A couple of days ago, I decided to hop over the fence separating my property from public lands to the west, to go walk to Lassen National Forest, which starts just half a mile down a forest service road. On the way, I planned on checking out a pond that’s located a couple hundred yards from the barbed wire fence. As I approached the fence, though, I heard a whisper. I undid my hood to uncover my ears. There was no mistaking the sound — the sound of trickling water!

I scrambled downhill towards the bottom of the ravine where I knew the sound must emanate from. The whisper turned into the full-on susurration of gushing water.

The seasonal stream was running!

Even though I’d always suspected the presence of a seasonal stream there, the sights and sounds stirred palpable excitement. Water! Gallons and gallons of water, gushing right through my property! The sudden appearance of this body of water made it seem that much more magical.

Though, in reality, the stream’s appearance could hardly be attributed to magic. In fact, the pond that I had been planning on visiting sits upstream from this creek, and is the very reason I suddenly started receiving water. The pond is actually the result of a large earthen berm that blocks that stream. When the water level rises high enough, the dam is flanked, releasing any additional water downstream towards my property.

The timing of its release is also unsurprising. It had snowed almost 2 feet over the past few weeks, but recent warm weather accompanied by rain had caused all that snow to suddenly start melting and rush downhill. When the pond filled up, the overflow started trickling through my property. Once all the snow is gone, probably in the next month or so, the stream will also stop running. But during that short window, snow melt from hundreds of acres of land will rush through that narrow gully on my land.

Exiting my property to the north, the creek eventually joins other tiny streams heading towards Pit River, which meanders west across the mountains to empty into Lake Shasta, to then continue south down the Sacramento River, eventually spilling into the Pacific Ocean where it would evaporate, condense into clouds that get blown back east, and fall as rain and snow on these same mountains to repeat the cycle.

On the way, some of it may be diverted to irrigate the rice fields and orchards in the Central Valley. So the next time you eat California-grown rice, or olives, or almonds, or perhaps fruits, you may be eating a tiny bit of that snow-melt I saw flowing through Serenity Valley.

Living here, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation for water. Water is life. People talk about the “gold standard”, but I think there should be a “water standard.” Water is what makes life possible. No water, no life.

And until recently, I mostly thought of Serenity Valley as an inhospitably dry place. Indeed, from late Spring until mid-Autumn, there’s hardly any rain. In the summer, it’s typical for there to be zero precipitation for months. Last year, I had to haul water in to irrigate my tiny garden, and even that wasn’t enough.

But, lo! When I saw all that water gushing through my property, I felt like I’d struck gold. Nay, I felt like I’d struck life. If I can contain even a tiny fraction of the water, life can flourish on Serenity Valley. I can grow a much bigger garden, and even grow fruit trees. I can raise livestock. I may even be able to raise fish! It’s so dry here in the summer that things don’t even compost very well, but water changes that too. The soil isn’t great, but, as long as there’s water, I could build it up.

When I bought this land, I hadn’t really considered the possibility of homesteading here. Now that I’ve been contemplating that option, I was starting to doubt the suitability of this land for sustaining life. That changed the instant I heard that stream. Sure, there are much easier places to homestead, where growing seasons are longer, or summers aren’t so dry, or the soil is better. But with all that water, I think it’s at least theoretically possible to turn this land into a productive little farm. It wouldn’t be easy. It’d be an uphill battle all the way. But it just might be possible, and that’s pretty darn exciting.

As new possibilities blossomed in my imagination, I continued with my walk to Lassen National Forest as planned. I was tempted to spend more time around the new creek, but reasoned that it would still be running for at least a week or two.


The next day, having slept off my aquatic euphoria, I turned to more practical considerations. I started by walking the entire length of the creek, following it all the way through my property and out. The goal was to get an idea of the creek’s path, and to gain a better grasp of the terrain surrounding the stream. For the water to be usable during the dry season I would need to collect it, either with a dam of my own, or by diverting the water to a cistern. My hope was to spot potential sites for one or the other.

After entering my property from the west, a few hundred yards north of the south-west corner, the creek rushes down the steep ravine that I mentioned before, at a east-northeasterly orientation. The ravine eventually opens up to a bigger valley, the one I think of as actual Serenity Valley, which slopes gently down almost due north. The creek gradually wanders to the east, flowing out my property lines, then continues north parallel to my eastern border, eventually pooling in a flat area near the paved road, before disappearing into a large duct under the road just yards from the peg marking my north-eastern corner.

