Living with Water

by Michael Lesser and Bob Wilms

There was a time when we felt satisfied that we had increased our water storage so there was enough to last us through the longest power outages. Power outages that shut down our well pump were common in the winter storm season as well as the dry fire season. Then in the spring, the river we depended on to water our garden became a bare river bed. The whole river became empty. Nature has its own water budget, its own hydrological cycle, and we’re learning to live within our own means.

We faced the challenge of watering the newly expanded garden with a new drip irrigation from our well, which we hadn’t done before. Adding to that uncertainty, we were in the midst of the worst drought in over ten years. With garden beds prepped and seeds planted in the ground, we began our growing season with water from our 130-foot well, which in addition to supplying our drinking water and our fire protection water, was also needed to irrigate all of this year’s crops.

Almost immediately, we overpumped the well and the pump shut down until the water in the quickly diminishing aquifer could refill. The garden team had to figure out how much water was needed each day. We also installed two more irrigation storage tanks. It was the team’s close monitoring of the garden irrigation and well production that got us through one of the longest drought periods in recent Mendocino history.

In the middle of October, to everyone’s delight, our beloved river returned overnight. The rain began and continued for several days. The Land Team already knew that it wasn’t sustainable to rely on drawing water from the river and had been researching other solutions.

During the Soil and Water Summit here on the Land, we learned about SWEEP, the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program, “which provides financial assistance in the form of grants to implement irrigation systems that reduce greenhouse gasses and save water on California agricultural operations.”

At the Summit, the group found the perfect location for a large catchment tank we could fund with a SWEEP grant in an old parking area above the barn. It would both reduce the amount of water we draw out of the river and the underground water table in the driest months of the year by 100,000 gallons, and reduce the amount of carbon emissions we create by pumping water into the existing system.

The barn roof was plumbed into an in-ground catchment tank with plans to pump the water to a storage tank large enough to store all the rainwater collected in the wet season. Without a storage tank, the amount of rainfall quickly overflowed the small inground tank. Rather than waste a precious water resource, our team routed the rainwater to the laundry room so it could be used to wash our clothes.

Traditionally water runoff from roads is collected in a drainage ditch and directed into the river. Through a system of ditches, culverts, and seasonal streams, the water increases in speed, erodes the soil, and deposits silt in the river. By filling in the ditches and regrading the roads, the water can be directed into flat fields and meadows where it slows down, sinks into the soil and finds its way into the aquifer.

We have expanded our concept of water conservation beyond just using less. We now have strategies and techniques that we are implementing to develop sustainable water resources that we can rely on even in drought conditions that relieve stress to our river, our well, and aquifer.