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Blog - Charles River Watershed Association

Water Transformation Part 3: Diversity

Posted by Robert Zimmerman

2/16/15 5:55 PM

PREVIOUS POST: Water Transformation Part 2 - Wasteful and Inflexible  

Water Transformation Part 3: Diversity - Charles River Watershed AssociationIn Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I contrasted forests as water systems to our engineered water systems. I identified three important fundamental differences in the way forests deal with water when compared with the way we engineer water:

  • Forests turn waste into new resources

  • They keep water local

  • They are flexible, adaptable, and interconnected


I’d add that they are interconnected so intimately that none among us fully comprehends the complexity of their relationships, though some among us appreciate them.


But if all we do is examine the natural world for its evolved engineering, we miss its most significant benefit: it promotes and supports rich diversity. Diversity is elemental. In fact, there is no healthy forest, wetland, or ocean without rich life in all forms and manifestations, interdependent and thriving.

The differences provide for variety and complexity in the life supported and makes the system more resilient to stress.


Environmental Justice - Charles River Watershed AssociationContrast this with our own engineering. We have placed the systems providing us water and energy, sewage treatment, waste incineration, automobile transportation, and other historically nuisance trades near the places and people least represented in our political process. Power plants, wastewater collection and treatment facilities asphalt and concrete plants, food processing, abattoirs, trash disposal and incineration, highways… the list is long. These necessary but often dangerous needs of society are disproportionately sited in economically and otherwise disadvantaged communities, or conversely, economic conditions force the least represented among us to locate near such facilities.


I’m hard-pressed to find an equivalent in nature. No one segment of the forest absorbs bad stuff to support all other segments. On the contrary, all segments flourish in support of one another. They are different, but the differences provide for variety and complexity in the life supported and makes the system more resilient to stress.


Regrettably, there are increasingly strident warnings coming from the life sciences community that over the next several decades we will be witness to the collapse and extinction of as many as 20 percent of the species on earth. Today’s rates of extinction are as much as three orders of magnitude higher than an expected “natural” extinction rate, and in the future, rates are poised to increase. Every day it becomes increasingly clear that the stresses we are visiting on nature are not sustainable on any level.


There is, then, a fourth fundamental difference between forests as systems and cities as systems: forests promote and support rich diversity. If we are to truly build a world that will not only sustain us, but adapt to a changing climate we must build what restores and works with nature. A thriving and sustainable future for us is one and the same as a thriving and sustainable future for nature.

NEXT POST: Water Transformation Part 4 - Nature’s Principles


Topics: Charles River Cleanup, Charles River, Climate Change, Climate Change Adaptation, Stormwater, Green Infrastructure, Pollution, Smart Growth, Smart Sewering, Distributed Wastewater, Blue Cities, Water Transformation Series, Environmental Justice

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About Charles River Watershed Association:

One of the country's oldest watershed organizations, Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) was formed in 1965 in response to public concern about the declining condition of the Charles. Since its earliest days of advocacy, CRWA has figured prominently in major clean-up and watershed protection efforts, working with government officials and citizen groups from 35 Massachusetts watershed towns from Hopkinton to Boston. Initiatives over the last fifty years have dramatically improved the quality of water in the watershed and fundamentally changed approaches to water resource management.