As I walked the length of the creek, it became obvious that damming a considerable quantity of water would quickly become a monstrous logistical and engineering feat, probably beyond my budget or skills. A more practical and practicable solution seemed to be to set up a small dam, maybe just a foot or two high in a natural bottleneck, to raise the water level just enough to make water collection easier. From there, some of the flow could be diverted by a series of pipes to a cistern located in a reasonably flat and clear area about 100-150 yards away. The terrain would allow the cistern to be located at a slightly lower elevation, and could be fed by gravity.

But, is there enough water?

As I observed the creek, I tried to make a rough estimate of its flow rate. To do so, I found a natural funnel where the stream was constrained between some large boulders, then imagined the jet of water being further narrowed, and pictured the water filling a gallon jug. It seemed like there was enough water flowing to fill a gallon jug in about a second. To be conservative, let’s call it half a gallon a second. That’s 30 gallons per minute, 1800 gallons per hour, or 43,200 gallons per day. If the creek were to run for 20 days, a total 864,000 gallons would flow through. (Incidentally, this method of approximation is called a Fermi estimate and is often employed by scientists and engineers to make ballpark estimates that often yield results in the right order of magnitude.)

So, even if I over-estimated or under-estimated by 100%, we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of gallons on the lower end, and well over a million on the high-end. It seems that diverting 10-20,000 gallons would hardly do any harm, yet would provide me with enough water to irrigate a large garden, raise a couple of heads of cattle, with maybe even enough left for a small fish pond.

But, would that be legal?

My natural inclination towards such questions would be to ask, “Does it harm anyone?” If not, who cares? After all, diverting 0.5-5% of a tiny seasonal creek seems pretty harmless. Being a seasonal creek that only exists for a few weeks a year, there’s no native fish or other wildlife I need to worry about. I’m not dumping toxins downstream. So, it seemed like it’d be something so harmless as to not even warrant regulation in the first place.

But then, this is California. And this is water we’re talking about. I decided to begrudgingly research the legal ramifications, half expecting to find that what I wanted to do would be bound tightly in red tape.

As it turns out, California laws regarding Water Rights apparently include an exception for crazy (or reasonable) people like me. On the FAQ page of the California Water Board’s website, I found the following:

There is one exception to the requirement that you have a water right. You do not need a water right if you take and use a small amount of water only for domestic purposes or use a small amount of water for commercial livestock watering purposes. However, you are required to register your use with the Division of Water Rights, notify the California Department of Fish and Game, and agree to follow conditions the Department of Fish and Game may set to protect fish and wildlife. The maximum use allowed under such a registration is 4,500 gallons per day for immediate use or 10 acre-feet per year for storage in a pond or reservoir.

Furthermore, “domestic use” is defined as:

… indoor household uses, watering of non-commercial stock used for the household, and irrigation of one-half acre or less of household land, such as a garden.

So, as it turns out, what I want to do is legal, and only requires registration. Though, the registration form asks for the estimated water usage in acre-feet, and since one acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, 10,000 gallons would be about 0.03 acre-feet, or a mere 0.3% of the 10 acre-feet that is allowed under this provision. To be honest, I feel like making a state worker (and someone from the DFG) process my registration for such a minuscule amount of water would cost the state of California more than it’s really worth…

One remaining open question is the cistern. My first thought was, of course, a DIY approach. A 10,000 gallon cistern could measure 15x15ft filled to a depth of 6ft (7.48 gallons fit in 1 cubic foot), and a 15x15x7ft box with 6″ walls would require about 41 yards of cement at a cost of probably $5000-7000 (though there’s also the question of how I’d get a cement truck out there). Even if reinforced with rebar, 6″ walls may not be sufficient, so that may be a low estimate. After doing some research, it seems above-ground plastic tanks may actually be more cost effective. They seem to be priced around $0.50/gallon (+shipping) or lower, and come in varying shapes and sizes so I could start with a small tank and add more. Being fully enclosed, evaporation wouldn’t be an issue either, and the bigger ones have man-holes for cleaning (the water is pretty murky, so I suspect there’ll be a fair amount of sedimentation).

