In the middle of another hot summer, our thoughts naturally turn to water. Not that we’ve ever run out of water here on the farm, but it’s easy to take clean water for granted.
World Water Day, on March 22 this year, is an international observance of the importance and scarcity of water, our most precious resource. The United Nations estimates that 700 million people worldwide do not have regular access to clean drinking water and two million children die each year from water-borne diseases.
Environment Canada reports that we use more water per capita that any other national population except the United States. Canadian water use is more than two times higher than that of Europeans. Typical residential indoor water use is as follows: bathing and showering 35%; toilet 30%; laundry 20%; drinking and cooking 10%; cleaning 5%.
When we first moved to the farm, we drew our water from a spring bubbling out of the ground about 75 feet west of the house. A cement well tile, a cylinder about three feet in diameter and six feet high, had been placed over the spring and that cylinder was constantly about one-third full of cold, fresh water. We pumped from that cylinder into the water tank inside the house.
This system had been in use for two decades and it still worked well. We scrubbed the inside of the cylinder to remove a thin build-up of algae, then placed heavy landscape fabric on the bottom covered with six inches of washed stone to act as a filter. Our constant water tests sometimes showed a slight bacterial count, but the water was always suitable for drinking.
Just below the spring was the overflow pipe from our pond. Together, that overflow and spring produced a small stream of cold water, and about 20 feet downstream were the remains of a spring house, a small building once used for refrigeration. It was constructed over the stream and the water of the spring maintained a constant cool temperature inside the spring house throughout the year. This is where the original homesteaders stored food that would otherwise spoil, such as meat, fruit, or dairy products.
There was always a story around here that the pioneer bachelor farmer on this land didn’t have a regular backhouse, and wouldn’t let any women relieve themselves on ground higher than his spring. It has always been unclear if this prohibition applied to men as well.
Downstream from the old springhouse, we dug out a small pond that I was going to use for watering sheep and cattle. Then we got pigs. Now, it’s always easier to bring the animals to the water if you can; the animals are self-propelled. But it was not practical to try to drive the pigs from their barn 300 feet across the front garden to our dug small pond, so we had to find another way. A friend mentioned that he had a 250-gallon plastic water tank we could use, so he and I and our new Labrador puppy, Major, drove his boat to his cabin on Ashby Lake and brought back the tank.
I put that tank on the second floor of the barn, traded the neighbours a future side of pork for a gasoline-powered pump and 300 feet of one-inch hose and we were in business. We start the pump, fill the tank in fifteen minutes or so, and let gravity direct the water through piping to the pig yard below.
The plumbing was easy enough for me to do as a rookie farmer at the time and, anyway, I generally like plumbing more than electrical work; a plumbing mistake only gets you wet.
The pigs drank from a pig sucker, a small metal cylinder with another cylinder inside it. When the inside cylinder was pushed in by a pig’s snout, or pulled sideways by mouth, it broke the seal and water flowed out. Each year we had to train the pigs to the sucker but it didn’t take long. We would start with a pail of water below the sucker. Then we would take the pail away and squirt water when ever they came near.
The pigs pastured in their yard when they were young, but their diet was always supplemented with pig feed from the mill; generally a mixture of barley, corn, millet oats, rice, rye, sorghum, triticale, wheat, soybeans, or peas, whatever was in supply and in season. The grains were typically ground into a fine, dusty flour and our pigs were fed in a feeder built by my dad, our kids, and me.
When we were finished Dad said, “Well, if it doesn’t work for pigs you could always turn it into a bird feeder.”
And that’s what it looked like, a giant bird feeder. The dusty feed was poured in the top to fill the middle section, and the pigs ate from the bottom.
Because the feed was so dry, the pigs were always looking for water, so they usually trained to the sucker in a couple of days. Reaching in and squirting water also gave us a chance to touch their rough skin and stiff hair and get them used to us as we became used to them.
After living here a couple of years we noticed that the bacteria levels in the well tile were always slightly elevated during the early spring runoff, not enough to make the water risky, but enough to make us decide to drill a well on the other side of the house. A friend witched a likely spot and the drillers went down through the granite. We stood at the window and watched the dollars add up as the eight-foot sections of pipe were stacked into the hole and the granite dust filled the air.
After four hours of drilling we were seriously wondering about our neighbour’s witching ability when water started pouring out of the well at 207 feet. It was over five gallons per minute and after an hour of continuous pumping still maintained its level at 16 feet.
We installed a soft-start pump that gradually increased its power draw over several seconds to avoid any sudden surges in our solar-powered system and an extra water tank so it only had to pump half as frequently.
We have all the water we need for ourselves and our cattle, but we are still careful. For instance, our RV-style toilets only use one litre per flush, compared to the three-gallon monsters in many homes. We don’t run the water while brushing our teeth, we use a water-saving front-loading clothes washer and a low-flow showerhead, we cut the grass high so we never have to water the lawn, and we aren’t that fussy about keeping the car spotlessly clean.
Careful use will conserve our water legacy for future Canadians. There can be no nicer gift for our children than abundant, clean, life-giving water.