Thursday, December 27, 2007

Reflections on Sustainability: Water

Water is huge for us—or maybe it feels huge because we suffered such a drought last summer. The good news is that we have officially emerged from the drought and appear to be firmly planted in normal conditions with our aquifers doing well. Of course, all of the following begs the question of what one does when there is no water available to harvest, and drought sure puts a twist in the sustainable consumption of water resources, so I'll try to address that as well. And, of course, suggestions are welcome, too—let me know what you're doing and what's working for you.

Last year we focussed money and energy mainly on fencing, but for 2008 our focus will be water. Harvesting more, storing more, and moving it around more efficiently. We're planning to install hard-irrigation lines out to the market garden this year, and Jim's talking about trying a driven-well out in the pastures. Because our well-pump is electric, we need to install some kind of back up hand pump for use during outages, and the driven-well will be the first try. If that doesn't work, and it very well may not considering our water-table and soil structure, we'll need to investigate having one dug.

In 2007 we began harvesting rainwater in earnest, though we're still not storing as much as we'd like. We have three 55 gallon barrels that catch off our barn, and we're able to fill those from only about 1/3" of rain, which is great. We have two more that we fill from those and use to water the animals in the pasture. We were also able to harvest rain from the run-in shelters in the field to help water the animals.

What's not so great to consider is the amount we could be harvesting if we had more storage, and that's a big goal for 2008. For the past year we've been rinsing some large cubes (400+ gallons) that held a chemical flocculant for the county water treatment, meaning it goes into the public water supply, but it's taking a long time to clean those thoroughly enough that I'd feel comfortable using catch-water from them to irrigate my edible gardens or livestock. We're planning to put those at the house this spring to harvest water, which we'll use to irrigate ornamental gardens, allowing us to take another year to really rinse and clean the cubes. They may, however, make their permanent home there while I use some money from the CSA this year to purchase new water tanks for the barn catch. Jim's plan is to mount them on raised platforms in order to take advantage of the natural slope for gravity feeding whenever possible.

This year's drought was particularly instructive—a trial by fire year for sure. One of the biggest lessons I learned was the importance of efficient and regular irrigation versus trying to eek through till the next rain. By the time the plants are looking drought stressed, it's usually too late. Stress from lack of water makes them susceptible to disease and insect pressure that would be easier to minimize in strong, healthy plants, making any water saving a false economy in the long run. Better to focus on efficient irrigation and ramp up other ways of conserving water. (Yes, Jenny and Madeline, some of us need to learn this the hard way.) We'll be using a combination of drip tape and soaker hoses to deliver the water precisely where we need it, which we did last year as well, we'll just have more of it this year and be able to do it more efficiently.

Besides increasing our rain-harvest storage, we'll also be looking into ways to recover some of the gray water inside the house. Currently, we reuse all water from water cups to water our houseplants, which may seem small, but with five people in the house, I always have plenty of "old" water for my rotation. We also reclaim most of the water lost in the kitchen while waiting for it to get hot, one of the most notorious water-wasters in our home. By keeping a bucket or pitcher near the sink, I'm able to capture that water instead of letting it go down the drain. It's also useful for rinsing dishes that are headed for the dishwasher. By the time I'm done rinsing those, the water's hot enough to wash the big pots and pans. Simple things like not flushing every time, taking shorter showers, and not allowing the water to run while brushing teeth or washing hands help as well. We're also planning to replace our washing machine this year with a more efficient model in terms of both energy and water-usage.


CSA-farmer-girl said...

Check this site out for a way to flush toilets with sink water!

Anonymous said...

You know this is one of the big things we have discussed in detail too. Water, not only where to collect it, and how much we need, but also how to get it from teh collection site to the gardens and livestock.

Danielle said...

Thanks for the link, csa-farmer-girl!

Care to share any of the ideas you've been batting about, mommymommy? I'd love to have someone to brainstorm with!

karl said...

my perfect system would include a solar pump from Grundfos SQFlex Submersible Well Pump, enought solar panels for marginal days and a home built ferrocrete water storage tank. if you have enough storage to get you past cloudy days during summer then who care about power outages.

Danielle said...

Ahhh, well, now there's the rub, eh Karl? Money enough and time....

Solar and a cistern would be ideal, but the money's not there at the moment, and that's something I'll be talking about in tomorrow's post on electricity. What can we do in the meantime who do not have several thousands of dollars to put into a solar system?

More than that, in my limited knowledge, having "enough" cells to get through cloudy periods isn't quite that simple, as solar is notoriously poor at *storing* energy (lead/ acid batteries aside). And our recent spate of cloudy weather has driven home to me the tenuous potential of solar. More on that tomorrow...

Please, though, keep the ideas and discussion flowing!

Christy said...

Since our most likely move is to the Atlanta area I've been thinking about water a lot lately. We already harvest a lot of our grey water, don't forget to collect the water while waiting for the shower to get warm, that is a lot of water. I was looking at cisterns last night on the net to see what is out there and what they cost. If we do move to the Atlanta area I plan on putting in a large cistern and doing all the pipes to direct all the water to it. I'm really worried about water

Danielle said...

Gray water is tricky, not the least because harvesting it is/ can be illegal. Thinking about safe ways to harvest that water is both useful and instructive, but talking about it can open one up in uncomfortable ways.

Atlanta's not so attractive these days, but outside of Atlanta isn't as bad, as long as you're not relying on the same lake water source. Talk to Madeline over at Barn Raising.

Jenny said...

Great posts Danielle! On solar water pumping, if you have a big enough container you don't need a whole lot of panels. You store the solar energy in the form of pumped water. Pump all day long when it's sunny and fill your storage tanks. Two things we have here are several large cisterns (great for aquaculture as well as water storage) and a couple of barrels that we mounted halfway up our (broken) windmill tower that we fill with the solar pump and then can gravity feed to places that need slightly higher pressure such as long runs of drip tape. Of course, it's always a good idea to work with what you have. We already had two cisterns and a windmill tower, and here we can rely on plenty of sun. In your case, you usually have decent rainfall so catchment seems like the best place to focus your efforts. Of course, a small solar pumping system would be great for those drought periods of no rain but lots of sun. And don't forget to take into account the portability of your investments. If you do move, a pump and small panels are easy to take with you.

Woody said...

When we built our home we plumbed for gray water. Only our toilets are on septic. The gray water irrigates our pasture.

Danielle said...

How cool, Woody!

Jenny, I remember being very jealous of the cistern photos on your blog.

See, so much of this is why it seems like it would be so much easier to start from scratch by building our own home—hence the long-term plan.

The hard thing to do is to work with what we already have here and to do so within our means. But that then begs the question of what exactly "in our means" looks like. Folks will buy a second car for $20K who won't think about spending the same amount on retrofitting with solar. Priorities, obviously.

Diane said...

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Diane walker
Ontario Canada
519 378-6624