Another related idea I had was to set up a micro-hydroelectric generator to run a pump, and lift the water to a higher elevation that way. About the only good that would do is to open up more possible locations for the cistern. But using the creek to generate power wouldn’t be practical for much else, since it probably only runs for a few weeks out of the year, and the creek is about 300 yards from my camp. Re-capturing energy when water is released from the cistern might be feasible, though it’s just as likely that water from the cistern would need to eventually be pumped higher since most likely locations for gardens are located higher up on my property.

All in all, preliminary indications are promising. If water-flow I’m seeing now is fairly typical, diverting about 10,000 gallons seems both legal and practicable. Tentatively, I may try to setup a small test this summer, and see how it does next spring. I could start with a cistern or tank in the 1000-2500 gallon range, and scale-up if that works out. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if Serenity Valley is to see a transformation into Serenity Valley Farm –still a big if, mind you– it’s going to take years, if at all.

32 thoughts on “Water!

  1. Wow – great find!
    If you are like me, this phase of things are the best. When the possibilities seem like they might be endless – sort of a blank canvass. The planning stage is the most fun.

  2. Nice article. Rather than setup a hydroelectric power source to power a pump you should look into a Ram pump. A ram pump actually uses the power of the water to power the pump. The more water that moves the more water you get. The best part is that you can build one yourself with parts from the hardware store. I’ve built them before and currently use one on a seasonal creek on my property to do exactly what you are doing. Clemson University has these plans which are quite easy to build – http://www.clemson.edu/irrig/equip/ram.htm. It’s something to consider when you have moving water.

  3. I’ve been reading more about permaculture lately. They use swales to slow water as it leaves and encourage it into the ground. I like you ideas of capturing water but by adding swales you might be able to get some real food producing plants started. Worth a look.

  4. Great post as always. Take a look at some of the raised bed intensive gardening techniques to make that water last. I’m not a big fan of harvesting peat moss commercially, and Square Foot Gardening recommends starting out with some, but there are other things that can be substituted. After that, good composting can supply almost all of the fertilizer. If you really want to go all out, Humanure …

  5. Look into small 12volt solar powered pumps for moving your water. They only deliver a small amount compared to big electric pumps, but they deliver it constantly whenever the sun is shining. Over a small amount of time, you can keep your cistern filled.

  6. Another good thing about the plastic tanks, as opposed to the cement in ground cisterns is that they keep bugs, like mosquitoes, and other undesirable creatures, out when properly screened… which is in fact a HUGE problem for most small water collection systems. If you ever do decide to keep fish, you’ll need to put your tanks in the ground and cover their area with a sun shade in the summer. You’ll also need a very reliable solar powered air pump since, in the lack of flowing water, you’ll have no dissolved oxygen in the tanks. I’d suggest you look into a system called aquaponics (growing fish and vegetables using a combination of aqua culture and hydroponics) from this Australian guy, Murray Hallam. He’s got a great system and it’s what I aspire to do someday when I get land of my own. I bought his DVD and it was well worth the $20 I paid for it! I thought of it because you mentioned fish raising and, since he lives in Australia, which is another place with water shortages, I figured maybe you could find some use of it. Anyway, good luck with getting approval for your idea from the California legal system, I hear they’re pretty bureaucratic, as far as most states go.

    Murray Hallam’s Aquaponics system.

    ~Glenn from VT

  7. I would recommend something called a ram pump. It’s a simple mechanical device, with no electronics at all. When a relatively large volume of water comes in, the force of all of it pushes a small portion of it through a pipe. Usually something in the realm of a 6″ diameter intake powering a 2″ output, with plenty of force to snake flexible hose to a convenient water tower. Google should give you a nice long list of both commercial models and DIY plans.

    I also think a premade plastic tank would be your best bet for containment. Although you can try to make your own using vinyl pool liner material It might be something to think about. A series of smaller settling tanks as suggested by TNcoonass is a great idea, but a gravel sediment filter could be effective too.

    • Yeah, someone else suggested ram pumps too, so I’ll definitely be looking into those.

