Fresh Water: Collecting and Conserving a Precious Resource

By , September 19, 2009

A frightening number of reports, predictions and indicators tell us that fresh water will be the most valuable commodity over which mankind will struggle, fight, and die in the near future. Corporate powers around the world pursue a process started years ago to gain economic control over the planet’s dwindling water supply. While political entities struggle to define access to water as a human right, the forces of “progress” and attrition race far ahead of them toward an apocalyptic finish line.

I have always regarded this sobering possibility with a fair amount of self-assurance. Because we live off the grid, and gather our drinking water through seep and catchment systems, no one controls our water supply.

Recently, we have come to a very disturbing realization: indeed, no one controls our water supply! It relies solely on local rainfall, a force of nature—beyond our ability to influence or regulate.

Our compound’s water system includes three holding tanks, “winter,” “summer,” and “catchment,” with a total capacity of 3700 gallons. The catchment tank holds up to 1200 gallons of rain runoff from the cabin and shed roofs. Because the chimney precipitates soot on the cabin roof, this water is used exclusively for non-consumption needs such as garden watering and laundry.

Drinking water comes from two other systems, both of which are tied into the cabin plumbing. The insulated winter tank sits above the cabin on the ridge. An underground dam at the base of a small ravine feeds it. Rainwater saturates the thin soil of the slope, percolating down to the bedrock, where it seeps and flows to the ocean. Natural tannins color this water, but it’s clean, fresh, and cold. The tank’s position provides the cabin with good pressure.

The uninsulated summer tank collects water from a tiny creek that drains a muskeg swamp nearby. It also has a dam buried in the creek bed, which means that we get flow from this source for a few weeks or even months after the creek has gone dry, as it does every summer. This water has more tannins, is less trustworthy, as it is surface water, is warmer, and provides less pressure to the house.

Summer and winter, we filter our drinking water at the tap with a PUR filter system as an added safeguard.

Each year, the original owners would use the winter tank until the last freeze, usually in April, then set the diversion flow to fill the summer tank. Once it filled, they would switch to the summer tank, using that water until it ran out. This usually happened sometime in July. By then the winter tank would have refilled, and they would switch back to it to use through the rest of the year.

The original owners were a family of six. With half the people, we have much greater leeway in following the plan above. Some years we’ve never switched to the summer tank at all. In our first three years here we ran out of fresh water twice. Our first winter was colder than anyone could remember, and the winter tank’s outlet froze for several months. Another time we actually ran the winter tank dry, after a clear summer full of visitors who stayed more than a month. However, it drained in a rainy month, and we had water again the very next day!

The region in which we live is part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world. It’s an excellent situation for harvesting water, as long as rain actually falls occasionally.

The summer of 2009 was one of the driest on record in our area. While the news reported too much rain in many parts of the country, we had no significant rainfall between March and August. The snow pack on the lower slopes lasted till early May, but it apparently evaporated faster than it melted, so much of the water we rely on in the spring never reached the catchment dams. We switched from the winter tank to the summer in mid-May, unaware that we were moments away from running the winter tank dry. We ran the summer tank down to about 250 gallons by the first of July, and switched back to the winter system, only to have it run dry that same evening!

We hauled water from a roadside spring in a nearby cove. We had done this before during the hard winter, wrestling our cargo pulk loaded with 5-gallon water jugs weighing about 40 pounds apiece across the frozen bay and over the snow-covered ridge. In the summer we could bring fresh water to the land by sea with the canoe, but several jugs had to be hauled over the ridge, either carried on my back with a pack board, or wheeled across the trail with the deer cart, a (theoretically) all-terrain wheeled cart designed to haul game.

Measurable rain began to fall about August 9th, but we didn’t get heavy rain until about a week later. By then the forest had become so dry that it took more than another week before the winter tank began to fill. To help things along, we tied a large tarp above the ravine to funnel rainwater down to just above the dam. At the same time we gathered clear, clean drinking water from the small catchment system in the greenhouse. It didn’t solve the water problem, but we didn’t need to haul any more jugs from the road.

Based on the history of refilling the winter tank between April and July, we figured it would take two wet months (April-July are our “dry” months here) to fill the water tank. However, we hadn’t counted on Typhoon Vamco. This typhoon hit Southeast Asia around August 20th, and its rains reached us within a week. Suddenly, after months of virtually no rain, came the deluge. The rain catchment tank filled in no time at all; both the summer and winter tanks filled in the space of one evening’s rainfall! We had hoped for a few hundred gallons of fresh water to get us back on our feet. We received a full supply, and far more.

As I said, no one controls our water supply!

We’ve learned a valuable lesson that hopefully will not be repeated soon. During those long, sunny days we saw how helpless we are in the face of the elements. Our “safe” fresh water system is not safe. Changes in weather patterns, or individual dry years can radically change our situation. We too—while better off than most—face the very real possibility of a water crisis.

We’ve always been careful with our water supply, in deference to its limited nature, and due to our own frugal, conservative ways. From here on out we will be even more careful. An autonomous supply of water is a blessing not to be taken for granted!

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