The Thursday morning before Christmas, I got up to get ready for work and discovered that we had no running water. NOOOOOO!!!! I knew it was below freezing outside, and my first thought was that our pipes had frozen. But it wasn’t that cold. Why would they freeze now? I hadn’t had coffee yet, so my brain was muddled, and you need water to make coffee. The situation was dire.
I didn’t want to wake up Josh until I had an idea what was going on, because there’s nothing Josh hates more than plumbing problems. Really, nothing. If I woke him to tell him there was something wrong with our pipes his whole week would be ruined and he’d be a monster to live with. He was still steaming about a toilet problem that we had fixed months ago.
Fortunately we had a gallon of water in our Berkey purifier, so I could make the coffee and pull it together. Duly caffeinated, it then occurred to me to go outside and try the outdoor frost-free pumps, which are on a separate waterline from our house. If the pump had water, then I would know that the problem was isolated to the house (SO much of homesteading is a process of elimination). Flashlight in hand, I skated across our driveway to the closest pump by the pig paddock. Not a drop came out. We were completely without water.
Although this may sound like bad news, it was a huge relief, because it meant that whatever was going on was not our problem–at least not directly. We wouldn’t be calling a plumber on Christmas weekend. Hooray! Josh’s week was saved.
We get our water via a water association. There are some large wells just up the road that serve about 60 water shares via an enormous 12-inch water main. The association buys water from the city of Ferndale when the wells go dry in the summer. We are fortunate to own 2 water shares that came with our property. The downside is that it’s expensive–we pay more for water in the county than we did in town–but it’s also a very fortunate situation in our county where water access is a major problem.
There’s currently a moratorium on new wells on undeveloped property in Whatcom county until a study can be done to determine how many wells our water table can support. In theory, the caution is a good idea; land management is trying to make sure the county isn’t developed more densely than the land can support. At the same time, this edict came down unilaterally and with little warning, so hundreds of properties that were purchased with the intention to build are now fairly useless to the owners, with values depreciating by 50% overnight. Many people bought land with loans that require them to put up a house within 2 years and are now sunk.
Which brings me back to our own mini-water crisis. The day before our taps ran dry it rained all day, a heavy steady rain, unceasing for 24 hours. That rain fell on already saturated soil, with a water table at or near the surface, so there was nowhere for the water to go but downhill. There’s a gentle little creek that runs through the back of our property that rises to 16 inches at its most raging. 100 yards downstream of our property, it runs through an enormous culvert ~6 ft. in diameter underneath a road and out the other side, where it continues on its gentle way to Bellingham Bay.
But something happened to partially block and crush the culvert–maybe a downed tree in a windstorm, which restricted the flow of water through it. That 24 hours of rain caused all of the properties bordering that gentle little creek to funnel water into it at a much faster rate than the damaged culvert could let it through. The road then acted as a dam, and water level rose, and rose, and rose, eventually cresting the road itself and running ferociously down the other side, where it washed away the gravel shoulder down, down down, at least 15 feet to where the water main for our water association was buried. The gravel bed supporting the pipes eroded away, and the pipe came apart.
Voilà. 60 homes without water.
Josh pointed out the irony that an excess of water caused us to be without water. We live in one of the most reliably wet places in the United States, and yet there’s a lot of anxiety about water availability in our county. How did a county that gets 60 inches of rain a year get into this situation?
Our brief period without running taps has given me a lot to think about. If utilities become unreliable, do we have backup systems in place?
We don’t live off the grid, and we don’t aspire to live off the grid. But if the grid disappeared…well, that’s what preppers are prepping for, right? Once again, I’m noticing the thin line between the prepping mindset and the homesteading mindset. We’re now taking a mental inventory about our backup systems for water, heat, refrigeration, and fuel. Where can we implement reasonable redundancies? What is a rational level of caution?