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Water – harvesting, using, and protecting

June 22, 2008

Living in an area known for it’s abundant rainfall, and clean water, you might think we have a blasé attitude about water usage.   We don’t.  Maintaining our own watershed and water supply is perfect insurance that we work very hard to NOT waste water.  Most of the hubbub in the news is about peak oil – but think about peak water.  We have cut petroleum use on our farm just by taking most grain consuming animals off of our list of items to sell.  We aren’t cutting our water usage because we never over used it to begin with.   We consider water a vital nutrient, so I can’t tell the cows to drink less.  Since we are dependent on water from our farm  –  we HAVE to steward our water and its use as carefully as we tend our livestock.

I’m interested in the peak oil issues,  but I get frustrated when I see people just trying to prop up the same old poor ideas, just  producing commodity type crops, food and supplies at  home is not sustainable.  For instance, people I know of, and read about on blogs, are stocking up food right now, either because of belief that there will be food shortages, or worse famine.  But instead of stocking up on flour to bake more bread, or growing labor intensive grains, why not start eating different now, instead  waiting until the inevitable?  And, yes I eat bread occasionally, and bake it too, but I can easily live without it, and if I had to eat Swiss chard and rutabagas all winter to survive I could.  So I’m stocking up on things that I can’t manufacture, durable goods that might not be available, or will be of such poor quality they won’t be worth anything anyway.  What does this have to do with water…??

Our water system consists of a hydraulic ram that uses water power to pump water.  No electricity, few parts to break down and free water pumped 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  Even with the cost of the pump, piping, holding tank and the labor to install this system, it is still cheaper than the cost of drilling a well in this area.  Plus, when there is a blip in the electrical system, we still have water, because we rely on gravity.  The aquifers here are starting to drop, and are becoming more polluted.  Well drilling may not be an option in the near future, and the municipal water here is fairly clean, it isn’t cheap to use, especially for more than household type of consumption.  We did hook up to the town water several years ago, as a stop-gap measure, since we heard that the price of hook-up was going to jump considerably.  We rarely use it.  But it is a relief to know it there, just in case we have problems with our own water.

The video below is of our Columbia hydraulic ram pump.  With this system we are harvesting about 20% of the output of our spring.  Sure, we could take more, but we aren’t here to take and use everything, just what we need.  When you have a well, you never really know what your water status is until the well runs dry… .   With a spring, we can see our water supply, during low water, we conserve even more.  Here we need 6″ of steady rain over a week or two to recharge our spring.  For us, that is usually late fall, or sometimes as late as December depending on the year.  The ram is running on a long stroke right now, it can be adjusted shorter as the water supply gets lower.  This particular spring is located about a 1/4 mile from our house, in the deep woods.  We don’t log, graze or impact this area except to do maintenance on the water system, which isn’t very often.  The ram pumps the water 125′ vertical feet through 1300′ feet of pipe to a holding tank to the highest part of the farm.  From the tank, we rely on gravity flow to the house and barns.


We try to keep it simple here if possible, some things just don’t need to progress.   Our water system is like that.  We only have so much, so we use it wisely.  Why not store rain water you ask?  Why?  We dryland garden, utilizing dust mulch and wide spacing.  Our vegetables keep better long term, and this way of gardening and farming has worked for centuries, so why not now.  Intensive gardening utilizing raised beds and close spacing require a lot of water.  Sure, you can get a jump on everybody else with raised beds, but they will need more water to maintain a cool root zone during July and August, so is that really a gain?  I’d rather not go down that path.  Read up on Steve Solomon’s theories of gardening,  he’s got it right, someday even if there is water, you may not be able to get it easily.  Water and fertility issues on even small farms are going to start to be a problem in the future.  Farms like Anne and Eric Nordell’s in Pennsylvania will be the farms to emulate, not the overly irrigated, animal-free, organic vegetable farms that are the norm now.
We don’t irrigate our pastures, instead we rely on MiG to even out the growth patterns during our dry summer months.  If I stored rainwater for our cattle, I would have to transport it, it would be of poor quality, being stored during the hot summer months and I don’t think I could even ask them to drink that, since I wouldn’t want to.


