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  • Jim Chamberlin

Keyline Design Works with Water

Happy Dancing Turtle recently hosted journalist and National Geographic Explorer, Erica Gies, to discuss Water Always Wins, a book in which she advocates we build a new relationship with water, one where we value and nurture it. The current relationship often looks at water as a problem, either because of too much, or not enough. We try to control it with dams and levees, or get rid of it by filling and draining wetlands, or channelizing waterways to move it downstream. Gies argues that when we try to control water, eventually water always wins, and people, most often those with the fewest means, lose.


This new relationship with water values and nurtures water by capturing it through many small actions, holding it on the landscape and allowing it to infiltrate into the ground. It means we must give it space to expand when needed, and work within natural systems to Slow Water.


My first experience with Slow Water was in 2003. I was working for our local Soil and Water Conservation District where one of my many duties was working on urban stormwater issues. For new development projects, variances, or conditional use permits, the SWCD was tasked with reviewing stormwater plans; impervious surface percentages, flow calculations, stormwater holding capacities, and erosion control practices. It was a lot of math, which comes easy for me, and we were reducing erosion and it felt like we were protecting water. But we weren’t nurturing it, and doing little to Slow Water.


That year I attended a three-day permaculture workshop, hosted at Garden Farme, the finca of pioneer organic foods advocate Bruce Bacon. Permaculture, a landscape design process guided by nature and basic ecological principles, was new to me. One of the instructors at this workshop was Mark Shepard, a farmer who spoke about the work he was doing to restore the soil and the ecology on New Forest Farm. Located in the driftless area of southwest Wisconsin, with highly erodible soils and hilly karst topography, the once row cropped land was highly degraded.

Shepard was using a method called keyline design, first developed by P.A. Yeomans, where water from areas of concentration is captured in a swale and berm system, and moved slowly across the slope, giving it time to slow down and infiltrate into the soil. He spoke of water as an asset, something he wanted to keep on his property, an energy source to keep high on the landscape. This was a different relationship with water than those formed through the stormwater plans that came across my desk at the Soil and Water office.


At the time Shepard was ripping the bottom of the swales with a subsoiler once a year to increase water infiltration in the heavy soil, and wetland plant species were showing up on once-dry ridges. Three years later, when I next heard him speak, he had dug small ponds where he was seeing wetland species, and he was finding frogs and other amphibians high up the hillsides. In 2013 he published Restoration Agriculture, a book outlining his journey on New Forest Farm and laying out his vision for agriculture in the Midwest. In it he speaks of these “key pocket ponds” spread throughout the farm, with breeding populations of seven species of amphibians, the benefactors of Slow Water.



Arial view of swales and berms example
New Forest Farm

Farm and laying out his vision for agriculture in the Midwest. In it he speaks of these “key pocket ponds” spread throughout the farm, with breeding populations of seven species of amphibians, the benefactors of Slow Water.


See Slow Water in Action

Keylines are a Slow Water tool. Applicable at any scale, they work with nature to spread out, capture, and aide in water infiltration. They give water space and work to store water in the soil, our best and most economical place to store it. I find them fascinating, and I’m out during spring thaws and heavy rainstorms, observing how the water behaves on the land, and making small tweaks to capture more.


In the Pine River area, there’s a great opportunity to see a keyline system come to life. On May 10th and 11th HDT will be assisting a keyline design and installation workshop at Balsam Moon Preserve, west of Pine River. Join us if you’d like to learn more about capturing water on your property. This project is part of Balsam Moon's field regeneration project. Get details here.



Water capture at HUG campus. The HDT garden is designed to capture and hold water high on the landscape. While not true keylines, the swale and berm system helps to capture water during extreme weather events and allow it to infiltrate into the ground.

Water slowly  flowing through a grassy rivet
Keyline swale at Island Lake Farm after a 6” rainfall in July.

A Yeoman’s plow, a subsoiler with design “shoe” to lift and aerate soil for better water infiltration and soil health.

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