Sustainability: Go With The Flow- Off Grid Water Conservation
"Sometimes, the well goes dry," my husband said.
I snapped out of my reverie of only half listening. "Dry?!?" I repeated incredulously.
He nodded. "Yep, dry," he confirmed.
Hearing that our neighbor down hill from us - who we assumed was closer to the water table than we were uphill - sometimes dealt with having his well run dry was unexpected. We are in the rainy, damp, Pacific Northwest. Close to the ocean. How could there be water scarcity and dry wells?!?
It was not news we expected. We had picked this little piece of land because we felt confident there would be enough water to sustain us here. Yet...we began to wonder.
We had options. We could spend thousands of dollars and pay a driller to come out and find us water. Maybe they would... but then again, maybe they wouldn't. Once we were here a while, we learned from locals that the mountainside we lived on was known for being water scarce.
Did we have other options? Well, our property had a nice stream on it, but the neighbor whose well occasionally runs dry had secured water rights to siphon water from the stream to supplement his well. We had moved here with the specific intent to live harmoniously with the land, not to stress it. Could the seasonal stream handle another household? It would take an epic amount of bureacracy to find out: first, we would have to prove we tried a well and the well attempt failed or was inadequate. Then, we would have to apply for the right to use the water in the stream on our own property. If that right was granted (and who knows how long that would take!) then, we could use the water subject to our neighbor's right, which would take priority over ours. What a hassle!
But... there is an abundance of rain. Collecting 200 gallons in a single storm was a lot, right?
The average American uses about 80 to 100 gallons of water per day! Think about it... every time you flush your toilet, there goes 2 to 5 gallons. Drinking and cooking? 1 or 2 gallons. Bathing? Several gallons for a shower, even more for a bath. Laundry, dishes, washing hands...We leave the faucet running full blast and water goes down the drain.
Compare that to off grid living. A dramatic reduction in daily water usage is critical. First, get rid of the regular flush toilet and install a composting toilet. No water usage there, which saves an average 10 to 20 gallons per person per day. Bathing? Well, we bathe every other day and I supplement with skin brushing and cold water swims in lakes and streams where I scrub my skin with sand and rock. When bathing, consider using one or two gallons per person by rinsing the body, lathering, and then rinsing the suds off. This is also known as a military shower, when there is no continuous shower or tubful of water to submerge in. Dishes? Try lathering all the dishes in soap and use about a gallon to rinse them all, catching the gray water in a basin to use for watering plants. We keep an old pickling crock by the front door for hand washing outside; when we are clearing brush and doing muddy work on the homestead, a soap pump, sponge, and the crock serve to give us an outdoor "sink" to clean off in before coming inside. All this boils down to a daily water usage of 5 gallons or less per person. 15 gallons per day in our household of three, which means 200 gallons could last us nearly 2 weeks... less than what an average American household uses in just one day.
There are other options: dig a pond, find a spring... none of which really applied to us. Every spot presents it's own unique opportunities and challenges. Be creative and adapt.
I bet you're wondering if we feel the "lack" of just turning on the tap full blast and using as much as we want without a second thought. The honest answer is that we did... but that only lasted a week or two, and soon we became accustomed to our new water conservation routine such that we are very sensitive to how much is wasted when we leave the homestead and go anywhere with a flush toilet or see someone running the faucet full bore to rinse a plate. These "normal" things now make me cringe because I realize how unnecessary it is through my lifestyle shift.
Living off grid provokes an alchemical change in your perspective on life. When it rains, we rejoice! A deposit is being made in the water bank! We're rich! It's a moment of celebration, joy, and gratitude at the abundance of Nature. We never used to give rain a second thought, other than perhaps to feel inconvenienced by it.
Eventually one must move beyond the present moment of just catching sufficient amounts for short term supply and plan for dry season droughts. For example, a 2500 gallon cistern would secure nearly 6 months worth of water on our current stringent ration, enough to handle the worst draught for our region. Your region will determine whether above or below ground storage is best. In our climate, long freezes are rare. The coldest of winter might hover at freezing for a week or two, but that is not enough to completely freeze that volume of water. Second, below ground tanks - especially in a seismic zone with rocky soil at deeper layers - are prone to issues. For example, when the tank gets low, the soil pressure outside of the tank can cause a less full tank to flex, and over time, could damage the tank. Which leads us to the third issue with buried cisterns: if they get damaged, they have to be dug up in order to replace or repair them. With an above ground cistern, a small shed or shelter can be built around it to protect it from falling branches, add a little extra insulation, and allow for easy access to check water levels and for maintenance needs. It's a bonus that they're cheaper, too. Research the options in your area.
Finally, water filtration. So you're probably assuming catchment bypasses a big expense, time suck, and red tape hassle, right? Well, mostly... but not entirely. Every state and county differs: some allow catchment without inspection and permitting, but if you intend to drink the water, they may require a permit to ensure proper filtration. Every state is different, so be sure to check your local regulations. Most require a multistage filtration system. For example, it may go through a UV filter to kill any microscopic parasites, virus, or bacteria. Then, it goes through a variety of filters, which start with larger particulates and filter out smaller particulates with each successive stage. That's just for regular use. For drinking, consider a final stage, such as a countertop ProPur filter, which pulls out any chemicals, including fluoride. If you do, add liquid mineral drops back to the water after final filtration.
Finally, gray water. We are mindful what we clean with. We don't use bleach or harsh chemicals. Instead, we use eco friendly, biodegradable products on our bodies and to clean with. For instance, all natural organic shampoo, Dr. Bronner's soap, baking soda, vinegar, and Seventh Generation cleaning products. The gray water can be used for watering plants and is non toxic when drained. Any food or vegetable scraps are composted and are kept separate from the gray water.
A sustainable, eco- friendly system takes an up front investment of time and a lump sum of money. Like most conversions from conventional systems to sustainable systems, a larger initial investment is required, but the trade off is that the system normally pays for itself within a year in money saved on water bills, with that savings continuing for a lifetime so long as the system is well maintained. Invest in the good stuff up front: lead free hoses, stainless steel high quality water pump and valves, and spend the time to calculate your family's water needs - NEEDS, as in what you can get by on, not what you wish you had to use when you're using as much as you'd like. Be brutally honest in your assessment. If you can invest in a sustainable system, you'll be one step closer to water security for life, creating a buffer against concerns of shortages, pollution, infrastructure failure, and rations.
Enjoy the flow!