The ram technology is so old, that it’s new again – we love it!




23 Comments leave one →
  1. Kristen permalink
    June 22, 2008 4:36 pm

    WOW…I am going to have to have my husband read this post. We have a well that we had drilled 5 years ago and is considered a dry hole. It is all we have and we make do. We get 4 to 5 gallons an hour and needless to say our well runs dry every day normally by 9:00 am. It has been a chore to try and figure out a schedule that works with the amount of water we have. We took the girls on vacation this past winter and they got to fill the tub up all the way….our middle daughter was so worried their well would run dry at the hotel…..we all had a good laugh at that one. People use to live on way less and my daughters are learning how to conserve water because we simply don’t have it. It is much easier to teach something that has to be taught.

  2. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    June 22, 2008 5:57 pm

    Kristen, that is still cracking me up about the rooster. I bet he’s loving all the attention he’s getting.
    Rams don’t work everywhere, since you have to have a stream or spring that has some fall or drop in order to get the lift. But if you have the right situation they can’t be beat. Old technology, but it still works fine. Our neighbors have begun to drill new wells or drill deeper, since the aquifer is starting to drop. So it is starting to happen even here where it rains 3/4 of the year.
    That is so true what you said about something that has to be taught. I grew up monitoring water, so we always had enough to go around, but forget irrigating a large garden. The truck farmers around here grow mostly carrots, parsnips, cabbages, sweet corn, pumpkins and winter squash all without irrigation. So it is doable, they just keep on top of the weeds, and cultivation. I have to water in the greenhouse once a week until August 1st, then I quit. An earlier post titled “I need a wife!” gives a little more info.

  3. June 23, 2008 1:09 am

    Hi there,

    Sorry to be a bit off topic here, but wanted to contact you further to your post on

    I think your blog is terrific, and I’ve added you to the link list for the USA.

    What I would REALLY appreciate is that if you’d send me a view words about your farm, your blog AND your favorite farm blogs.

    The idea here is that the site grows on the strength of the recommendations of farm bloggers. Without your input it wont grow into to what I hope it can become – an amazing global resource.

    You can also suggest online resources too.

    Looking forward to hearing from you, and good luck with that rain harvesting. Very inspirational.

    BTW: I will be posting on global agricultural stories most days….

    Kind regards,

    PS Please can you also put up a link to on your blog?

  4. June 23, 2008 4:32 am

    Yes, I think you are incredibly lucky with your water situation. I wish we had a spring on our property! Neighbors say there used to be one, but it was filled in, but that sounds like neighborhood lore to me, as everything I’ve ever read or heard says it’s impossible to “fill in” a true spring.

    I’m guessing it was some kind of seasonal spring, and we are going to look for it because we need to tap some kind of water out in the pastures. We’d like to have a hand-pump/ solar-pump well out there, ideally.

    Personally, I’ll keep my bread until I have to give it up. I love homemade bread even if it is a luxury.

  5. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    June 23, 2008 6:22 am

    Danielle, I think your’re right about filling in a spring – I don’t think it would be possible if there was a usuable amount of water in the first place. The water would just find a different route, and would become visible nearby.
    We are lucky, we haven’t changed the technology that allowed the settlers in this area to harvest water. All the springs here are in deep canyons and the arable land is on the ridge tops. Every neighbor use to have rams like ours, but they have all taken them out, in favor of the municipal water, or wells.
    We would like to put in ponds to collect rainwater, but it is hard to get the permits in Oregon, and our land drains too well, for them to allow us to build new ponds. Our neighbors all have ponds, that are just fine, but are in streams that were dammed up many years ago. That would never be allowed now. I was pleasantly surprised when I was in Virginia, to see new ponds being built and old ones being cleaned out.
    Have you tried dowsing for that spring?
    I hear you on the bread – I’m speaking for myself, DH loves bread and I baked flax seed rolls this weekend for hamburgers, so I’m guilty. I was thinking our friends who have spent a small fortune recently stocking up on flours and grains, instead of working on heating issues for their house. They are extreme – their still eating their Y2K stash… We all have something we don’t want to give up – I was thinking greenhouse plastic, now I’m thinking rowcover! Both unnecessary things.

