Archive for the 'water' Category

Water Conflicts

Sharon August 28th, 2009

I’m having computer programs and heading offline for the Sabbath shortly, but I thought I’d leave you with this brilliant site to peruse – they do a lovely job of illustrating the scale of our world water crisis. Not cheery, but awfully important to understand, and well worth a look.



Water Pumping, Public and Private

Sharon May 9th, 2009

The very best thing about being invited to be a speaker at various environmental and energy events is that I get to meet the other speakers and hosts of interesting people.  One of the coolest people I sort of met (briefly) at the conference in New York’s north country was a middle school shop teacher by the name of Jim Juczak (and his seriously cool wife and daughter).  They have an intentional community and farm, and he’s a tinkerer and scavenger.  I got to see several panels that Jim was on, as well as his talk about creating a cheap homestead which he and Krista did together, and was thrilled by them all, but most impressed by the very first one, which offered a solution to a major problem for a lot of people.

You see, nearly everyone who relies on wells loses their water access during an extended power outage – and 17% of the US population has no access to a municipal water supply.  You can put a pump on a very shallow well cheaply, but most wells are more than 25 feet, and that’s a solution for only a very tiny number of people.  The cost of putting a manual deep well pump (only possible down to about 220 feet, so a better solution with higher water tables) in adds up to several thousand dollars unless you can do it yourself – that’s a tough sell for rural households, often low income, even when something as basic as water is at stake.

One project I’ve been working on for a while, with only middling degrees of success, is to get town centers to put in water pumping stations.  This is useful not only for rural towns without a municipal water supply, but also for towns with a municipal supply at some distance, where it is possible to imagine water contamination that left local supplies uncontaminated, or the disruption of local water transmission.  My rough estimate is that this includes about 1/3-1/2 of all the towns and cities in the US – they have water under the ground, but no way of getting at it, and no way of dealing with a major, extended power outage or widespread contamination of reservoirs or surface water. 

Now many individuals and towns assume that in such a case, they will simply wait for the water trucks to arrive, or will melt snow or use surface water.  But as we saw in New Orleans, the water trucks don’t always arrive quickly, dehydration is a serious problem, and without good filtration, surface water is not safe.  Now there are plenty of scenarios where well pumping isn’t a perfect solution – when people are housebound and get get to the local sites, when the wells are also potentially contaminated, say by heavy flooding.  But they are a measure of security on one of the most basic needs we have.

But the high cost of installation for towns and individuals means that many people simply choose to take their chances on the water front.  Frankly, this worries me – I think that our overall water infrastructure is one of the most vulnerable spots to a breakdown – but that’s another post.  What I got excited about is that Jim Juczak actually did something about this problem.

What he did was this – he built a manual deep well pump that can be made of off the shelf hardware parts, with minimal machining.  Because he’s a middle-school shop teacher, he actually taught his 7th graders to make these, in an attempt to make sure that it was something that nearly everyone could put together.  His estimate of the cost of parts is about $125, and handy folks may even have some of them lying around.  He’s tested the well pump for three years, to assure himself that the PVC version holds up to regular use, and includes in his plans a model for a brass and steel version that should last a long, long time.  He’s charging $20 for the plans, and will be offering kits – machined parts only, pvc or brass and steel.  Even the most expensive version shouldn’t cost more than $500, as opposed to 1500-2000 bucks.  I believe all of them can work around an existing well pump, but you’d want to double check that with Jim.

I find this tremendously exciting for a host of reasons.  There’s really no excuse for towns and small cities not to put in municipal pumping stations at schools, community centers and parks in this scenario, using existing wells.   The potential applications for the Global South are enormous – I can think of a number of anti-poverty groups that have been struggling to bring water access to many areas, and could potentially now put in more wells.  Moreover, all of us who realize that our water infrastructure cannot be allowed to depend on something as uncertain as an always-there electric supply have choices that we did not.

You can see pictures of the pump here, at Jim’s website:  You can contact him about the pumps at his email address [email protected].  He also has a really great book on scavenging – making use of things people have cast off or don’t know what to do with. 

Meanwhile, I’m just plain excited – I’m ordering plans for myself!


[email protected]

Water, from the Other Side

Sharon February 10th, 2009

 Aaron has a terrific post up about water issues and water harvesting at his blog, and he devotes an entire paragraph to the other end of the water issue – flooding, and drainage.  Me, I thought that I can’t be the only person in the world who thinks it is worth more attention than that ;-) .  While I know that water shortages are the big issue worldwide, where I live, too much water is far more often the problem.

