Relying on the weather to run our household gives it power over my heart. Mostly the rainfall. Rain is a natural limit here in Australia. Our area usually has about four months of scarce rainfall, which means our water tanks have to last us at least that long. There is no other water supply at this farm. If we run out, we have to pay to have water trucked in to refill the tanks. Our creek and pond dry out in early summer.
The farm has four large water tanks, each 22 500 litres. At the end of last winter, they were all full. The large water storage tanks can be pumped uphill every week or two into a smaller header tank, to provide the house with gravity water pressure. The pump takes about three hours to fill up the header tank, at which point it overflows until someone turns it off again. Usually the sound of water cascading over the top tank alerts someone to turn the pump off.
Just as the weather dried out at the beginning of summer, I returned home at the end of a long day in town. As soon as I got out of the car, I could hear the pump was running and the header tank was overflowing. I ran to turn it off, far too late. It has been running for twelve hours, and over 30 000 litres of our beautiful clean rainwater had been dumped onto a bare gravel slope. Devastating loss.
We would now have to face the long summer with vastly reduced water. Full tanks would mean we could easily water the garden and run the household, but now we began to tighten our water use – we’re not strangers to low-water living.
Using less water didn’t help much when the same thing happened again.
This time, my darling partner left in a hurry to attend a bushfire as a volunteer firefighter. Half of our remaining rainwater was dumped, as the tank merrily overflowed. The irony of reducing our own protection against bushfire due to firefighting elsewhere was not lost on me (emptying all three household tanks would mean dipping into the reserve tank). We were now down to a quarter of our normal supply for this time of year.
A quarter of the tanks is not enough to water gardens as well as ourselves over summer. We decided to buy a new 9 000 litre tank for garden use and install extensive pipe lines to connect it to a dam in another paddock. It could also catch water from the garden sheds.
We rearranged the irrigation in the garden so the precious water doesn’t fall on the weeds. I argued for more dripper lines, rather than sprinklers, to stop evaporation.
The pot plants are already set up for minimal water use – they all sit in a deep plastic tray. I can fill the trays up quickly, and the soil soaks the water up to the plant roots. The soil moisture is much less likely to fluctuate, which means the plants are less stressed, and the soil doesn’t dry out badly and become water repellent like a normal pot plant can. It’s like an easily flushed wicking bed. Most of the upcycled freezer beds in the shadehouse are wicking beds with a water reservoir inside, too.
Permaculture principles suggest designing for several elements to meet each important function, and several functions met by each element. Diversify. Catch & store energy.
I sited the new water tank where it will shade a future duck pen from the late afternoon sun, help to block the worst wind from the poultry, collect water from both sheds and the dam, and provide a wall for fencing or to add trellis to. This uses it for more than just water storage.
To diversify our water catchment, we’re expanding to use dam water as well as rainwater. We’re also designing in multiple layers of control, to make sure no one leaves the pump running by mistake or irrigation running in the garden. The first control is remembering – well, that didn’t work so well. The second is setting a timer on our phones or the microwave – that only works if we remember to start it. The third control is timers fitted directly into the water lines, so that the taps only turn on if the timer is set. I bought two brands of timers to test out after the second water tank incident, and then bought more of the one that worked best with our low water pressure.
We also have plans to install a float in the header water tank, so when it’s full the pump will automatically switch off. And, because both times it was left on after we drove away, a flashing light to make it really obvious that the pump is going. It’s too quiet! It’s also possible to isolate each of the four main tanks; the last one was already disconnected from the others, which meant it wouldn’t drain empty even if the pump was left on for days. This was the reserve tank, for firefighting or emergency purposes.
We also joked about installing handpainted signs all the way down the driveway: TURN OFF THE PUMP!
Last year, it barely rained in December at all, so I was preparing myself for no summer rain. But the rains came! I did a happy dance, and went to bed with a huge sense of relief. This turned back into a sinking feeling in the stomach when we woke the next morning and looked out the window at the pipe feeding the water tanks, overflowing onto the ground. No way were those tanks full already – this meant that the filter was clogged, and the rain was falling so hard that it was sluicing off onto the ground! Nooooo!
Out into the rain, up the ladder to unscrew the tank lid, and remove the filter so the water could run straight in while we cleaned the filter. Of course, it stopped raining as soon as we finished this. I moped around the house until the sky darkened again and we had a good day and night of soaking rain. All caught in the water tanks. Feeling more secure now.
So the tanks have been topped up, we’ve cut our water use and are still burying pipeline to connect the dam to the new garden tank. Water storage is also a bushfire mitigation strategy here, and the polypipe must be buried to stand a chance against fire. I hope that we never have to test that.
Weather. I’m connected to it, invested in it, reliant on it. It’s a whirlwind of emotion.