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Water independence and water security

The gauge shows the 3.5 inches that fell last night.

To me, few things are as disturbing as a drought. And few things make me feel more secure than the sound of water rushing in my little stream. I can hear the water now through the upstairs open window that faces the woods. The remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole just put an end to the drought that developed in North Carolina during a hot and dry September. A total of 6.2 inches has fallen here in the past few days. Areas to the east, closer to the Atlantic, had much more rain. Wilmington, on the coast, had almost 21 inches of rain from Nicole.

For those of us who want to turn our backs on the corporatized, consumerist lifestyle, few things are more important than water independence and water security. My goal is to live to be at least 100 years old. If I succeed at that, that’s almost 40 more years that Acorn Abbey will need to sustain me through global warming and economic and political changes that I’m probably not going to like. One of my daily reads is James Rawles’ Rawles is a very intelligent and knowledgeable man, and his daily links are often very useful. But Rawles’ blog has a strong right-wing tilt. He still believes, because of right-wing ideology, that government, rather than out-of-control corporations and the corporate takeover of our government, is the problem. He’s very big on guns and defending one’s retreat as though it’s a fortress, though, to his credit, he also completely understands the necessity of sustainability. He sells his services as a consultant for people who are looking for retreats. He prefers the western United States, because of the sparseness of the population, weaker local government, and the prevailing winds carrying fallout if a big East Coast city was nuked.

I believe that’s all wrong, that some people’s ideology and too much Ayn Rand has led them to think that rugged individualism, hoarding, and lots of guns are the best defense against what may go wrong in the future. But the western states (with the exception of Idaho and a few other areas) are some of the most water-stressed parts of the country, and the water situation is going to get worse. Given a choice between guns and water, I’ll take the water.

Before I finally made the decision to move back to North Carolina from California, one of the things I attempted to check was long-range projections for average rainfall in the face of global warming. I could find very little data in 2005, when I bought my land, though there seemed to be a consensus that hurricane-season storms off the Atlantic would be more common and more violent. Just this year, though, a research organization named Tetra Tech released a report combining projections from several different global warming models. They show this area of North Carolina gaining several inches of rainfall per year, on average. That is reassuring. One of the graphs from this report is at the bottom of this post.

In my attempts to model the future, it is silly to suppose that guns and hoards of food will get me through the next 40 years, should I be so lucky as to live that long. As I see it, sustainability is the key. Sustainability without rainfall and water is unimaginable. And though independence is a good thing, I also think it’s obvious that fortresses inhabited by rugged individualists with lots of guns are unsustainable.

What is sustainable, then? I think the answer to that is obvious, because that’s how it used to be done before we all became consumers in an economy in which people depend on corporations for everything. Farming communities are sustainable. To the right-wing mind, “community” is a dirty word that will always provoke a sneer. Even a very large farm is not likely to be completely self-sustaining. There are bound to be some things that one can’t produce and that one must trade for. When I was a child, I could hardly believe it when my mother used to tell me that, when she was a child, there was no such thing as a grocery store. A few times a year, she said, they’d buy flour, sugar and beans in 50-pound sacks. Everything else they grew. Those sacks, by the way, were often cotton muslin prints that could be made into clothing. I have a photo of my mother around age 16 in which I’m pretty sure the dress she’s wearing was made from a flour sack.

So, to me, picking a place for a retreat is not about totally getting away from people. It’s about getting into an area sparsely populated with the right kind of people. Those people are people who have tractors and fields and barns and pastures. Those people now go to the grocery store, for sure. But they have the option of going back to farming, and many of them still have the skills.

Acorn Abbey is a little less than 250 miles from the Atlantic. The North Carolina coastline sort of hangs out into the Atlantic. If you flew exactly east from Acorn Abbey, in about 250 miles you would come to the Atlantic around Duck, North Carolina. If you flew exactly south from Acorn Abbey, in about 250 miles you would come to the Atlantic around Charleston, South Carolina. This is good. Stokes County is far enough inland to be protected from the winds of a powerful hurricane. But the rain can get here in only a few hours.

