A Life on Dry Land

David Bainbridge, Revelle ’70, uses ancient techniques to solve modern problems

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Photo: Steve Gunther, Storey Press. Courtesy David Bainbridge

It’s no secret that historic droughts have plagued all corners of the world in recent years. The fight for conservation has quickly moved from the arena of conceptual politics into our everyday lives as we all search for ways to curb our water usage. A leader in these efforts is David Bainbridge, Revelle ’70, a seasoned veteran of sustainability solutions. While the mainstream has just recently jumped on the bandwagon of environmental consciousness, Bainbridge has been driving the effort for decades.

Within his career in sustainability, Bainbridge has seen his latest water conservation efforts shift to the smaller scale in the hope that they will make a universal impact. His new book, Gardening with Less Water, provides a set of methods and tricks to irrigate conservatively and efficiently. From cheap and efficient wick irrigation to the simple, lesser-known olla pot technique, Bainbridge’s new book offers advice gleaned from nearly 25 years of discoveries and experimentation.

“It grew out of our work in restoration in the Mojave, the Colorado and the Sonoran deserts,” says Bainbridge. “We were working in places where there wasn’t any available water, so we’d often have to haul water from the nearest town or the nearest hydrant or even from San Diego. There’s a limit to how much water you can carry in the truck, so every drop of water became very precious.”

In search of more efficient ways to irrigate, Bainbridge spent the next two decades finding and testing unique watering methods he learned from international experts, seasoned locals and even ancient script, as was the case with a 2,000-year old Chinese agricultural textbook that revealed the olla pot technique.

Using an olla pot, an onion-shaped ceramic vessel, gardeners can save upwards of a staggering 90 percent of water used on plants. The process is simple: an olla is filled with water and buried in the plants’ surrounding soil, where liquid slowly seeps through the pot and irrigates the roots. While the archaic system seems to have been buried within history, Bainbridge hopes to revive it as a profound means of conserving our resources.

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David Bainbridge, Revelle ’70, intended to study oceanography at Scripps, but seasickness redirected him to land.

Fueled by what he would modestly deem a “moral responsibility,” Bainbridge has spent years making discoveries like these in every corner of environmentalism. This passion was fostered early on at UC San Diego by various professors and exposure to Aldo Leopold’s seminal work, The Land Ethic. But a career on land was not part of David’s original plan. “When I went to UCSD, I was originally intending to be an oceanographer, thinking it would be handy being an undergraduate next to Scripps,” says Bainbridge. But just one trip out relegated him to dry land. “It turns out I got seasick when I went out to sea, and I never got un-seasick,” Bainbridge recalls with a chuckle.

 Fortunately, a shift to earth sciences steered him to a path where he’s been a trailblazer ever since, bettering our world with both small and large contributions. Gardening with Less Water is an attempt to do both. While the book offers small-scale solutions, the hope is for these techniques to yield results on a big-picture level.

“One of my goals has always been international impact, not just local,” says Bainbridge. “There’s still hundreds of millions of small farmers who don’t have enough water, don’t have enough land, and these systems can work really well for people in those situations. It’s been encouraging getting information back from Pakistan, South Africa, places where drought is a real problem, and knowing that people are taking a look at these [methods] and starting to use some of them. It’s very rewarding.”

Seeing the positive impact of years of work naturally allows some personal gratification. But for Bainbridge, the latest book, like all his other work, allows for little complacency.  Even while he claims to be practically retired, the 68-year-old is already far into the projects ahead. With his varied body of work, there’s no telling what is left for Bainbridge to tackle, but as our environment becomes ever more fragile, we can trust he will be among those leading the charge.