A couple of years back, I was invited to sit in on a meeting of the county planners at our hospital. The topic was local development projections, with in emphasis on how this would affect health care services that our facility should anticipate. This was before the housing bubble burst. The county planners were anticipating that within a decade all land currently zoned residential would be built on. From then on any additional housing would be either in-fill lots or conversion of agricultural land from housing cows to people. This brought up the issue of providing water for all those homes, businesses, and entertainment establishments. That is a lot of toilets to flush. The planners discussed aquifers, river levels, and reservoirs. I raised my hand and made the query, “The last time I looked, the only place that water comes from in this region is rain. Are you looking at ways to increase rainfall in the region?” I do not get invited to meetings now.
I wrote about septic systems a few months ago. Septic systems are where homes, off the sewer lines, send lots of water. Where does that water come from? Unless you are hooked up to a water lines system, water comes from wells or is captured in a storage device like a cistern.
When we traveled to a remote camp in Kodiak, Alaska a few years back, the cabin directed rainwater from the roof into a 300-gallon storage tank. Some folks around here have 1,500-gallon cisterns, which the local fire departments fill occasionally. I have read in about off-the-grid homesteaders have 20,000 cisterns built under the homes. We do not have a cistern, but have added 100 gallon rain barrels (cattle stock-tanks, actually) under each of our downspouts from the cabin, garage, goat barn and shelters. These fill up with about a quarter of an inch of rainfall, which is easy to achieve with most Spring and Summer thundershowers in the mountains. That adds up to about 900 gallons of water captured. We use these to water our gardens and provide water for our animals.
Wells are the next option for country living water sources. Ours is about 250 feet deep, though one of our neighbors has a 400 foot well. This might sound excessively deep, as around here you can find water pretty quickly. But, a well should tap into a series of aquifers, which are deep, rather than ground water, which is shallow. Ground water wells run dry more quickly, and are more likely to be affected by surface contamination. As I have written about before, the Appalachian Mountains are made up of layers of different quality sedimentary rock. Some of these are more porous, like sandstone, or have lots of fractures, like limestone, and are thus true aquifers that hold a lot of water. Other layers tend to restrict movement of water either through their density, such as shale, or tendency to swell when wet, such as clay and mudstone. These are called aquitards or aquicludes. When you travel by a road cut during the wet season, notice where water flows or ice forms from. The layer with the water is the aquifer. The layer below is the aquitard or aquiclude, which forces the water to flow horizontally until it reaches an opening. If these is on a hillside, call it a spring.
Back to the well, it should be drilled through several layers of aquifers. As you draw water from the bottom of the well, where the pump is dropped, water will follow gravity to fill the gap. This will create a cone shape indentation in the water level around the well. When you are not using the well, water flows in to fill up the cone. If you are a distance from any other residents, you should be okay with this system. However, if homes are clustered close together, each well’s cone may begin to intersect, thus lowering the water table for that region. We bought the lots on either side of ours, for a total of 33 acres to limit the possibility that anyone could intrude on our well. As long as the aquifer is not contaminated, we should have ample water for our lifetime. Fortunately, the Keystone Pipe Line is not planned over our aquifer and the Marselus Shale regions are west of us and our county is the only county in WV without coal. On the other hand, two neighbors have cabins on 5 acres lots with their septic systems and wells within sight of each other and not deep. They did not ask me for advice.
Having a good well is no reason to be wasteful of water. In a lecture about the geologyof water (that is were I got most of this information), the speaker defined a “renewable resource” as something that regenerates in our life-time. Thus, wood can grow in cycles of 30 to 60 years, depending on the species and use (e.g. building with pine vs heating with oak). Oil and coal take millions of years to form. Ground water is renewable, but
varies from region to region with rain fall cycles and levels. Where I grew up in CA, rain fell from November to March. Do not go looking for ground water in September. Around here even, if we have a dry seaons, ground water might dry up. Aquifers are not renewable. The speaker estimated that water travels in rock 1 inch per day. The water refilling our well cone can physically travel only 365 inches in a year. I can pace that out in a minute or so. Part of this occurs because the H2O molecules bond chemically with other molecules in rock to form hydroxyls. In addition to gravitation pressure to move toward our cone, these need chemical change pressures to become released.
For non-renewable well water, keep conservation in mind. Regarding city water, you have to consider where the water comes from: a city well? Rain, snow melt, or spring filled reservoir? Water only comes from so many sources, even if a pipe is what delivers it to your sink. The major aquifers in the US are drying up. Ones, which run from the northern slopes of the Rockies from Montana to northern Texas used to be artesian wells (the pressure was sufficient to push out water without a pump), but are now no longer work with pumps. The “drought” in Texas recently is a combination of lack of rain, but also a dropping of the water table. With the water table lowered, the ground tends to start dry and heat up faster. Last year, in Progressive Farmer, I read the term “flash drought” to describe this phenomenon.
An additional problems with our water system and use is that we are not recharging the aquifers. Over the past 100 years, we have develop many lakes as storage systems. But these may be some distance from the cities and farms which they service. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is hundreds of miles east of the San Francisco Bay area which uses the water. The north-south directed canals in California’s Central Valley flow even further to provide irrigation water. A second issue about water storage is that these reservoirs are inefficient in containing the water. On our float trip on the Colorado River, just below the Glen Canyon Dam last Spring, our guide mentioned that 30% of the water from Lake Powell evaporates, another 30% absorbs into the sandstone, leaving only 30% to flow down river to Lake Meade (i.e. greater Las Vegas water source) and all the other communities to where it drains into the Sea of Cortez, assuming that the water reaches that far. Few businesses would get loans if they projected that 60% of their assets would be lost because of leaking storage. On the other hand, a risk of reservoirs is, as we saw during several recent Springs in the Mid-West, is when the reservoirs are at capacity and the Spring rains and melt offs come to quickly. Rather than facing the threat of over-capacity, the reservoir managers open the flood gates, literally, inundating the communities down stream.
Not wanting to sound too dismal about water, I do see some hopeful trends. Many regional building codes now require that parking lots compensate for lost ground absorption by including catch basins and rain gardens for run-off. Communities, particularly in dry regions are building percolation ponds, which capture run off and let it slowly return to ground water. Las Vegas even requires grey water capture to water golf courses in the desert. And, on the more individual level home owners and builders are installing rain barrels.
Where does your water come from?