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.