The Washougal River flowed with enough water that my parents could swim there, and we could "shoot the rapids" in our life-jackets, shrieking in excitement as the foaming, rushing water splashed against rocks and rushed us along in its currents.
We went sailing on the mighty Columbia River, pulling bottom fish up through great depths of water. When we moved to Albany Oregon, there was so much rain one season that the Santiam River -- or was it the Callipooia? -- flooded, and I was able to sit in a dinghy my father had built, and float on standing water by our house -- even row a bit!
Our water in Albany was good, too, and abundant. In fact, I cannot remember ever living in a place where the water tasted bad, or was scarce. Although as an adult living in big cities in the West, I would hear warnings of water shortages in the summer drought, and learned ways to conserve water.
Still, it was always there at the tap: just turn the handle, and it poured forth in beautiful, clear, pure, freshness and apparent abundance. Only rarely and temporarily was the water "turned off" (for plumbing repairs or whatever), and even when we were warned that this would happen, it always came as a shock that no water would come out!
We didn't think twice about using this clear, pure drinking water in our toilets, excreting our feces and urine into it and then flushing gallons of now-polluted water "away" with each flush. We gave little to no thought to where "away" was. We just became upset and disgusted if it didn't go "away", but rather backed up, spilling unto our bathroom floor where we would need to deal with the mess -- our mess. And we would become most anxious, when the water was turned off, not about becoming thirsty, but rather about when we would be able to flush the toilet again!
The Bull Run Water that supplies Portland is some of the finest in the world -- so good, in fact, that we can use it straight from the tap in our homebrewing without fear of imparting any off flavors. I have swum in large pools of water, diving ten feet down to the bottom and playing, fully submerged, like an otter in its luxuriantly wet environment.
I have been so fortunate.
But I have learned to be more careful with this precious, crucial resource, for the appearance of abundance can be deceiving.
Human beings need to breath oxygen as their first requirement for survival, dying in mere minutes without it. But after oxygen -- breathable air -- water is our most urgent survival need, for we will die much more quickly from lack of water than we will from lack of food. Lately, I've been re-reading some of the references I've collected related to water. They are:
Finding and Buying Your Place in the Country, by Les Scher and Carol Scher, 2000, Chapter 4: "Is there enough water on the land?" and Chapter 10: "Water Rights".
Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds for Domestic Supply, Fire and Emergency Use. (Includes "How to make Ferrocement Water Tanks") by Art Luwig, 2005
Cottage Water Systems: An Out-of-the-City Guide to Pumps, Plumbing, Water Purification, and Privies, by Max Burns, 2004.
In addition to the above books, I have at least two references on rainwater harvesting/collection that I would recommend. Unfortunately, they are packed away, and I do not now remember the titles and authors. Frustrating. I would like to re-read them now as well.
I highly recommend the first two books above, especially Art Ludwig's book. He has many years experience designing and building water systems in a variety of settings, from western industrialized ones to the so-called third world, low-energy settings, using ecological design principles. This will be invaluable experience and knowledge to draw upon in a post-peak-oil world. In addition, his book is extremely practical and clear -- he really cuts to the chase, telling us what we need to know if we are to design and install a water system.
Three of his top principles of ecological systems design when applied to waters systems are:
Minimize overall negative impact on natural and social systems. ("The easy way to do this is to spend as little money and use as little water as possible.")
Create positive impacts.
Leave as much of the water work as possible to nature.
Rigorously confine materials that are incompatible with natural cycles...to their own industrial cycles.
Add to water only cleaning products and materials that biodegrade into plant nutrients and non-toxins.
Add these materials in an order that lets water cascade through multiple uses...
Distribute the nutrient-laden final effluent to topsoil...
There is a side-bar in his book that gives brief but sobering information about the depletion of aquifers. The Oglalla Aquifer, which is the largest Aquifer in the world, supplies about 30% of the irrigation water in the United States. Its recharge rate is so low, and withdrawal on it is so high that over half of its volume will be gone by 2020. We are not the only country that is over-pumping its groundwater. And in China, whole rivers are drying up from overuse.
"Our civilization is not the first to be faced with the challenge of sustaining its irrigation base. A key lesson from history is that most irrigation-based civilizations fail. As we enter the third millennium A.D., the question is: Will ours be any different?"
Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts and a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Insititute.
Every credible source I read makes it clear that we cannot count on there being adequate water on a piece of land, unless there is already a proven source, such as a well producing an adequate flow of potable water. And it is also clear that we cannot be 100% assured that a well won't dry up, especially as more wells are drilled and begin to draw on the same groundwater source. Yes, even in the rainy Pacific Northwest! Our summers are commonly quite dry, and that is a crucial part of the growing season. So, I am convinced that we should respond to this information regarding water with multiple strategies designed to diversify the sources of our water (such as rainwater collection in addition to a well), to protect the quality of our water (correct siting of compost piles, greywater distribution systems and such), to improve the capacity of our soils to hold water (humus!), water recycling, and other forms of sensible conservation.
What delights me is that many of the strategies to accomplish these goals serve to simplify and reduce the costs of the relevant systems, compared to mainstream western water management. Now that's a bonus!
I'm also sobered by the cost and risk of putting in a well. Finding land that already has a good well in a good location would be a real bonus.
We can't take water for granted anymore. But then, we never really could.