climate.  But if you want to make a living there, you left out the most important piece of information -- what are the swales for?  Do you want to grow oranges? Mulberries?  Pistachios? Pomegranates? Native desert species like palo verde?  To make the most of your rains, each plant is going to have to be fit to each swale, and I know that implies many swales and not "one deeper swale".  But your assumption that the sun will come out and dry things up quickly is in error;  on the rare days that it does rain, it tends to be a steady rain for many hours (winter) or a downpour of >1" (summer).  In fact, that's what it takes to germinate creosote bush seeds -- a summer downpour of >1".

Also, you will be making less work for yourself, if you look at what sort of natural swales and water collection spots are there to begin with and build on them.  This requires a discerning eye to be able to spot the feral palo verde or ironwood or prickly pear and the inquisitiveness to ask "now where is this plant getting its water in the infrequent rains?"

I have a project report that San Diego State did on a revegetation project at Ft. Irwin that involved the building of many small swales.  If you will send me a PM, I would be happy to provide you a copy of the report.  It may give you some ideas on how to build your swales and what plants you can get to grow in them.  
 
Rad Ruelan
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John Elliott wrote:More power to you.  I grew up in that area (the eastern California desert), and decided that it's too hard to make a living there, so I'm now in a much more rainy climate.  But if you want to make a living there, you left out the most important piece of information -- what are the swales for?  Do you want to grow oranges? Mulberries?  Pistachios? Pomegranates? Native desert species like palo verde?  To make the most of your rains, each plant is going to have to be fit to each swale, and I know that implies many swales and not "one deeper swale".  But your assumption that the sun will come out and dry things up quickly is in error;  on the rare days that it does rain, it tends to be a steady rain for many hours (winter) or a downpour of >1" (summer).  In fact, that's what it takes to germinate creosote bush seeds -- a summer downpour of >1".

Also, you will be making less work for yourself, if you look at what sort of natural swales and water collection spots are there to begin with and build on them.  This requires a discerning eye to be able to spot the feral palo verde or ironwood or prickly pear and the inquisitiveness to ask "now where is this plant getting its water in the infrequent rains?"

I have a project report that San Diego State did on a revegetation project at Ft. Irwin that involved the building of many small swales.  If you will send me a PM, I would be happy to provide you a copy of the report.  It may give you some ideas on how to build your swales and what plants you can get to grow in them.  



we know that 2 neighbors have successfully grown pomegranates, we are also going to try mulberries, figs and pioneer trees,
real
in regards to the feral trees the only thing large thing growing here is creosote and mesquite... there's a small shrub that grows on the ground which is very thorny.. but mostly they are all dried out and have no real depth to their root system.. they are just drying out in poof dust.  Aside from what neighbours have planted.. that's it for variety here.   (we are really close to Dumont Dunes.. which is like Abu Dhabi)

We've been living in this area 18 months.. this property is new to us .. but so far the longest Ive seen the ground stay moist was 2 days earlier this year January I believe .. and that was in the next valley over where they get more rain- eg last month it rained there and flooded the roads but we didnt get a drop) so Im hoping that we will see some of the steady rain you mentioned

I just joined today so I'll figure how to PM you for the report that would be fantastic thankyou
 
steward
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Howdy Rad, welcome to permies ! I am looking forward to seeing what you do with your place.
If you have not figured out how to send a PM yet, just click on Johns name and another page will pop up, look around there and you will see a little PM icon.
 
Tyler Ludens
master pollinator
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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Keep on mind that Lawton's Greening the Desert project and Neal Spackman's work uses irrigation at least to establish the trees. They are not grown using purely rainfall.  Even in my wetter climate young trees will die without irrigation.  Even cactus will die if planted in the wrong place, so I agree with John who recommends observing what plants grow where naturally, and building on natural forms before building new ones.  You mentioned wanting to start right away, but observation is critically important in a dry climate.  Rushing into things may result in much wasted work and expense of dead plants.  I know from personal experience, having killed many hundreds of $$ of plants due to not knowing what I was doing and thinking I could take short cuts.

http://permaculturenews.org/author/neal%20spackman/
 
gardener
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Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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You might consider planting mesquite as nurse plants, especially since they're clearly already adapted to the area. They can grow roots as deep as 200 feet down and 50 feet out, which can bring up subterranean water. Bees love the flowers. They throw a dappled shade that can be life saving for 'full sun' plants that can't take the desert intensity. They're even nitrogen fixers.

I wouldn't ordinarily recommend them. They have vicious thorns and can be nearly impossible to get rid of after planting. Though their beans are an expensive health food, they're also very difficult to process without very expensive equipment. But I suspect you have few viable options in your location and if you don't coppice them (by man or animal) then the thorns grow out of easy reach and you only have to deal with them during later winter when they become brittle and snap off. The shade underneath is a valuable microclimate.
 
