A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Got water?

    Fall is here. It feels official. Within the course of a week our wardrobes have shifted from tank tops to sweatshirts, from bathing suits to long underwear, from flip-flops to wool socks. One day, last week, I remember sweating in my lightest of clothes wondering when the heat would ever end, and now, just a week later, we are lighting the wood stove to take the edge off the chill. I don’t know why this shift comes as a surprise, I suppose because the notion of four equal seasons is engrained in my mind. In reality, it seems like there are more like two seasons, at least here in Missouri—the voracious, humid, teaming-with-life “warm” season where Missouri becomes a veritable jungle. And the other season is the inevitable retraction of whatever magic sap had animated everything to life, rendering the natural world full of dry and brown skeletons, to be eventually blanketed with snow. Two opposite pulses—an in breath and out breath—with perhaps one sparkling month on either end that feels near perfect in terms of climate.

     We are in the midst of one of those months now—late September/early October. Not only is this the most beautiful time of year, it is also the busiest for us. We are invariably attempting to wrap up outdoor projects before the November cold sets in, and simultaneously the garden is hitting its peak of productivity, with peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, beans, basil, lemongrass, kale, sweet potatoes, and cucumbers all demanding our harvesting attention. Following harvest, responsible gardeners usually clean up their garden beds and give them a coat of compost and mulch before waving them goodnight. This didn’t exactly happen for us last year since we had pressing home construction and pregnancy concerns outcompeting any thought of the state of our garden. So a little garden TLC is overdue this year… And that is just the garden. Then there is a whole world of apple, pear, persimmon and autumn olive (think small, native, tart berry) gleaning and harvesting out there for those with the wherewithal to take it on!

Autumn olives

     And yet. Once again we find ourselves in the thick of other projects. There is the community cafe mural painting which I am in the midst of. There is the front entryway and closet area, a summer project that we finally just finished. There is more firewood, and more canning. And of course, our adorable and much beloved daughter who can move at the speed of baby light from stairs to hot stove now that she can crawl (yes, we have grown eyes in the backs of our heads!) But that is the little every day stuff. Our big project this fall is our water system.

     We are determined to finish our home water system this year. Hauling buckets of water in and out of our house has lost its charming “Little House on the Prairie” novelty. It has become a bit of a drag. We stare wistfully at our not-yet-functional faucets in sinks and bathtub sighing, ‘one day’. And finally “one day” became now, thanks to the persistent nudging of my aunt and uncle who wanted to help us tackle such a key home improvement. They generously supplied the catalyst for the project: our water pump. It is a Bison hand pump, and probably the single nicest thing we now own in terms of how well it is made and how integral it will be in our future home functioning. Once the pump is installed, within five minutes of easy levering action we will have a full 20 gallons of pressurized water awaiting our every water whim. What now stands in our way to aqueous-nirvana is seemingly a hundred plumbing connection pieces that we have been trying to hunt down in our latest DIY oddessy. I am realizing there is a reason plumbers charge so much for their services… Ugh. There are dozens of different plumbing systems, each with their own pipes and connection pieces and methods of attachment between them. Then there are the pieces that allow conversions between systems. Suffice to say, we are knee deep in teflon tape, PEX shark bites, male threaded converters, pressure gages, shutoff valves and more. And they ain’t cheap…. But that is okay, we are soldiering on, fueled by the dream.

Connecting cistern to house

On the train out west!
     Harnessing the element of water on the homestead seems critical to me in order to have true self reliance in an era of increasing water scarcity and climate instability. We have seen first hand how irregular one year can be from the next, water-wise, here in Missouri: drought years followed by record rainy years. This past month we also went out to visit my sister and her husband in Colorado. As we drove through the beautiful, arid mountains with my sister, she filled us in on some of the very complex backstory to water rights in the west. Only recently was it made legal to collect water in backyard rain barrels in Colorado, mostly because every inch of rainfall is owned and spoken for ten times over based on ancestral claims. Much of the Colorado river is diverted in a massive feat of engineering to Los Angeles; rarely is there enough water left for the river to make it all the way to its natural tributaries in the Sea of Cortez. And of course, the source of the water is dependent on Rocky Mountain snow pack, so warmer years mean not as much runoff. If water were used wisely, it could be stretched much, much further, but it isn’t easy to convince a grass-loving culture to change.

     I could see this first hand when my sister and I would go for hikes around her home: just when it seemed like it was just us, the sagebrush and the pinions and junipers climbing up the mountains, we would round a hill and a bright green golf course would pop up before us. I was shocked to learn that in her town of New Castle, water use is five times greater in the summer than in the winter. The difference is due to irrigation of lawns and golf courses composed of water guzzling Kentucky bluegrass. If more people were like my sister they would replace non-native bluegrass with native grass varieties and native plants that don’t need irrigation, a practice called zero-scaping. But evidently just about everyone wants their front yard to look exactly the same, the whole country over, despite huge variations in local climates.

     Well we are “going native” with our land here in Missouri. This is another way of saying that we moved onto land that already had native grasses and wildflowers on it and we aren’t doing much in the way of mowing. Not only are native species beautiful, at least to us, they are pretty useful for dye plants (for me) and for nourishing birds and butterflies that migrate through this area. Most folks here prefer to climb atop riding mowers and mow huge swaths of their land around their houses, but we (in our community) have been trying to educate people about the importance of wildflowers like milkweed for the declining monarch population. At any rate, having a pond that can gravity-feed downhill to source many of our homestead water needs (like watering animals and gardens) gives us a huge water buffer in drier years, and thus a fair bit of resiliency long-term. But for those without pond-digging potential at their homes, even having a few rainwater collection barrels under gutters would allow just about any home owner anywhere to mitigate some of their backyard water use. Embracing water-thrifty native varieties of flowers and plants instead of non-native ornamentals is also a good way to conserve water and save time standing around with a hose!

     At any rate, our quest for homestead water security is nearing a close. The next chapter might involve figuring out what to do with too much water: finding a way to responsibly divert the greywater coming out of our house downhill!