My area gets more than 50 inches of precipitation a year, a mix of snow and rain – and usually pretty evenly spread out.  Our summers have warm days, cool nights and plenty of rain – now the summer 3 years ago when I barely had to water even my *container* plants because it rained so much is pretty unusual, but except for establishing seedlings occasionally, I have *NEVER* watered most of my garden.  The hose doesn’t even reach it.  The first two years we lived here were drought years, and even then, we did not water and things grew fine.

Part of this is because I live between two steep hills – most of the water runs down those hills, and eventually runs to the creek that borders the north side of my property.  Before it gets to the creek, it runs across most of the rest of my property.  During spring melt-off, we have several days of mild-to-moderate flooding.  And once in a while, we get serious flooding, usually in early spring. 

But even ignoring the flooding (and Aaron’s prescription to put your garden where it doesn’t flood is good), our soil tends to hold water.  Waiting for things to dry out is the real limiting factor in gardening – it isn’t warmth we need (although that helps the drying) but enough dry out to be able to go forward.  It really isn’t worth planting seeds into the muck – they simply rot.  Transplants can sometimes tolerate it, but honestly, everything sits in the muddy wet soil (with the exception of a few plants that like it) and waits for dryer days – I’ve learned the hard way not to rush it, that plants transplanted a week later when conditions are better grow faster than the ones that sulk because their early conditions weren’t better.

One thing that I’ve discovered is indispensible to wet gardening is mulch – now much is made of the capacity of mulch to retain water.  This is not exactly my issue.  Instead, I use sheet mulch to protect my soil from flooding and heavy rains – the mulched areas shrug off some of the water, and the organic material helps absorb some more of it, so my mulched garden areas tend to look better after spring thaw, and to be ready to plant earlier.  I rake away the mulch on warm day to let the soil warm a bit more, but I can be out on the mulched patches planting days ahead of any unmulched areas.  I’ve never read any other garden writer’s discussions of the value of mulch in wet climates.

 Generally speaking, as long as you have decent drainage and plenty of organic material, most garden crops tolerate the wetness pretty well – in fact, many of them like it.  We do have problems with tomato cracking, and with getting hot peppers hot enough for me, but container growing helps with the peppers, and harvesting regularly before the rains with the tomatoes.

If you don’t have decent drainage, you may have to get some.  At its simplest, you can dig a swale or trench and redirect water by hand.  If you get fancy, and go for tile and backhoes, you are looking at money.  We have areas still awaiting sufficient funds to justify the drainage work that is needed.  Still, we do save on irrigation hoses ;-) .  And we try, as much as we can, to work with what we’ve got, to see our wetness as an advantage, that brings other species and possibilities.

Perennial plantings that aren’t wetland tolerant get the dryest spots, and they generally do fine.  It is worth watching nature to see what does well – I have a thicket of cultivated plum trees in the back field that gets very wet in springtime – I was reluctant to plant much of anything but alders and elderberries there, because of the wet land, but native plum trees kept springing up, and I decided to take that as meaning I could get away with the cultivated type – and so I can, apparently.

Actual wet spots have their uses as well – I’m in the process of transforming the end of the side yard, which was uninspiredly planted to reed grass,  into a wetland garden – swamp white oaks have edible acorns, beautiful wood and are great fungal hosts, buttonbush is a nectary plant that blooms at a helpful time for wild pollinators, primroses and irises add beauty, alders fix nitrogen and are a coppicing and mushroom hosting species, elders, blueberries and cranberrybush viburnums provide food for me and for wildlife – what’s not to love about wet spots!  Not to mention the fact that the world is desperate for diversified wetlands – so not draining your land to get every single inch of cultivable space has some real merits.

The biggest problem, besides occasional flooding, of wet spots is leaching – the nutrients you place get washed away quickly, so fast you can’t keep up.  This is another good argument for mulched soil in my climate, for lots of organic matter and humus in your soil, for terra preta practices, and for emphasizing slow release fertility rather than quick. 

In the end, I personally like my wet spot – I’m grateful for the rains, and the snow.  But living on the damp edges of the world requires, as all spots to, becoming native to that place and its conditions.


Capturing Water

Sharon August 7th, 2008

I’ve talked before about storing water for emergencies – even the non-TEOTWAKI kind – you know, like the bad storms that contaminate your drinking water for an extended period.  But now I want to talk about how to get water off your roof, out of the ground or otherwise when things get difficult.  

 Why do you need to know this?  Isn’t it just crazy talk to imagine us not having *WATER*?   Well, how much is your water bill right now?  Are you sure you’ll always be able to pay it? Will you be able to pay for all the water you need for irrigating your garden?   Or do you have a well?  Are you certain you’ll be able to keep paying the electric bill?  If you live in a dry place, are you sure there will always be water coming out of the tap?  These are questions worth asking ahead of time, because water matters.  Some of us have no choice but to be aware of that already – those who live in very dry places may already be struggling with water issues. 

