Long-Range and Long-Term Water Storage (part 3)

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In the long term, the easiest, cheapest way to store water is in the ground. There are two ways to go about this. For household water, i.e. drinking, laundry, hygiene, cooking, and some irrigation, you need a cistern to catch rainwater. If you live in dryer portions of the country and you expect to be at least partially off-grid, a cistern is a must. A cistern is an enormous tank holding thousands of gallons of rain. They are usually buried, both to protect the water from contaminates and evaporation and to keep it cooler. Think of an underground swimming pool with a layer of dirt on top.

Cisterns are not normally do-it-yourself projects unless you have an army of sullen teenagers with shovels to dig the hole, brick it up, line it with tile, build the cover, and then landscape over top of it.

Cisterns long-term water storage

Cisterns can also be built above ground.

Locating the cistern can be troublesome as most, if not all, of your house gutters need to drain into it to keep it filled. It is probably easier to dig the cistern first and then build the house rather than retrofitting it into a small yard with trees, driveways, underground pipes and what have you all getting in the way. Sometimes cisterns have to be built above ground as there is no other place to put it.

Cisterns need pumps to get the water back out for use. An electric pump is easy to use but you must have a manual back up. If you lose power, and you can’t get to the water, you don’t have any water.

Do a lot of research before installing a cistern so you know how to use and maintain it. Get plenty of references from the builder and visit his installed cisterns so you can see how big they can be and how they work. Bigger is always better when it comes to water storage. If you can count on only fifteen inches of rain a year, in one or two big storms, you need to be able to catch and hold every drop.

The second way to store rainwater is in the ground itself. If you have a well, then — in a round about way — you are storing water for household use. Soil that catches and holds onto water lets you go longer between waterings when the rains are not reliable. As well as watering less often, this means watering less in terms of quantity. Less run-off and evaporation means more soaking into the soil for your thirsty vegetables. Improved soil leads to being more drought proof.

The way you improve your soil is with tons of organic material, deep rooted plants, no bare soil ever, and never turning over soil if you can avoid it. You want a deep, rich, humusy loam and you can turn that dead dirt in your yard into this gardener’s dream.

Step one is to set your lawn mower to it’s highest setting. Taller grass means deeper roots. Deeper roots let water soak down deeper, and air too. Taller grass shades the soil better, keeping it cooler. Use the mulching setting on the mower and let the clippings spread around. They will rot in place and return organic matter to the soil, improving its tilth. For optimal grass health, don’t cut off more than about 1/3 of the blade when you mow. That is, if your lawn mower is set to three inches of depth, cut when the grass is about four inches high. Aerate the lawn if it seems to need it, either with one of those mechanical things from the rental store or with a sullen teenager and a broad fork. Enhance your lawn with regular top dressings of compost, either home-made, or purchased. Spread it thin and let the rain work it into the soil. If the lawn is covered with leaves in the fall, have your sullen teenager run them over with the mulching lawnmower a few times. The leaves disintegrate into the grass.

Step two is to keep ALL of your planting areas, vegetables, trees, ornamentals, berry bushes, heavily mulched. Wooded areas mulch themselves every fall when the leaves drop. Rake them from the grassy areas back underneath the trees and let them rot in place. Collect leaves from the neighbors in the fall. Get them from landscaping services. Collect chipped and shredded branches when the power company does tree topping. Ask! The crew is usually happy to dump a load of shredded trees in your driveway. In the fall, you should not have to purchase mulch. Nature is giving it away. Collect this fertility from your wasteful, profligate neighbors. All of this organic material will rot in place, slowly building up the humus in your soil.

For this reason, don’t use plastic or landscape fabric. They do nothing to build soil and as they deteriorate, you end up with bits of plastic all over the place. Stone and gravel will allow rain penetration but they don’t build soil. Shredded rubber is terrible too. It does nothing to feed the soil, and as it degrades over decades, it breaks up into little rubber bits that will be there forever.

We are learning to do no-till. This means that we don’t spade over the soil in planting areas any more. Instead, we pull back the mulch a little, make enough of a space for the seeds, and leave the soil as undisturbed as we can. Soil is alive. It is a complex web of critters from small to microscopic. A web of funguses binds it together. Break up this complex community by spading it over and you change how well the soil functions.

We have been on our property for thirteen years. My soil has gone from hard, dead clay to a complex, humusy topsoil up to a foot deep in spots. There is never any standing water even after four inches of rain. It all soaks in. That means that every drop of rain that falls on my yard, stays in my yard. I loose very little to run off or to evaporation. Where I have grass, it is healthy and green with no feeding, amendments or spraying. My vegetable beds are better than ever. I have berry bushes, trees, some wilderness areas, ornamental flowers, hedges, shrubbery screens.

As the soil improves year by year I do less and less supplemental watering. I don’t have to! We water only when something is newly planted, vegetables when needed (from captured water in the cube) and, and, that’s kind of it. I certainly don’t water the lawn and the thicket, hedgerow, hazelnuts, and berry bushes take care of themselves. Improving the soil so it does the work is letting this happen.

You can store water this way too. The more organic material in your soil, the more water it collects from the rain. Eventually, much of this water makes it way down to the aquifer. If you have a well, then you are making sure it continues to provide water for your household. So capture all of your rain. It isn’t hard and the returns are huge.

Next Week: That Pesky Time-Management Problem