Feb 20

Nary a drop to drink

Heartwarming Hill Country Tap WaterShall I speak to you of rainwater collection? Hear ye my sorrowful lament.

The story begins in 2005 at the offices of Jagoff & Pretentsio, my architects. The bunkhouse was still on the drawing board, glowing with the promise of my future contentment. We all gathered around the drawings, sipping lattes.*

“You’re gonna love your rainwater,” sang Jagoff.

“It’ll be chemical-free and taste fantastic,” tittered Pretentsio.

Butterflies fluttered about the room as Peer Gynt swelled in the background. And so the magnificent 30,000 gallon underground concrete cistern was built and miles of gleaming gutters and pipes installed.

The grim consequences of my having signed off on this wackaloon scheme is one of the top reasons Lucky Golden Rainbow Shangri-La Utopian Clearwater Ranch is now called Dreadful Acres.

Big skyMy rainwater collection surface is the expansive metal roof of the bunkhouse, which bunkhouse is picturesquely nestled in a grove of vile, mean-spirited live oak trees (see photo, right, taken from a 60′ crane). Twice a year the trees dump all their leaves, and once a year they dump pollen pods, onto the roof. The trees also provide squirrels, birds, cicadas, and lard knows what else with an open invitation to use the roof as a toilet. All the arboreal animals within a 5-mile radius take full advantage of the opportunity.

Also, I’m pretty sure those airplane urinal ice blocks fall on it every now and then.

The only way to prevent the resulting water supply from turning into birdshit-flavored oak tea is to get up on the roof and deploy a leaf-blower and a poop scooper. This leaf-blowing/poop-scooping must occur whenever a puff of wind blows a single leaf, or whenever a single glob of bird shit plops, onto the roof. By which I mean, there is no way to prevent the birdshit-flavored oak tea result. For years my argumentative, beer-guzzling handyman “blow-dried” the roof every week or so. The effort was achingly insufficient. In fact, unless I dose it with Clorox, my collected rainwater has never once, in over 5 years, not been birdshit-flavored oak tea.

It gets worse. During oak pollen season it is necessary to physically block the collection pipes, because oak pollen turns the water an even browner shade of brown than the oak leaves do. Of course pollen season is also rainy season, so, while I’m keeping the pollen out, I’m also missing most of the year’s rain. To make up for the deficit I have water hauled in. The water delivery company is called Water Boy, which irrelevant detail I include because “Water Boy” has always seemed to me a name perfectly incongruent with big tanker trucks and adult men wielding hoses. The hauled-in Water Boy water starts out in a fairly drinkable and un-brown state, but is eventually debased by any roof-crap that drizzles in.

The oak pollen may be blocked seasonally, but birds and squirrels enjoy contamination privileges year round. If there is a way to keep their feces out of the water supply I haven’t found it. Yes, the water is filtered and passes under a UV light, but the amount of bleach I have to add to keep it potable and non-brown renders the whole operation pointless from the my-body-is-a-temple point of view. Not to mention that the water filters themselves, which supposedly last 3 months but which really need changing about every 10 days, are expensive, cumbersome, awkward to access, and always soak your pants when you unscrew’em, thanks to the fucking knuckleheads who installed the system.

Cistern hatchThen there’s the cistern itself. It’s underground, as I mentioned, and can only be accessed by an enormous galvanized steel hatch so heavy I can’t open it by myself. This hatch, despite gaskets and insect screen, is far from impenetrable, so despite the drought, Dreadful Acres enjoys the distinction of being the only mosquito breeding-ground for miles. Also, the concrete cistern leaches concrete-leachings into the water. Oh, and check this out: a few months ago, when the water began to smell even fouler than usual, a decomposing rat carcass was dredged up from the bottom. The entire 30,000 gallons had to be pumped out — wasted in the middle of a drought.

I can’t even bear to picture what happened next: the argumentative handyman mucking out the empty cistern, slooshing around my drinking water tank in his — shudder — bare feet. I can’t explain it, possibly it’s due to the particular antipathy with which I view that particular handyman, but the idea of bare, middle-aged dude-feet in my water grosses me out even more than a dead rat.