John Elliott
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The link to the report I mentioned above is working again, so I will share it with everyone interested in this thread: REVEGETATION AND EROSION CONTROL NELSON LAKE PROJECT AREA AT NATIONAL TRAINING CENTER (NTC) FORT IRWIN, CA

And to the Army I will say: If you don't mess up the desert, you won't have to worry about revegetating it and controlling erosion.
 
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Location: Toronto Zone 6a&7a and Havelock Zone 5a&b, Ontario The Canadian Shield
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Don't know if you have seen these, Rad.

Desert Swales built in 1937 in Sonoran Desert
- created an area of lush green plants and trees
- self- seeded and not irrigated (purely rainfall and earthworks)
- note the swale banks are very high and wide. Swales can be seen on Google Earth
- Sonoran Desert can get between 3" - 15" rain per year.
http://permaculturenews.org/2014/10/11/discovering-oasis-american-desert/

Flat Land swale  
- on flat land with a 2.25 % grade (3 1/2 inch drop)
- swale captured 12,000 gallons of water (45,000 litres) from a 1-inch rain event  
-this  includes catchment from rooftop and road


Al Baydha Project in Saudi Arabian Desert
-land gets 3"- 3 1/2 " of water per year
-Temperatures of 100 degrees, evaporation currently at 15% (will go down as trees and plants grow over time).
- Al Baydha project land got no rain for 3 years. Installed earthworks in the meantime.
When rain fell the earthworks captured 13.5 million litres of rainwater.
Water comes off the mountain nearby, which you don't have.  
But berm is interesting -reminds me of the swale banks in video of Sonoran Desert, which is mostly flat.  
   Neal Spackman.  This video is also on this forum, elsewhere.

Building a berm
http://permaculturenews.org/2011/05/09/al-baydha-project-saudi-arabia-fence-vs-earth-berm/  

Underground storage of water;  stepwells and rooftop catchment — Ancient water harvesting technology
- in Golden Desert in India where much of ground water is saline, can't use wells
3 cm-16 cm of rain per year
https://www.ted.com/talks/anupam_mishra_the_ancient_ingenuity_of_water_harvesting#t-928012

 
Posts: 52
Location: Del Rio, TX
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I lived for years in Yuma, AZ and worked in that region of California as well. I'm not sure if you could establish anything besides mesquite and palo verde without irrigation, but with minimal irrigation you could establish Medjool dates, which are a big cash crop for that area (I don't know how they do in silty soil vs the sandy soil of Yuma area). As you know, you can grow all kinds of things if you add enough water (flood irrigation in Yuma and the Imperial Valley thanks to the Colorado River). Do you have a well or other source of water?

In regards to swales, I would establish multiple swales on contour, wrapping around the hill--stop the water at multiple stages if you can. I would also recommend digging out the area on top so it can become an ephemeral pond. Organic matter in any form seems like a critical resource for you, so I would do thick plantings of mesquite, palo verde, ironwood, and creosote on the upper edge of the swales.

You have set quite the challenge for yourself! Do you need to generate an income quickly, or is this a very long term project? I will be curious to hear more about the project!
 
gardener
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Location: Fraser River Headwaters, Zone3, Lat: 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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Despite living where I do, and having grown up in the temperate rainforest, I've always had a fascination with the desert and spent a year traveling and observing desert bio-geography in the SW USA, as well as watching tons of videos on it, and reading online and in books.  

A few things to consider:

-I would definitely swale your hill.
...the hill is your defining feature, but I would at this time get you to try to envision it as a pond.  It is obviously not a pond, but it could become a massive reserve of in-the-ground water for your property.
...a shallow catchment on the top of the hill begins the charging of the deep central area of the hill, and slowly builds a water table within it.   If you have access to any woody debris from anywhere, the base of this pond might be a good place to bury it.  The depth of the mound will resist evaporation, and the capillary action up through the aggregates due to evaporation will permeate the mass of the mound with moisture during heating, even though you will probably not be able to tell right away, even after it rains... it's relative to what it is now.  Dig the pond slightly deeper on the south side.  All material dug out of the pond should probably be placed so that it encourages shade on the deeper part of your 'pond' thus gaining the most water before evaporation can take place.  Any swales on the slopes will continue infiltrating water into the depth of the hill, which will accumulate, and eventually make your hill a water source.
...depending on the slope, which obviously varies somewhat, and as others have mentioned, build your swales in accordance with any natural features/obstructions on the hill, with the idea that you will be wanting your mulberries and figs and whatnot to have room to grow and you will have space to work around them.
...-build a swale around the base of your hill, maybe ten feet away, and plant some of your dates along that edge.  This will give you deep roots where you need to keep your water resource and function it as part of your landcape around the hill.
...when you build your swale around the base of the hill, you will notice where the lowest area is, as the swale will be slightly further from the hill.  This will be the Oasis of your Gher.  Geoff Lawton did a video about a gher, which is more of a large dune but serves the same bio-geographic purpose, that if you can find (I'll try to find it later), will be a great resource.  The base of your hill will weep water to this one spot the most, and this would be the best place to concentrate a future oasis/orchard with Date Palms as your over-story canopy.
...wander your property and look for any spots that show where water has eroded the landcape in large rain events.  Concentrate the rest of your landscaping and plantings in these areas.  ditch/swale/pond these water channels out of these areas into the landscape.  Anything that you can to impede the flow of water by slowing it, being it the placement of individual rocks or making gambions, will keep the water in your property as long as possible so that it infiltrates.