      As for silt removal, I’m not sure how well a settling tank would work if water needs to keep flowing through; I imagine the water would need to sit pretty still for a while… A large sand-and-gravel filter might do the trick, though it’d have to have a pretty high flow-rate since I’ll need to potentially collect close to 1000 gallons a day. The other option is to just let it into the tank, and open up the bottom drain (if there is one) to let out the sedimentation.

  8. We too have a very small seasonally flow on our land…it seems about 5% of what you have. I also entertained Ideas of collection. Plastic cistern and a small 12 volt solar pump..to maintain a “collection” depth a smallish 1 foot high dam would be needed in a narrow location.

    Our land see livestock from the lands around us as we do not have any fencing separating the properties. Having the water safely stored in a tank would prevent undue damage to the basin from providing another potential watering hole for the stock.

  9. hm, having previously though about how to make a cheap water tank:

    A lot of what it comes down to is the cost per unit strength of the material, because if you think about the tank as a cylinder of a certain height, it is the tensile strength that is the determining factor in how thick the wall has to be.

    The pressure of the water divides the two halves of the cylinder towards the base, and the tensile strength of the connection between them has to be sufficient that the material will not fail.

    The pressure of course highest at the bottom so you could save material with a tapered wall, if you wanted a tall tank for some reason.

    It is also apparent from this that the taller the tank is, the thicker the walls, but iirc this gets canceled out and the amount of material needed per unit volume of water stored is directly proportional to the acceptable tensile loading the material can be subject to.

    The weaker the material, the more you need. Plywood is far cheaper on a strength basis than any plastic. IIRC cement has terrible tensile strength.

    So if you made the walls out of 1/4 inch ply, the tensile strength of plywood is 60 MPa or something, suppose 30 mpa loading is okay, then with 1/4 inch ply a tank 2 meters (~6 feet) tall can be 19 meters wide, storing 567 cubic meters or 141,764 gallons, which would be 50 sheets of plywood, at $12 a sheet $590, or $0.0041 per gallon, plus the cost of a suitable plastic liner and fasteners for the plywood pieces. Oops, was assuming the plywood was 2 meters tall, but it is 8 feet, well you get the idea…

  10. Also, for pumping the water you can get just the pump heads, sans motor. It would be much cheaper and more efficient to just take the mechanical energy of a hydroelectric turbine and use it directly to drive the pump. But then I guess the pump has to be where the turbine is,, which is not a big problem but less than perfect.

    You could still harness 10 meters or so of water height while keeping the pump at the top by making the turbine run off the suction at the top of the pipe rather than the pressure at the bottom.

    You have to get a good turbine though. Hm. A big centrifugal pump from a junkyard, or a broken turbo charger turbine, maybe

  11. Hi,

    I’ve been getting your posts about your land and living adventure and it’s been insightful and interesting to read.

    I just wanted to mention that the plastic cistern does sound cheaper, but you might want to make sure that it’s BPA free and really plastic molecules (even without the BPA) would leach into your water supply anyway. Research has found that everyone has plastic in their bodies now, but your body runs better and stays healthier when it doesn’t have to deal with plastic ingestion. It’s just something to consider for your future health, especially if you plan on living at Serenity Valley for many years.

    When you’re old, your health is your most valuable asset so I just thought I’d send you a thought to consider something other than plastic for your cistern.

    Ellen McMahill

  12. An above-ground pool might be easier to lug in than concrete, I’ve heard of them being used for water cisterns? (they even make potable liners for them) …and I’ve frequently seen them for sale cheap on Craigslist 😉 We hope to build a cistern someday as well, I’m curious to see what you come up with!

    • An above-ground pool is definitely the most portable option for sure. Even the plastic tanks weigh something like 220lb for a 1000 gallon tank (1800lb for the 10000gal tank!). The main concern I have with using them as a cistern, I think, is that being open to the air, they could quickly turn into cesspools of algae, bacteria and insects of all sorts. Swimming pools get around this problem by using chlorine and by filtering the water, but chlorine obviously wouldn’t be a great idea for water used in irrigation, and running a filter constantly would draw a lot of precious power. So… I haven’t ruled it out, but there are definitely some problems I’d need to think about.