Acorn Abbey’s water comes from a well. I have a small stream only a hundred feet downhill from the house, but that stream stops running in dry weather. The nearest stream that runs all year is about a hundred feet below my property line. The Dan River is two miles away. I could have done worse. But if there is one thing I could fix about Acorn Abbey, it would be this: I’d contrive to have some sort of reservoir of rain water that could be used to irrigate the garden. With limits, my well can do this. But the idea of using ground water for irrigation offends against my sense of sustainability. If there is a cost-effective way of impounding some rain water for summer irrigation, I will think of it.

This storm came straight off the Atlantic rather than from the Gulf.

Tetra Tech Inc. / National Resources Defense Council


  1. Quetal wrote:

    Thank you for your insight. I don’t have the drive to investigate life, like you do, so I appreciate the information you pass on to your readers.
    While I was growing up, and visiting my grandparents on their farm, I always enjoyed the chickens. I do not recall if my grandparents had roosters, but I do remember the box of chicks over the years, he would bring home from Seed & Feed. I still think you need a small goat or two.
    I didn’t think much about water. I am like many other Americans, who turn on the tap and drink freely. However I have become more aware of the importance of water through your notes, news and other Blogs. I scold myself and my wife about running the tap too long. I am now telling neighbors how their lawns are overwatering and spilling into the drainage (the practice continues because I’m ignored). I call the HOA landscape manager about errant community sprinklers. I don’t know why the State doesn’t just outlaw lawns.

    Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
  2. David L.M. Marcum wrote:

    From the photos of your house and the great roof planes, I would suggest five to six rain barrels to collect the runoff from your roof. The examples I had in mind are similar to what are shown on (Although surely you could find far less expensive barrels, and rather than buying a $59 stand, stacked stone would look so much more attractive.) You could place one at the lower corner of the front porch, one on either side of the front-facing gable, one at the back corner of the side porch, and one on either side of the back porch — all fed by rain gutters. By the end of the spring rains, you should have filled up all the barrels and have them to draw on during dry periods.

    On my grandparents’ farm, they always maintained water barrels (lovely old wooden ones with iron hoops, sitting on stone blocks to keep the bottoms from rotting out) and used the water collected for the garden. They carried water by hand in watering cans. But some of the new barrels have spigots for hoses on them that allow you to use gravity to run the water rather than “tote” it.

    Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  3. admin wrote:

    Hi David. Unfortunately, I realized during the winter that I can’t put gutters on the house. During a heavy snowfall, a 3-foot drift came down all at once both from the front and back. The force of it, I’m sure, would tear gutters off the eaves. I’m looking at some sort of custom-built catchment, maybe made of treated wood, that would be strong enough to catch the water from the front and back valleys. That’s where most of the water comes down. I also have been fantasizing about a tiny pond. There’s bound to be a solution…

    Friday, October 1, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink
  4. David L.M. Marcum wrote:

    Living in LA for several years now, the snow didn’t even occur to me! [slaps forehead] How quickly we forget.

    There is a type of gutter system that I’ve seen out here on commercial buildings that might work, but I’m not sure how practical it would be to add to an already existing eave. It’s a type of box gutter system (without the design flaws of old-fashioned box gutters). In your application, it would probably necessitate decorative brackets for added support. I’ll see if I can find an on-line image of it to send to you.

    Friday, October 1, 2010 at 11:02 pm | Permalink
  5. David L.M. Marcum wrote:

    AHA! Simpler than I thought. Rather than an extreme gutter system, a regular gutter system with Snow Clips to keep the snow from sheeting off the roof and wrecking the gutters!

    Although I’ll still try to send along an example of the guttering system to which I referred.

    Friday, October 1, 2010 at 11:28 pm | Permalink
  6. admin wrote:

    Hmmm. I’m skeptical whether snow clips could really prevent the kind of avalanches I had here last winter. I need to talk with my brother about designing and building some sort of strong box catchments. Maybe put a gargoyle on them. 🙂

    If you’ve been in L.A. so long that you’ve forgotten about snow, then it’s time for a winter trip to Yosemite!

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  7. David L.M. Marcum wrote:

    Selective memory. I despise cold weather! Beautiful to behold. Deeply unpleasant to tolerate.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

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