Water, Water Everywhere!

Posted on: July 8, 2013

Sunshine Brewer is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to primitive living skills and Native American survival wisdom. She has spent her entire life learning how to live off the land. In this new blog, she will share with our readers not only quick tips and tricks but in depth information on wild edibles, medicinals, and otherwise useful plants.

Water, Water everywhere and nary a drop to drink!

Penned by Samuel T. Coleridge in his work “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” this holds true for us about this time every year. Sometimes there isn’t a drop of water to be found anywhere! Creeks dry up, ponds stagnate and springs disappear. The only source of water to be found is deep inside the local cave system. Going deep into a cave during a heat wave and drought has its own problems. Carbon dioxide in deadly high levels is common. It is safer to avoid death by asphyxiation than to risk it for a few gallons of water.

Water is one of the must have items for both people and livestock. The lack of water will cause animals and birds to migrate to locations where water can be found. Three summers in a row we’ve had cougars move into the neighborhood. The first time it happened people thought we were crazy. The photos of scat, tracks, and recordings of her calls were dubbed bogus. Once she went into heat, however, the jibs stopped as nothing on earth is as unnerving as a cougar in heat.

The next year, when livestock were being pulled over stall gates followed by an absence of the turkeys and rabbits population, they were not so vocal in their name calling. Last year, one of the neighbors snapped a photo of one or two on his cell phone. He brought the picture to us and sent it to the Department of Natural Resources. I told him it was most likely a year old juvenile male, about three feet in body length, around 200-225 pounds that crossed the field 20 feet in front of his truck that morning. After four months, the same DNR who refused to confirm or deny the existence of cougars in our county did agree with my size, gender and weight. We were exonerated from the “Looney Neighbor Club.”

Not having water is tough, having to deal with a large predatory animal who is looking for water and hunting is more difficult. We have springs all around us that luckily are not contaminated. When the rains disappear we can haul water back. It’s a lot of work since it’s almost a ¼ mile round trip to the closest one and the trip back means hauling serious weight. (Remember that a gallon of water weighs 8.34 pound plus the weight of the container.) Of course the walk back is uphill.

A spring house is a structure built over a seep or spring that houses a large round tile. Digging down a few feet the drainage tile is placed vertical into the ground allowing the seeps/spring water to pool inside. Dipping from the pooled water allows a person to gather clear, clean water without the mud and muck that would be included when dipping from a naturally occurring spring or seep. All of the people around us have at some point in their lives drawn water from our spring house. One walked down and back twice a day (over a mile each time) as a child with two quart buckets. Another drew gallons from it to use for cooking, bathing and cleaning. For most of our neighbors, the walk was over a mile one way. The creek was deemed unsafe due to livestock run off as everyone back then had lots of livestock grazing in what are now hay-fields.

We have small ponds and a few creeks that can be used for livestock during a rainless period. Unfortunately if it doesn’t rain for more than two weeks water has to be hauled, pumped, or carried in for them. If creek water has to be used for human consumption it has to be purified. Instead of a table top purifier we use more primitive methods. Creek water is strained through cloth to remove the larger pieces of debris then boiled to kill off any microbial or protozoan life forms. Sometimes due to the algae content I’ll add a ¼ teaspoon of bleach per gallon, allowing it to sit for an hour before I boil it. I also add 10 drops to every gallon of water I plan to store for the livestock for any length of time. Algae is an ever present danger for rain collected water.

Rain barrels are great if it rains. A bit harder to maintain during 90 plus degree weather but 300 plus gallons of water does not go as far as one might think. Calculating your water needs is relatively easy unless you water your garden, livestock and do things like wash your car. During an emergency, city or county water may not be available plus it may not be safe to drink once it does comes back on. Storing a few hundred gallons of water takes a lot of space. Space that not everyone might have.

People need at least one gallon of potable drinking water daily. That gallon of water does not include flushing a toilet, bathing or watering livestock or pets. The best way to determine your daily water needs is to keep track of the gallons of water you use daily. Around here the livestock and pets use a bit over 10 gallons per day. On average, including two gallons for human consumption, two for the toilet plus two more for bathing (washing my hair not included) plus washing the dishes, the space to store 16 gallons of water in a single layer is about four square feet. One rain barrel is a little over three days of limited consumption and that’s not including watering any garden plants.

The lack of water can be and is deadly. There are many plants that can provide small amounts of moisture even in a drought situation. Grape, thistle and prickly pear cactus are three that come to mind. A grape vine the thickness of your finger will slowly drip about ¼ of a cup of drinkable sap once cut. The upper part of the vine that is cut will die but it may be enough to quench your thirst. Thistles have a large quantity of drinkable sap in their stems. It is bitter and hard to get to due to the bristly outer covering but it is safe to drink. Prickly Pear cactus is also bitter but has more water content than either grape or thistle. Prickly Pears are hardy souls growing in more northern locations than people realize. We were shocked when we moved here to find that not only do these cactus grow here but thrive in many locations. It is not uncommon to find dump sites where people dig them up by the truckloads and toss them in pits and ravines around the county. I have to admit making nopales jelly that first summer.

Keeping an alternative water source is important if you want to be self-reliant and doubly important during an emergency situation. In many states, it is illegal to set up rain barrels. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where they are legal start out small. Rain barrels require maintenance just like any other tool. Keeping the mosquito larvae and debris out, reducing dirt and insect contamination are just a few of the nuisances associated with rain water collection. Keeping a straw broom is very beneficial for cleaning out accumulated debris. We have both plastic barrels with limited access and metal ones with total access. I find I prefer the open top metal barrels to the plastic ones. The metal barrels are so much easier to maintain and can be lidded to keep out debris.

More on that later. Until then, start looking at how much water you actually consume over the course of a day. The average toilet uses three gallons per flush, a ten minute shower uses about 40 gallons of water and don’t forget to include the water used by a washing machine, dishwasher, and pets. If the power went out and city water was no longer available, what would be the minimal amount of water you would need to survive?

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