So I’ve been drinking bottled water ever since.

I am happy to report that this week it all changes. After over 5 years of enduring this pointless cycle of filter-changing, leaf-blowing, Cloroxing, handyman-wrangling and carcass-dredging, I’m finally crying uncle. The doomed rainwater collection enterprise is getting junked as we speak. The entire system is being re-plumbed to bypass the tainted cistern and gnarly gutter pipes. I’ll get my water from the well instead. It’s a crappy, shallow, 4-gallon-per-minute well, but as long as it liberates me from the haunting spectre of eau de handyman-foot, I’ll be swimming in happiness.

* Which lattes would, of course, later appear on my bill.


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  1. guest

    good lord, i’d never drink runoff rainwater! use it on my plants, sure, but not drink it. maybe you can install a greywater system and use the cistern water to flush toilets? good luck!

    (love the blog, btw. :-)

  2. pheenobarbidoll


  3. ew_nc

    These tales of the how hard Dreadful Acres has fought your attempts to simply live your life go a long way towards explaining why your blogging at IBTP was so sporadic. Holy rat carcasses!

  4. speedbudget

    I trust your blogging frequency will pick up with the reduced maintenance of your water system.


  5. Hattie

    We get ample rainwater here on the wet side of the Big Island of Hawaii, which has made it possible for residents not on water lines or wells to install above ground cisterns, which water they use for household purposes. They don’t drink it! Ugh. And even so it needs to be chlorinated.

  6. The Crone of Cottonmouth County

    Collection of supposedly potable rainwater is hugely popular here in the Hill Country. But it’s an entirely unregulated industry. Any random jagoff can open up a rainwater business, and there are no best practices or building codes or whatever. I’m sure it works fine for some people, but my particular equipment and circumstances do not cut the cheese.

    But Hattie, why would you chlorinate water you don’t drink?

  7. Antoinette Niebieszczanski

    Gah! The bare-feet thing completely squicked me out. Gave me the shivers, it did.

    But well water? My niece in Florida used to have it, and it smelled like Satan’s bathtub, a month’s worth of hard-boiled egg-farts in a bottle, or Jeffrey Dahmer’s refrigerator. Nasty! Dish-washing was an exercise in gag reflex suppression. I couldn’t brush my teeth with it. I dearly hope yours is less aromatic.

  8. Blind Horse

    The home I typically refer to as Hell’s Half Acre, a very antique New England colonial, came complete with an equally antique brick cistern. I confess I was considering putting it back into service, but methinks my mind was just made up to fill it with sand instead.

  9. quixote

    This was a shocking post for me. I had starry visions of a future abode in which I subsisted on roof-collected rainwater.

    Not any more. Forewarned and all that. Thank you!

    I can’t believe I didn’t once think of the bird poop problem even though I see pigeons roosting on roofs every day.

  10. SerendipityRose

    Oh my how I feel your watery pain! I lived with a SURFACE fed well for 5 years. If I could, I’d boldface and underline the “surface” part too. The side of a mountain in British Columbia, I wouldn’t even let the cats and dog drink it. All I used it for was laundry and bathing. It dried up every summer too. Had it pumped and dug out a few times and many a skeleton was found. Some small and some not-so-small. I’d have had a good chuckle at the fella doing the digging, puking as he discovered each little treasure, except I had to stand back and do a bit of a self check in on my own sanity. I moved the first chance I had and although the acreage I lived on was paradise, the living conditions weren’t. I’ve lived on unchlorinated city water for 3 years now and the novelty still hasn’t worn off…. the water isn’t brown… there’s no silt… and no twigs! I have a bubble bath every day and just soak. So I congratulate you on your new well and I know how much you will enjoy it!

  11. Wuzag

    Wow, sorry you had to have such a shit experience. It’s nice to hear that well water is at least still reliable in other parts of the hill country. A lot of wells where I live have gone dry, and so has my spring, at least periodically.