  6. June 23, 2008 6:56 am

    Lots to think about. I use our pond water for gardening. And, worse cast scenario, we have a lake within spitting distance. Our well water is not drinkable — salt, sulfur, and other tough minerals not easily removed. We get our drinking water from a town spring.

  7. June 23, 2008 10:17 am

    So good to find your blog. I heard rumors it existed but just stumbled upon it last week and had a great time reading back through. Then yesterday I realized you had left a comment on grains and pulses that I never picked up on. Ah, some of us are slow to realize how this blogging thing works.
    I’ve had great success with non-irrigated gardening here in Portland. I’ve been speculating that a lot of the vegetable varieties that have fallen out of favor because they are long season aren’t popular because everyone irrigates now and you can plant whenever you please. When it stops raining in May or June, it’s kind of nice to have the better part of the garden already seeded with the last rains. If you’re only planting short season vegetables there won’t be much to eat in the late summer, not to mention fall.
    All that said, I admit I put in drip last summer and have packed in the produce.

  8. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    June 23, 2008 11:30 am

    Karen, I love your pond! So tranquil and peaceful. That’s too bad about your well. There are some schools of thought that say we shouldn’t use water that hasn’t made it way out of the ground yet… . Water is such a valuable resource, I guess all that rain we get makes our good water possible. So remind me next time I start complaining about the rain… .

    Josh – long time, no hear! You poor thing “working” in Hawaii!
    I’m surprised there are rumors about me blogging. My mom’s best friend relocated to Captain Cook, and of course we visited her. She lived next to a cattle ranch, and macadamia orchards. Her two acres were so abundant with food, it was amazing. She was in 7th heaven being able to have such a growing season.
    I’m guilty of using drip too, and still clinging to some hybrids, but the mainstays of our food supply don’t need irrigation, and I learned patience in gardening early. Historically, oats were grown on this farm, and I’ve been dabbling in flint corn. But, this year I was afraid to waste my corn seed since our season is so late. But, it’s true irrigation does make the difference, especially if you can’t afford to do the wide spacing of the crops. A friend of mine who farms berries conventionally, is able to grow enough annual rye for his straw, and cover crop needs. It’s a sight to see at his threshing bee!

  9. June 23, 2008 8:11 pm

    My place has springs, but we can’t drink surface water in the area I’m in – too seriously polluted. Wells seem safer there according to the tests. No muni water available, so that isn’t a choice.

    I’ve really appreciated your tip on Steve Solomon’s book – I started reading it on the flight home yesterday and light bulbs just kept going off the entire time! Lots to think about.

  10. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    June 24, 2008 6:17 am

    Hayden, we tapped into our spring back into the rock formation. It’s interesting that the wells aren’t polluted too, if the surface water is polluted.

    Steve Solomon has it right – I love his reference to EE (everyone else). Sustainable anything has to weigh all the possibilities, John Jeavons recommends watering lightly every day until the water is glossing – who has the water and time to do that?

    Even biodynamics are getting watered down – your are supposed to have animals as a source of fertility on your biodynamic farm, now you can just spray the preps and get certified. So I don’t know what the answer for everyone is, except just do what you feel you can live with and discard the rest of the advice.

  11. June 26, 2008 11:41 am

    I’m a little late on this one, but thanks for posting it! So the techie questions…..

    What brand/model of ram do you have?
    What are your input/distribution pipe diameters?
    What is the fall from the spring to the ram?
    Does low pressure poly pipe work for distirbution?

    We have a lower head situation, but I think it’ll work….that’s next summers project, so I suspect you (or DH) will be hearing from me!


  12. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    June 26, 2008 2:36 pm

    Rich, I’m still waiting for “someone” to write up the particulars on the ram system for me, so I can do a real post. But here are some answers for you.

    1) Columbia Ram, 1″ made by Skookum/Ropemaster in Hubbard, Oregon.

    2) Input is 1″, and distribution is supposed to be 1/2″, but this one is 3/4″.

    3) Our fall is about 17′ in 65′, Columbia’s can lift 10′ for every 1′ foot of drop.