      • I’ve tried to keep a pool clean with just a filter. It’s a loosing battle from the start even with a larger recirculation system, “shore power” and a small pool. A basic pool cover should work nicely through. Are those generally strong enough to cover say a 15′ pool empty, or do the expect to be able to float?

  13. I’ve got a seasonal creek that flows into a year round creek via an 80 foot seasonal waterfall! Both are a bit too far from the house for reasonable economics, so I haven’t made use of either for water. I ended up putting in a drilled well for household water.

    I use a submersible pump that runs from solar panels and pumps into one of those 5000 gallon “tuna can” plastic tanks. A simple float switch turns on the pump when the level goes down (and the sun is shining). The system has worked flawlessly for 5 years now, so I can definitely recommend the plastics tanks.

    The one drawback is that the water in the tanks does get quite warm during the summer. Fine for irrigation though.

    For household water I put in a second underground concrete tank that keeps the water nice and cool.

  14. You’ll want to harvest rainwater from your building for drinking and bathing after it has been filtered. Your stream should be used to create a much larger pond than you’re currently planning. Ponds are wildlife magnets and fish farming is much more economical than raising cattle, sheep or goats. The fish will eat a lot of you insects and algae plus many states will give you fingerlings for free. Poultry is obviously the best for meat in terms of feed to meat ratio. You can start harvesting/controlling your seasonal water resource by simply placing rocks in the path of your stream. Best places are just below/down stream the natural depression that occur in your property’s terrain. Basically, it is terracing a la the way the Inca’s and other ancient people did it. You’ll want to place a garden somewhere along side the stream path. Above and below the garden, you’ll want to create a meadow of native grasses and plants. The root systems of grassy meadows acts like a sponge that will slowly release water to your garden. The amount of water that you can lock up with some really simple changes is amazing.


  15. Good point on the mosquitoes/chlorine, we struggle with that even in our small rain barrels occasionally.
    Here’s something I saw locally at a rainwater harvesting seminar: http://www.rainxchange.com/products/aquablox.php
    I don’t know how the cost compares to other systems but it’s a lightweight/portable in-ground cistern system that might be of interest. Their website is marketed to residential/suburban customers, but their foundation installs systems for schools and villages in 3rd world countries every year on a larger scale, powered by solar.

  16. I’d love to see you install a water tower and a windmill pump.

    The settling tanks sound like a must if there’s lots of sediment but cleaning up the water isn’t that difficult of a problem. Think of the huge amount of convenience you’d gain with a water tower though. Pressurized water for cooking, gardening, showering, etc.

    I don’t recall if you’ve checked the wind as a resource before but a windmill pump could could also become a wind turbine if you need additional power. It’s literally just the alternator out of an old car and some bicycle chains / gears.

    • Wind pumps/power turbine is a descent idea, if he can get above his trees. The rule of thumb is that the lowest part of a turbine blade’s sweep needs to be 30 feet above anything 300 feet away from it. That can be a substantial tower in a wooded area like Ryo’s, with all the heavy engineering that goes with it.

      Also car alternators make for lousy alternative power generators because they use electromagnets instead of permanent magnets. Once spinning, the will require a bit of power from an outside source to start generating, and once they do, a significant portion needs to go back into the alternator to continue to power the electromagnets. The permanent magnet DC motors used for treadmills makes for a much better generator. Also, these are often still good if/when you find treadmills that are broken, as they are the beefiest piece in the assembly. I’ve gotten a few from Craigslist as free broken giveaways.

  17. I will admit that I haven’t read all of the comments here so maybesomeone suggested this; but septic tanks that are made from cement can be used for water storage. they are cheap and work well. My father-in-law used on on his property and had water delivered. So there are limitless possibilities out there.

    • Technically they are sold as ‘cisterns’ down here in far South Texas. The delivery guy just knocked a couple of holes and installed some flanges and ‘ta-da’ you’ve got a septic tank. We’ve used 2 each, 300 gallon cisterns for about 30 years or so as cisterns for our house water supply that are fed by an Aeromotor Windmill that’s at least 60 years old. A float pushes on a rod when they are full and feathers the windmill so that the windmill doesn’t have to work 24/7.

  18. Pingback: Journal: March13, 2011 « Laptop and a Rifle

  19. Don’t forget that the snowpack has been heavy in the Sierras this year. Could be sparse in the future.

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