    In light of the sad failure of your hopeful rain-catching endeavor, I suppose you could be glad that living this far from Austin means that there hasn’t yet been a 10 million percent increase in impervious ground cover. A subdivision is even being built next to me (I think it’s going to have its own church, too! Praise the Lard!) and now I don’t know if I’m ever going to see fishy wishies or snappy bitey turtles in my sad little spring again.

    This makes me fantasize about having something like the aqueduct and cistern at the wildflower center for when the water table here is nonexistent. If only!

  12. Moonlight

    The rat! I’ve had a little lizard kill my 1,100-gallon cistern. I had to run most of it onto the flowers, dump in bleach, and re-fill with city water. But I could still smell the lizard. Bottled water for some days, yes. But as the earlier commenter said, keep the system and use it for irrigation!

  13. ChariD

    Love the idea of collecting rain water, but dead carcasses and bird ass-flavored oak tea are not my cuppa. Oh — did you hear about the hotel that found a dead body in its rooftop water tower (on the news this morning)? Hotel guests complained that the water smelled horrible and tasted “sweet”. ::gag::

  14. A Fan

    In more westernly, less treed TX, we have good success with an above-ground plastic poly tank, simple open roof gutters, and a mesh strainer. Might your horse barn be a candidate for something like this, or are tree branches near to its roof as well?

  15. Tarr

    So well water is going to be better?

    In 2010, I attended a meeting of Wildlife Bureaucrats at the Bamberger Ranch (http://bambergerranch.org/water-from-stone/) which is somewhere in Texas west of Austin. An unforgettable moment was smelling the cave where a few million bats were staying. Caves are connected to groundwater. Wells slurp up from groundwater. So – you might have a whole new flavor to your water.

    It could be that some third world solutions might be helpful to you. Reverse Osmosis. Katadyn filters. My tiny cabin is in with caves and groundwater and bats and it works out pretty well. http://flic.kr/p/8Do9gr

    I am not saying that Texiz is third world.

  16. Hattie

    Twisty: The water is so contaminated that you don’t want to use it for ANYTHING without chlorinating it. It’s full of pathogens.

  17. quixote

    Sort of on topic, it’s about drinkable fluids, today is supposed to be National Margarita Day according to the LATimes.

    Happy margs to all! (A bit late to do anyone any good who doesn’t live in Hawaii, but it’s the thought that counts. ?)

  18. Tehomet

    It boggles my mind that it took/takes so much effort just to arrange a supply of water. Yeah, the guy’s bare feet = much more icky than the biodegrading rat. Ick. Suddenly I appreciate my connection to the local reservoir a whole lot more. Hope the well works out perfectly. Holy moly.

  19. The Crone of Cottonmouth County

    Thanks to those who turned me on to the Katadyn filter. I am having one air-lifted in as we speak. In many respects, the simple country life is exceedingly complex. And not unlike camping.

  20. Tarr

    Glad to hear it. The Katadyn filter works its filtering magic well and has done an outstanding job for quite some time. It is an easy task to keep it filtering way ahead of need.

  21. Bushfire

    Holy Toledo! I’m never leaving the city!

  22. Quizeen

    We live in a particularly hostile part of the Mojave desert and have our water trucked in. We’re saving for a well (they’re very expensive out here because it’s necessary to drill at least 400 feet through some tough caliche before hitting anything), but I’m worried about the aforementioned “Satan’s bathtub” effect. I’ve heard sulphuric rumors from the smattering of local residents who actually already have wells. I can understand the sentiment about never wanting to leave the city.

  23. Anonymous

    I have limited experience with personal wells, but as far as the theory of groundwater goes, the egg/Satan thing is from sulfur in the water. It is unattractive but has no actual health consequences if drunk – and I think it should off-gas if left to sit. I guess that wouldn’t help much for water coming out of the tap, though.

  24. liet

    So why not cut down the trees that are causing the issue. I know of a few people that live off rain water mind they do not have trees hanging over the roof?

  1. Deep subject » Dreadful Acres

    […] you’ve been transfixed — you’re only human, after all — with my ongoing water troubles. You will no doubt recall that I am in the process of switching my water source from rainwater […]

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