    4) The discharge can be low pressure poly, but the drive pipe has to be steel with no sharp bends or kinks. The longer your drive pipe the more water hammer you will have, giving you more lift.
    Hope this helps a little… I’m surprised I could actually answer these questions myself!

  13. greenhorn permalink
    November 16, 2009 10:39 am

    Dear Moh,

    What is your holding tank? Do you have any pictures?

    Thank you

    • November 16, 2009 3:02 pm

      GH, no pictures in the files that I can find in a jiff, but it is a square concrete tank that holds approximately 1000 gallons. We use off the bottom and a stand pipe siphons off the overflow and is plumbed to a stock tank that takes the overflow – if the overflow is stopped we know the ram has stopped, or we used a large amount of water at the house 🙂

  14. greenhorn permalink
    November 23, 2009 11:25 am

    We need to put in a holding tank out here. Our water is just pumped up the hill from the spring, then gravity fed downhill to the house. I am guessing your tank is 100 years old, any contacts or advice in the “holding tank” category? 🙂

    • November 23, 2009 11:41 am

      GH, actually the tank is “new” about 30 years old, concrete and has developed a crack. Our water is pumped too, and then it is gravity to the house and barn. No pressure, but volume. The larger the pipe the more water you have without the need for pressure. What type of pump are you using? Ours runs on water power, so no need for electricity, (good thing this weekend!) that way we always have water – providing the spring doesn’t get too low 😦

      I think when we replace this tank we will stick with concrete, but make it larger, 1000 gallons doesn’t go that far, when something goes wrong with the system.

      This link may give you some ideas too:

  15. January 13, 2011 5:26 pm

    Any good resources for sourcing and learning how hydraulic rams work? The property that I’m dry farming has a spring on it. I would love to supplement the dry farming with some water and have the option to irrigate some crops

  16. 39daffodil permalink
    May 5, 2012 9:21 am

    Just found this! Back in the 1930’s my grandfather installed hydraulic rams to pump the water up a long hill to the farm. I can still remember the sound of the rams in the ram house…thump, swish…thump, swish… He had dammed up the brook to make a pond and raise the water level of the spring. It worked for a very long time, until the 1970’s, when new owners came in and drilled a well at the farm.
    Great memories!

  17. February 20, 2014 7:44 pm

    A friend has a Columbia Ram like in your video. it has sat idle in a box for several years and when we took it apart there is no leather gasket left or indication of how one was afixed to the brass valve or face of casting where valve seals the hole where water flows out the bottom – hope this makes sense. We tried a thick rubber gasket on the plunger but it didn’t work. The only thing we can figure to do is glue a thick piece of leather to the casting face where valve hits. Any info on attaching the leather gasket would be most appreciated! Al

    • February 20, 2014 8:48 pm

      Here you go from my husband:

      Cut a round piece of leather that just barely fits the casting (base). The hole in the center should be smaller than the the waste valve, you will really have to stretch it to get it on the valve, thickness is critical. The leather should be thick enough to make the valve parallel to the face plate or slightly thicker as the leather will compress a little bit as it seats in. Don’t glue it in, the leather will be held in place a you tighten down the face plate.

      Hope this helps.

      • Brian permalink
        March 5, 2014 8:04 pm

        I’m the guy that Al told you about with the Columbia ram pump.My name is Brian. We replaced the leather per your instructions and I actually got the ram to function for a period of time but it is inconsistent and the longest I got it to operate was for a 12 hour period. I have gotten it to work intermittently.
        I noticed in your video that the spring on the valve shaft is not going through the hole on the pump body and I also noted that there is no bolt on the valve body that the shaft runs through with a spring and two nuts on the end.. I will see if I can include a picture of my pump so you can see what Im talking about
        . I am currently traveling and wont be home for a month so if you would be so kind could you email me a picture or drawing of your set up. I may simply have the pump assembled incorrectly. When I purchased it 30 years ago I had to send it back because of a real bad paint job and they may have returned it assembled improperly. I can not find the documentation that came with the pump and the company is no longer in business.
        Thank you for all your help.
        Brian Bessey
        cell: 360-302-1083

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