You need water.  You will be very unhappy without it.  And while we’re a long way from people dying from dehydration, not having it can be very tough on you and your body. So how do you get it if the normal routes get disrupted?  The very first step on this is to begin to research your local watershed.  Where does your water come from?  What are the long term planning issues facing your region or community in regards to water?  What impact does climate change seem to be having?  What projected impact might it have?  What issues are there with contamination? How safe is surface water?  Do you have problems with acid rain?  Pesticide runoff? PCB contamination?  Mercury?  What about your well?  What about the local reservoirs?  What are the legal issues of your water use?  Can you collect rain?  Can you make use of surface water?  These are things you need to know. 

 Basically, you have three choices – you can get water from under the ground, on top of the ground or the sky.  It is worth understanding fully where your water comes from and where you might get it.  This essay is necessarily an overview, rather than a complete resource - and if you are concerned about water, I recommend _The Home Water Supply: How to Find, Filter, Store and Conserve It_ by Stu Campbell as the most complete source I’ve seen on this subject. 

Most of us can get some water from the sky – how much varies a lot.  Some cities do prohibit rainwater capture, and in those places it is worth working on the legal issues – more and more cities are recognizing that keep heavy storm rains from causing problems is a benefit, and more and more areas are seeing strong movements towards permitting rainwater collection.

Rainbarrels can be made or purchased.  Or you can put in either an above ground water tank or a cistern to catch larger quantities of rain.  A cistern can a large, premade tank, or you can build it yourself:  If you can put your rainwater capture close enough to the house, you may even be able to bring water into the house from the cistern or tank for doing dishes, laundry, etc…  I have not yet achieved this, however ;-) .  

 From under the ground depends on where you live – generally water tables are higher in the east than the west.  You need to know how deep your well is if you are pumping directly from underground. 

If you have a well, and the power goes out, you have several choices.  The first is to put a manual pump on your well.  This is only feasible if you water table is less than 200 feet down, and it isn’t cheap – usually above $1000.  But it is a good system.  The following will also work, and work even a bit deeper than 200 feet.

If your water table is high enough, you may be able to hand dig a well – the difficulty being that most surface water isn’t that clean.  But if you have a good filtration system, you might find this useful – particularly if you have a source of drinking water and primarily need irrigation, laundry and livestock water.  Remember, most of the water we use does not need to be drinking quality – using drinking quality water only for drinking, rather than flushing, washing, etc…. and using either less perfect water or greywater for other things is one possible strategy.  Conservation is your first tool here, as it almost always is. Here’s information about hand-dug wells:  Do be careful doing this!

If you have a deep well, and are concerned about losing power to it, solar direct or windmill pumping is probably your best bet, but this is not cheap – if you are permitted to capture water from the sky and have sufficient rainfall, you might find the cistern option much less expensive.  Or you might not, depending on what you can put together.

If these options are too expensive, well, in much of the world, people rely on community wells.  This is something to consider proposing in your town – there have been enough natural disasters around that most towns, even if they are not preparing for peak oil and climate change may see the merit of central water access points – in public parks, at schools and community centers.  Consider asking your town to put in manual or solar powered water pumping stations so that community members can have water access in a crisis.  Or consider getting together with neighbors and putting in a neighborhood well. 

If you are lucky enough to have a spring, you can tap it – we have a bunch of them, and it is on my agenda  – we might even be able to pull off gravity fed water eventually here if we put in time and work enough – something we’ve thought about but not done much about. - many springs can be usefully developed, either for home us, irrigation or grazing.

If you are using surface water, you will need to have an extremely good filtration system – I’m a big fan of my British Berkefeld (which, among other sources, can be purchased from Sustainable Choice, advertising on the sidebar) and Kataydin, but there are other options out there.  You want something gravity fed, that doesn’t require electricity, and that handles as many contaminants as possible – since you don’t necessarily know what you will be dealing with.  Store filters are not sufficient.  You could also distill your water:

 Getting water from surface sources is pretty simple – you go there and bring some buckets.  If you have to carry a lot a long distance, you may want tanks that strap on your bicycle, or at a minimum a yoke and bucket set up (this is for illustration purposes – I don’t think those buckets are water tight, although you could probably substitute), which is far more comfortable than carrying them in your hands. In the winter, if you have one, you can melt snow, but it takes a lot more snow than you think to make a lot of water. 

I hope everyone will at least give some serious thought to water sources in the longer term.