Try to Catch the Rain

cistern 2It is now legal for homeowners in Colorado to capture the runoff from their roofs and store it in up to two 55-gallon barrels. It sounds like a great innovation, but I’m unsure that it will save much on water use. Our annual precipitation is about 16” and about half of that comes as snow. I use outside water seasonally — mostly during the dry hot months of summer or early fall. I don’t really know how much water I could collect and use, since I need the water at the times that it isn’t raining.

When I moved into our 1872 house, I learned to look carefully for hidden areas and places where old material or documents had been stashed. I’ve found lots of interesting stuff but nothing of any particular monetary value.

The dark cellar was a particularly interesting area — wood planks laid on bare earth, stone walls and lots of exposed joists, pipes and wires. The lore is that a previous owner had loved his hound dog, Old Blue, so much that when Blue died, the owner skinned him in the cellar at the base of the stairs. Subsequently, mournful howls could be heard coming from the cellar late at night. I’ve never heard them, but am still careful when I go by that spot. (“Don’t ask for whom Old Blue howls; he howls for thee.”)

The old coal cellar had apparently been rented out to local college students for cheap housing at some time, and an effort had been made to cover the soot-stained plaster walls with now unreadable newspapers. Chinese newspapers were tucked in some of the shelving, suggesting that foreign students likely made up the clientele.

Under the bare-wood stairs there was a small hatch that gave access to the crawlspace beneath the back porch which had been enclosed and converted to a laundry room. In the hatch, I found some old pieces of junk and more newspapers (from the 1930’s), so I decided to explore further. I had to crawl on my hands and knees, shining a light around to watch for spiders and other creatures that might be hidden in the dark. The dust was deep and stuck to my skin.

At the far end of the space I saw a row of bricks and investigated. It was a circle of bricks about three-feet in diameter, and getting nearer, I looked down into a black void. It was a brick-lined hole about eight feet deep and five feet in diameter. The grout covering the bricks had fallen off in most places, and debris had accumulated in the rounded bottom.

It was a cistern, built before the town had a water system. Undoubtedly, the runoff from the roof was directed into the cistern and a hand pump on the porch above made it handy to the adjacent kitchen. One of the older folks in the neighborhood explained to me that our house had a well by the back porch, but obviously, this wasn’t a well, but a cistern. An easy misunderstanding given their age, I thought.

Later, we decided to tear up the old cement sidewalk adjacent to the porch and rebuild the old entry stairs. Sledge hammer, pickax and pry bar were instrumental in the effort and we made good progress until we reached the area next to the stairs against the porch wall. This slab was larger than the sidewalk pieces and seemed thicker, with boards across the bottom. We hammered and pried with little success, until I found a corner that I could get beneath. I drove the heavy iron pry bar down as hard as I could once, then again — pounding into the old concrete. The next time the bar slipped in effortlessly and kept on going. I barely managed to hang on as the bar slid without any resistance beneath the slab. With a little more work, we were able to lift up the slab and flip it back and step back hastily in surprise. A large and deep, dark hole yawned beneath our feet.

Those aged neighbors had been right after all, and clearly I had judged them too quickly. There was a three-foot diameter, cobblestone-lined well that appeared to be at least thirty feet deep. The water at the bottom reflected a circle of brightness where our shocked faces could be seen. I later measured a depth of at least six feet of water. (For those not counting, that adds up to a 36-foot-deep hole, hand-dug and beautifully cobbled! Some job!)

It seems back in the old days, people around here had thought about saving water and how to live sustainably. They even came up with some of the same solutions that, in our technological superiority, we’ve figured out today. Water barrels collecting rainwater, xeriscaping, porches and trees for shade, adobe and brick for building insulation to keep out both the cold and the heat. It seems that they were pretty savvy!

So, maybe I’ll get a couple of rain barrels and give it a try. After all, the rain falls on the barreled and un-barreled alike….

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