when water falls on a natural landscape, it does many things

When water falls on a natural landscape, it does many things. It forms pools in little indentations, which gradually empty into the soil or evaporate back into the air. It infiltrates straight into the earth, into shallow layers or deep down right into the underlying water table. It runs downhill, getting absorbed along its path, and providing life-giving hydration to plants, fungi and bacteria living underfoot. Those organisms take it in, use it to grow and thrive, then give it to back to the system for others to use. Sometimes it ends up in a lake, or a river, and goes on a trip. Water in its natural state works hard at keeping everyone and every it alive and well. It drives the most fundamental cycles of life, and is the backbone of biodiversity – it’s why a jungle houses far more species than a desert. Water provides places for birds to land, fish to exist, and fuels the processes of the trillions upon trillions of microorganisms that keep everything in order.

Water that falls in the city, unless it’s lucky enough to find an absorbent park or a crack in the sidewalk, follows a much different path. First it pools on the surface, picking up all the grease, fine particles, heavy metals, and hydrocarbons that lie waiting there. Then, it is toxified state, it flows away quickly, as quickly as possible, along the imperceptible slopes that engineers planned for its arrival, and into a drain. That drain sometimes, as is the case in Montreal, already contains a steady flow of water, the stuff that we put down the drain after showering or flushing the toilet. In this illustrious company, the water becomes even more polluted, and they all cascade off together toward a treatment plant. This would be a happy-ending story if that treatment was complete, and could restore the water to the blissful state it had moments before hitting the pavement. Unfortunately in reality the treatment only about half helps, and, during a heavy storm, all of those drops remain untreated, watersliding along with your toilet contents, straight into the river. It’ll have to hang out near the top, or try to cling to the sides, in order for natural systems to gradually bring it back to its pure state. Otherwise, what you get is brown scuzzy water bodies, no use to anyone, or any it, except the companies in the next town that’ll get paid to clean it up so that residents can have something to drink.

But where’s the solution – we need to live in cities, and the water needs to fall. We can’t stop needing it to be clean. What we could try to do is keep that water around instead of chasing it away out of sight. We could try diverting it, treating it, pooling it up, and letting it absorb. The soil is ten times better at cleaning it than the treatment plant. We’ll need to keep some healthy, absorbent soil around, and crack open roads and parking lots to let the water in and out.

The best part is that if we could keep the water in the city, we could invite back some of the nature that tends to follow it around. Water in the landscape would provide the ingredients for all sorts of life : native plants, mushrooms, roaming birds, frogs, foxes and salamanders. Water bodies have an irresistible allure in the natural world, attracting all sorts of species, including our own, to lounge and recharge along their banks.

Which is why this field is such a great opportunity. With forty years’ worth of untouched vegetation already established, and natural ridges and gullies to work with, the landscape could easily be designed to catch, infiltrate, and collect stormwater. Currently when it rains we end up with a small lake forming in the parking lot next door – with a little work that lake could be in the ground, where the water can serve a purpose. The creation of a wet zone would only diversify the natural habitat of this already hospitable place. If this field manages to remain wild and traffic stays low, as is the wish of the citizens’ committee and the neighbouring nuns, smart water management could help transform this abandoned field into a biological reserve. As well as helping resident species to survive the harsh city conditions, it could also invite new ones to settle and develop in the space. Water hyacinth and gray treefrogs anyone? You’ll never know until you try.

Sara Finley

Sara Finley holds an MSc. in Bioresource Engineering from McGill and a B.A. in International Development Studies from the University of Calgary. She has worked over the years in environmental research, green building, and water management. Sara has lived in the Mile End since moving to Montreal in 2003, and is a regular visitor to the Champs des Possibles when she finds herself missing the wild open spaces of her native Alberta.

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