“How much water you got left in that cistern of yours?”
You have no idea how many times I’ve been asked that question. And you have no idea how many times I ask that question of myself. Take this very morning, for example, when I heard Linda turn on the shower in preparation for her weekly work excursion to Minneapolis. I couldn’t help but lean toward the bathroom door, fearing to hear that dreaded sound of sputtering water, followed by the even more dreaded sound of “Ah-h-h-h!”, or possibly even a choice word that wouldn’t normally grace this blog. Because the truth of the matter is---and I’m embarrassed to repeat what I said back in my Report Card---I have no idea how much water is in that cistern. Or at least I didn’t when Linda took her shower.
Now, finally, I do.
The drama of water-worry builds all winter long. Day after shower-running, dish-washing, coffee-brewing day, we know—we dread---that our supply is dwindling. Last November, in the middle our last glorious downpour, I ran outside with an umbrella and observed that yes indeed, water was gushing out of the cistern overflow pipe. We were thrilled to know that our 5400 gallon concrete cistern had filled upon the very doorstep of the rainwater-harvest drought, our long frozen winter. And that, I'm afraid, was the last time we “knew” how much water was in the cistern.
I don’t know what inspired me to action. Was it Linda’s shower? Was it the extended forecast of more un-harvestable snow? Was it the planned visit by Joyce, a fellow off-grid sojourner, and her plumber Jon, who were bound to ask the dreaded question. Whatever it was, I finally invested the time to invent and deploy a method of measuring how much water remains in the cistern. Oh yes, I invested all of 15 or 20 minutes (no task, no matter how important, is too small to procrastinate away).
Inspired perhaps by Queen Bitterblue---who escaped the castle on a rope of torn and tied sheets---I too tied together 3 lengths of musty old sheet and secured a couple pulleys, as weight, to the end. I waded through shin-high snow out to the cistern manhole where, upon removing the cap from the PVC air vent, I lowered my rope into the abyss. Slowly. Slowly. Slowly. There! I felt the slack. Now up, carefully up. Gloves off, I’m waiting, waiting for the feeling of wet rope, the sooner the better. A gorilla like me isn’t made for such a patient task. And yet, I was also afraid. What if only the last foot of rope was soaked? For all practical purposes, that’s the end, since our submerged pump draws from a filter suspended, at all times, one foot below the surface.
There! I feel it! Not just damp, but a thoroughly soaked sheet. Then, to my everlasting dismay and joy, I perceive how much of the rope is soaked. Four feet. Some quick math---that’s one thing this gorilla can do---delivers even more joy. Eighteen-hundred gallons! At 30 gallons a day, we could last until the middle of May without harvesting a single rain drop.
I’m sure Linda’s smile would have been a lot bigger had I shown her the rope before her shower. Still she looked as relieved as anyone rushing off to Minneapolis could. Our joy, I believe, was tempered by our dismay, a lingering doubt about the accuracy of my makeshift measurement system. But the real problem is that our rainwater harvest system violated our right-to-look principle. We can’t “see” how much water remains. Had we a cut-away, ant-farm view of the buried cistern, the dreaded question would never cross our mind. We don't debate how long the grass is, only whether its long enough to cut.
Yet I say hallelujah! Hallelujah for daring the grand experiment. Hallelujah for the amazing abundance of water, filling our cistern and our pond. Hallelujah for our new life. 1800 gallons! Come on down! Come on down for coffee, tea, a long solar-heated shower, and after it all, maybe we’ll do dishes.