-A wheelbarrow path is your friend!  Build one up the ridge of your hill to the top, with side branches that go into your swales for easy access.

-Plantings:
...the pods of mesquite are extremely nutritious, and as mentioned are a fantastic nitrogen fixer/nurse tree/microclimate, so get these established everywhere that you are planning to get food systems in place.  There are other nitrogen fixers that are native to the SW which could also be useful for the same reasons as mesquite.  Research them, get them, plant them.  Once they are established then you have multiple wells and pumps bringing water from the sub soil depths to your surface and air.  After a time, you have the benefit of chop and drop, and or the techniques of coppicing and those used in Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration
...get prickly pear (some varieties have edible thornless pads (nopalito), and some are better for fruit-delicious!) and other edible cacti, once you have the water available to get them through the initial rooting phase.  These make great fences and/or biomass for other things.
...ocatillo is an amazing plant used for fences in the SW Indigenous villages, along with prickly pear.  After a large rain event, the plant, normally just a long thorny bunch of stalks, produces sprouts of leaves to maximize solar gain (instead of just using it's thorns for photosynthesis).  These leaves happen to be absolutely delicious.
...you will have to dampen/shade, and otherwise nurse all your plantings until the rains/roots have found critical mass.
...all plantings should include buried wood/biomass and be in catchments that can be mulched.

 
Roberto pokachinni
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Oh.  I forgot.  Just in the event that you actually get a serious 5 hundred year rain event or something [ ]!!! it is always a good idea to put spillways in your swales.  You might see a natural gully like formation in your hill slope, so this would be a great place to put stones and create overflows lips for your swales.  Maybe it might serve as a sort of dryland event creek that goes into your lower swales.  If there is no such obvious feature, then I would put this near (adjacent?)your wheelbarrow path, so that the uphill path is 'ditched' on one side and drained to the one side which is also the overflow for the swales.
 
Kevin Young
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One thing to check out that I had never heard of before: desert truffles. https://vimeo.com/194136965 start at minute 44. Fascinating potential to help your plants and provide an alternative crop!
 
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This looks like a great tool for growing trees in the desert.  http://www.dewharvest.com/index.html  And you can reuse up to ten years, found this very fascinating.  I would definitely look at your landscape closely and try swales and gabions  and see what areas that you are going to give you the best bang for the amount of labor that you have available.
 
pollinator
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Good on ya and best of luck! I spent 8months in the Mojave and Sonora deserts and around Death Valley doing restoration for the Student Conservation Association wilderness crew. I wish I knew then (2004-5) what I know now about permaculture, as that's essentially what we were trying to do. I might reach out to them, though largely we were removing illegal roads into Wilderness areas, the essential part of the work was getting things growing again to visually obscure the road/path to prevent further damage and to facilitate natural restoration/succession. The most effective methods seemed to be building up organic matter (we built frankenbushes from dead and down brush), and these would provide shade, wind protection, seed catchment places, condensation, nutrients and ultimately soil accumulation as well as reducing the erosion that would occur otherwise. We would also collect the native seeds around the restoration area that were ripe and collect these in strategically protected places. It is amazing how the native plants of the desert will respond with growth with just a few degrees less extreme temperatures and a little wind protection, a bit more water from condensation. I would strongly recommend utilizing the solutions to the challenges of Death Valley that lie within its biodiversity, which is surprising and beautiful. That being said there iare selfish reasons I live in a place of extreme temperance in NW CA, but I thank you for your work to help life flourish in the desert.
 
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Rad, corageous decision!

I would forget swales, buy 2 tones of hay,  spread it on the hill and plant 5 or 10 baby legume trees in each hole. You seem to need water infiltration, organic matter and a lot of shade. For the price of making the swales you had tonnes of organic matter

Good luck !
 
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any update on this?  did you plant in death valley?  im in SoCal and interested in greening our deserts
 
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