Water: Feast and Famine

– Posted in: Hardscaping and Projects, Recommended Links, Weather
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The first weekend in April our area experienced the worst flooding in 70 years. It was a combination of a lot of rain falling on, and melting, a lot of snow, over earth that was still frozen and couldn’t absorb it. Image of a bubbling springFrom April 4th until this evening (April 22) it didn’t rain at all. We’ve had one of the most glorious Aprils I can remember, with lots of sunshine and warmer than average daytime temps. (Still got in the 20s (F) most every night, though.) Glorious, but dangerous. Until the thunderstorm moved in, there was a heightened fire threat in effect. From sopping wet to flammable in two and a half weeks. Incredible. Yet how much you want to bet people complain about the rain that’s now falling?

I was born and raised in the suburbs, and until we moved out to the country here, water was just something that came out of the tap. No reason to question its purity (though I found the chlorine distasteful) or doubt its availability. Even its pressurized state was taken for granted. Now I live with my family in a house with a shallow well–under 30 feet deep. In spring–most especially this spring–the water table is high, and our well becomes an artesian well. That is, there is so much pressure that the water comes up to the surface on its own, up six feet of standpipe in the basement which was set up to relieve this pressure. As a matter of fact, there were several little springs popping up on the property during the Big Rain, not to mention the minor creek running down the driveway.

As summer progresses, the stand pipe stops flowing, a fact that is duly noted and remarked on. In a good year–and in the beginning (1990) there were a lot of good years–we get consistent rain throughout the summer, enough to keep us in water. But the first year we had a drought, I got a real education. My husband, who grew up in a rural home, had started muttering about the water table getting low and the well going dry and needing to conserve water. He may as well have been talking about the boogie man. I just did not get it. I implemented the conservation measures he advocated, but I felt like I was humoring him. And then one August afternoon, the clothes washer was drawing water and some child was washing lunch dishes, and suddenly the water just stopped in mid-rinse. “Hey, what happened to the water!” exclaimed the dishwasher. I rushed to stop the washing machine, but the pump had already sucked up the mud at the bottom of the well. The well had gone dry.

Actually, the well hadn’t gone dry so much as we were pumping water out faster than it was seeping back in. Once we got the pump cleaned out, we had water again, but we had to be very careful about how much we drew out at one time, until eventually precipitation brought the water table back up to normal.

As you can imagine, my attitude toward rain and water has changed dramatically. I can’t believe that people actually hose down their driveways with it. When someone remarks, “Isn’t it awful, all this rain we’re having?” I have to bite back a lecture. To me, rain coming down is better than money in the bank. I can remember saving the cooking water drained from spaghetti so I could let it cool and then water my container plants with it, so I find the whole subject of collecting and storing rainwater compelling.

In autumn 2002 I read “Harvesting the Rain,” an article in the July 2002 issue of This Old House magazine. It made me aware of the various strategies for using rainwater to supplement one’s water supply. Some people even supply all their household’s water from what falls from the sky. This requires proper equipment and a regular maintenance routine to keep the water safe. The rain barrel we have is a cobble job, made out of a salvaged plastic 55-gallon drum with no spigot. We dip a watering can into it and water high-priority plants when things get dry. This isn’t too bad for the plants around the house, but gets pretty tiring if the vegetable garden uphill is in dire straits. Mulching is mandatory up there. A couple of months ago I was contacted by Aaron. He makes and sells much spiffier rainbarrels as well as providing guidance and instruction for rain collection. His blog also touches on these topics as well as many others related to conserving natural resources. (He also wrote a nice review of this blog.) If you are interested in this topic you should definitely check out his sites. You might also want to check out the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association for more information. Most of the suppliers listed are based in Texas, but not all of them. You might also want to read the Texas Guide to Rainwater Harvesting (a .pdf file–needs Adobe Acrobat). This gives a more in-depth how-to than the This Old House article. The American Water Works Association has a website that is much broader in scope, covering all aspects of water conservation, efficient use, drought information–even jobs in the industry.

Here’s another way of learning about water. Wayne Hughes, of the Georgia blog Niches, has mapped out the watershed he lives in. Pretty ambitious, but he tells how he did it, and it sounds doable. A watershed is the geographical area from which all the water drains into a major body of water. As Wayne says in another post,

The concept that where you live and metabolize and excrete and dump your wastes is all drained by streams and creeks and ultimately feeds into rivers is a universal one, and one everyone should know. The idea that someone upstream from you is doing the same thing should make you think twice about what you’re feeding into your watershed.

This holds true for most communties, but big cities, it seems, are a law unto themselves. One thing that always bothered me is how New York City not only takes water from the Catskills region of the state, but has the right to regulate what residents there can do on their own property, in the name of protecting the NYC water supply. Even though the communities involved agreed to these regulations, it still seems like the height of arrogance on the part of NYC. But I suppose that’s my rural bias showing. Actually, I have often wondered what it would be like if everyone had to live the way most rural people do. That is, what if everyone in the country was directly responsible for their own water supply, growing their own food (including meat), and disposing of their own waste (both bodily and otherwise)? Would the country as a whole be more careful and conserving of the nation’s natural resources, or would we be in an even worse condition than we are?

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

dee/reddirtramblings June 16, 2008, 9:01 pm

Our well is pretty deep, and we’ve never gone dry. Yet. HH has a water/wastewater license, and he knows all about the watershed. He can tell me where it starts and how far down we are, etc.

I’ve learned a lot from moving to the country. It’s been the best education for my kids. Very interesting post.~~Dee

Chan S. May 5, 2005, 6:07 am

Wonderful post, Kathy. In this area, our problem tends to be rainwater runoff that overwhelms the county’s stormsewer system (although we also have the occasional drought that affects agriculture quite a lot, although households not so much). Rain gardens to soak up runoff are becoming more prevalent around here (and in my garden, it’s a “sump” garden fed by the foundation sump pump hose), but it looks like it’s high time that I look into hooking up some rain barrels to our gutters too.

bill May 4, 2005, 8:42 am

Rainwater collection systems are becoming more common in Texas. I have even been told that they are required in some new developments out west of Austin.

I have met with a couple of installers of these and seen some of their installations. In most cases people use them as supplementary systems for irrigation, clothes-washing, livestock, etc., although you can install filters to make the water drinkable.

In all the examples I have seen the buildings have metal roofs and gutters direct the water into large plastic holding tanks. It is really not at all complicated. With composition shingles you would need to deal with the shedding of the little granules that come off the shingles.