When my husband Scott bought our farm, he chose property that had both a pond and a shallow creek. We expected the creek and pond to take care of the water needs for our livestock. For our household use, we expected to haul water, as we had done for the last seven years. We already had a tank mounted on our truck, along with the hoses and an additional storage tank.
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After moving, we discovered two things. First, the local fire department did not sell water, as our previous fire department had, and it was a 30-minute drive to the closest bulk water source. The second thing we learned? We had numerous springs on our property. The springs were on the side of a hill. Judging from the heavier plant growth below them, our springs flowed constantly. That was good news because some springs only flow after significant rain and are not reliable water sources. [There are several types of springs, but all occur when an aquifer overflows onto the surface of land.]
The first spring we “developed” was fairly crude. It consisted of a hole, dug in the wettest area we could find, with a PVC pipe stuck into the lowest part. The pipe sloped downhill, into the sheep trough. It worked. I haven’t carried water to the sheep since.
For our general-purpose spring, we scouted the hilly area above our planned homesite. One area, about 50 feet wide and 100 feet long, was very squishy. As the summer progressed and things dried out, this area remained wet. The area had some rushes, cattails and elderberry shrubs, all phreatophytes, or plants with roots that are often in water. Often, they indicate a high water table and, possibly, good water quality.
Midway up the hill, a wet/dry line marked the beginning of the spring. A little digging by Scott opened up a hole where water was flowing from a crevice. This was the place, we decided, for our general-purpose spring.
Digging With Care
We exercised caution at this point. Springs can be fickle. If the water gets backed up or the flow is restricted, a spring can change course. Scott moved slightly below the point where the spring flowed. Then, he dug a larger hole about 3 feet deep and 3 feet wide. He lined the inside of the hole with a wood frame, to support the sides and lid, then dug a small trench, about 1 foot deep, on the low side of the hole. He put a 3-inch PVC pipe in the trench and refilled it, packing dirt around the pipe, which extended from the hole, joined a second pipe and continued to a horse trough.
The water from the spring flowed down and filled the hole. Any debris in the water settled at the bottom of the hole. The clean water flowed out of the PVC pipe and into the trough. When the trough was full, the water flowed into the nearby creek.
The first summer was quite dry and we prayed the spring would hold out. It did. We measured water flow by timing how long it took to fill a 1-gallon jug. It took about 12 minutes. We calculated that we could fill five jars in an hour. It might not sound like much, but that’s 120 gallons a day. After good rains, the water flows significantly faster.
In three years, the water has not stopped. It is ground temperature so it is cool in the summer, warm in winter. In winter, even at -14 degrees Fahrenheit, the water line and the entire trough remain unfrozen.
After digging the general-purpose spring, we installed a water storage tank above the horse trough, elevated about 20 feet higher than any place where we would use the water. By the time the water gets down to the house and garden, it has enough force to spray off a muddy cow. We are off-grid so we chose a gravity-fed system to create water pressure and free us from needing a pressure tank and electricity to run a pump to refill the tank.
Even though we have diverted a lot of water from the wet area, it remains boggy. It’s obvious there is more water to be had. Eventually, we will expand our system to dry out the hillside and increase the volume for our water system and our future springhouse.
A Multi-Spring System
Our future spring system plan is based on the plans of our neighbor, Robert Haney, who has developed several springs on his property. He runs 30 head of cattle and the springs feed the water troughs for the cows, giving them year-round water. He had swampy areas on his property that remained most of the year because the cows churned the dirt and water into a thick muck. He wanted to eliminate them and needed to water his livestock. For troughs he used industrial loader tires.
He began by trenching above the wet spots, the width of the wet areas. The depth for his trenches varies, depending on the lay of the land, but one spring has a 3-foot trench above it and another was trenched up to 6 feet deep. Once the trenches above the wet spots were done, he ran 4-inch perforated pipe along the length of them. From the lowest end of the perforated pipe, he ran another perforated pipe through a trench to the catch drain basin for each spring. (Because the earth-warmed spring water isn’t likely to freeze, trenching below the frost line isn’t as critical as it is with traditional water lines.)
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Next, he ran solid PVC pipe from each catch drain basin to the center of the site for the trough/tire. He put an elbow on the pipe, glued in a vertical piece and cut it to the desired height. He also dug another trench to a ditch and installed an outlet pipe to handle overflow. To it, he glued an elbow and piece of pipe that extended above the inlet pipe from the basin but would be below the tire rim.
Once the pipe was laid, Haney filled the trench containing the perforated pipe with 5 to 6 inches of coarse gravel and then straw. Finally, he backfilled the trenches with dirt. Once the water lines were in place, he placed an industrial loader tire (with one side wall cut out) over the protruding water pipes. He cemented the bottom, sealing the concrete against the edges of the tire and the pipes.
The system works well. The water flows from each spring, collects in the perforated pipe and runs down to the catch drain basin, where any debris sinks before the water flows into the outgoing PVC pipe that delivers water to the tire/trough. Once the trough/tire is filled, the water keeps flowing, but the overflow pipe, slightly higher than the desired water level, sends excess water into the ditch.
Just like we do, Haney enjoys free and continuous water flow. The muddy, sloppy spot in his field is gone and it’s even dry around the trough. It’s a win-win for cows and people!
Water-Seeking Indicator Plants
If the ground is wet, it’s a good bet you have a spring. If the ground is dry, don’t give up hope. You may have good water just below the surface. Look for phreatophytes, or water-seeking plants. Different phreatophytes can teach you a lot about your water supply. Some indicate approximate water depth while some show the quality of water.
For instance, rushes, sedges and cattails generally indicate water close to the surface, usually good-quality water. Jewelweed and ferns are also water lovers. Maple, sycamores, alders, live oaks and birches indicate there is probably water at a shallow depth. Elderberry and rabbit-brush seek water that is within 10 to 15 feet of the surface.
Local well drillers and hydrologists can offer suggestions about phreatophytes that are in your local area. You can also get more information from the National Ground Water Association at ngwa.org.
Verify A Safe Source
Our cool, sparkling water looks very tempting, especially on a hot day. The turbidity (clearness) is good because it’s been filtered in rock. Mud and debris have settled out of it. If it’s been underground long enough, the lack of sunlight will kill most algae. Is it safe to drink? Maybe, maybe not. It may still contain pollutants, microbes, bacteria or viruses.
We don’t drink it—and we won’t until we have the water tested. Local health departments often offer testing and there are certified mail-order testing laboratories, too. Test costs vary, depending on what tests are requested. Testing for heavy metals or pollutants can increase the costs significantly. Also, there are specific techniques for collecting water specimens to prevent contamination of the sample, which can cause false results.
Health departments frown on spring water being used as potable water. We’ve even heard that they will not pass spring water as potable, based on the fact that it is spring water. We know that infectious diseases from contaminated water are real and deadly. We have a friend who is dying from an illness caused by drinking water from his well, which, unknown to him, was contaminated. So for now, we get our potable water from a nearby (known-to-be-safe) spring, as do many of the locals.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.