Rainwater collection - essential water for use on the homestead

A dugout could be described as an in ground rainwater collection system that allows for the storage of thousands of gallons of rainwater collected from the snow melt, rains and water shed drainage.  It has many uses on the homestead and in today's blog I will explore the use of this essential water.

What is a dug out

As I explored in my earlier blog post Water - The journey from sandpoint, dugouts and water tanks to a well, a dugout is a hole that is dug, usually with a backhoe or a cat, that allows for the storage of water.  Depth and size can vary depending on placing and requirements.  Water is obtained from surface run off and sometimes a water vein will be hit that aids in filling.  

My dugout was dug in 2008 at the bottom of surrounding undulating hills in an old slough bottom that contained seasonable water.  Because the water that entered the dugout flows through dried grasses, dirt and all sorts of other matter, the color of it was not as clear as it would be in a rainwater catchment system collected from the roof of your home.  Added to this, I think I am getting some fill from an underground water source as well.  I base this solely on the observation that although there were no rains when initially dug, the dugout continued to fill until freeze up.

The color of the water was not an issue for me.  Had I placed my dugout in a different location that did not rely on water flowing through dead plant material, the water quality would have been different.  

Is dugout water usable as essential water for the house 

Absolutely.  However, even the cleanest of dugouts will need to have some sort of water filtration system put in place to remove bacteria  and tannins from the water.

Although I had what I consider to be an ample supply of water in my 14' wide by 14' deep by 60' long dugout, I chose to not use it as the primary essential water supply for the house.Photo of water with cattails in rainwater collection dugout Because of this this decision, which I cover in my earlier blog Water - The journey from sandpoint, dugouts and water tanks to a well,  I now had approximately 63,000 imperial gallons of essential water from rainwater collection that would be unused for the purposes it was dug.  And that volume would only be if the water stayed contained within the confines of the dugout, which it did not. 

As I mentioned earlier, my dugout is located in a slough bottom in the bottom of undulating hills and so it is the low spot of the water shed.  When the flooding started in 2013, water flowed into this spot from miles around. The water stretched from one side of the top 40 acres to the other equating to probably more like three times the 63,000 gallon holding capacity of the dugout.  You can see the fence line in this picture taken during the flood that indicates the north side of the dugout.photo of dugout water floodingThe water not only stretched from one side of my property to the other, but it was deep.  This picture is of the same area that was flooded in the previous picture, but taken eight years later after the water had receded. Only the top wire on this fence line was visible above the water during high water.  You can see the high water line identified by the white line on the post.Photo of fence line beside essential water in dugout

In hind site I am glad that I did not bring the water into the house from the dugout because water treatment systems would have a hard go of it with the fluctuation of bacteria and tannin counts as flood waters increase and decrease.  However, there are still many things that I have done and tried to do to make this rainwater collection dugout an essential water source on the homestead.

Why a dugout is part of the essential water supply

1.  Stock the dugout with trout

This is the first thing most people do when they dig a dugout and to be honest it was one of the first things I did as well.  I had this picture in my head of going out and doing some fishing on occasion and possibly filling the freezer with trout.  So, the second year I tried stocking the dugout with trout.  But, by the end of that year, the water had overflowed the banks thus allowing the trout to escape the banks and more likely died.  This was confirmed as the netting that fall resulted in nothing being caught.  So the following year I tried again thinking things may be different, to no avail.

Rather than spending the money to try again, I contacted our local fish biologist and he came out and conducted some tests and concluded that although the water was from rainwater collection, because the dugout had overflowed its banks into the surrounding reeds and sedges, the oxygen levels would too severely fluctuate to make it a favorable habitat for the fish.  Trout need a high, steady supply of oxygen to survive.  And he also felt that if they did survive, they would most likely get hung up in the cattails, reeds and sedges and either be picked off or die. Photo of cattails, reeds, and essential water in dugout areaEither way he recommended that unless I wanted to invest in an aeration system, I should probably not try again.

So before I called it quits I looked into aeration systems.  I first looked at a windmill.  What a more picturesque sight than a windmill gently turning in the breeze nestled against a tree line and a water body, quietly aerating my dugout and filling stock tanks at the same time.  But then the wind died down for days!  As I mentioned, I am nestled in rolling hills and those hills are covered with trees.  It is nice during the winter as it stops the wind on those cold days, but in the summer when you are trying to turn a windmill, not so much.  I passed on the windmill idea and moved to an electric aerator.  With the amount of water I needed to aerate to supply enough oxygen for the fish, the cost was prohibitive and I abandoned my hopes of being able to raise some fish.  Maybe, I would have more luck with wild rice.

2. Fire suppression

Because I live in the boreal transition zone of the provincial forest, my 80 acres is a mix of hardwood and softwood species scattered with areas of grass land and sloughs.  The natural forest and grassland management of these areas is through wildland fire.  But even though humans try to put out these fires when they start, fires still start whether it be through lightning or man made.  Since I moved here 30+ years ago I have experienced two fires within close proximity to my home, the last being in April of 2015.  The fire got to within 50 feet of the house. A little too close for comfort.photo of fire trucks from fire of 2015

As the fire department had sufficient water with them to put out the fire, they did not have to rely on the rainwater collection that was in the dugout and flooded surrounding area.  But had they or anyone in fire suppression efforts need to, the water is there.  I also have a gas operated pump set up with hose attached, ready to go.  It is a comfort to know that I have a possible means to fight a fire should the power be out or we need the extra water.   A 6.5 HP pump is always at the ready as I also use the pump for getting water to the animals and for watering the orchard.

3.  Watering the animals

I used a Honda brand water pump for years and I can say nothing but good about it. For a good many years I would use it to pump water from the dug out to the animals during the winter. I just drained the pump and hoses after each use and used a jug of hot water to prime the pump.  Chopping the hole in the ice to put the foot valve in was the worst part.  After a couple of winters doing that, I graduated to a water tank and hauled water.  But in the summer a pump goes in and I water the animals and do some watering with it.  When it died after many years of use, I was gifted this Power Fist 6.5 HP water pump from my neighbor and it works quite well for what I need.Photo of water pump in wheel barrow for pumping rainwater

I set the water pump on a wooden pallet to ensure it does not sink out of sight or get covered by water should we get a lot of rain that causes the level in the dugout to rise.  Water pump on pallet beside rainwater collection

I tie the intake inside a 5 gallon bucket to ensure the intake does not sit in the dirt on the sides of the dugout and ultimately suck grit through the pump. Water pump intake hose inside a pail I put the pail and intake into the dugout well below the surface so that I do not need to put it inside a burlap sack to filter out algae and dugout debris.Photo of intake hose inside pail in rainwater collection dugout

A standard fire hose is laid out and to the end of that is an adapter that reduces it down to standard garden hose size, thereby allowing me to connect garden hoses to the water pump.  I am just pumping some water before I connect all the hoses.Photo of hose with water from rainwater collectionI am now ready to get water to the animals, water the orchard or fight a fire if needed.

4.  Watering the garden

In my opinion, you will find nothing better to water the garden with.  Not only is the water collected from rainwater collection, the temperature is warmer than anything out of a water well and therefore does not shock the garden, making it essential water for the homestead.

For years, I used my Honda brand water pump to water the garden, but it had limitations solely because of the amount of fuel you could add.  I like to deep water my garden and so a 5, 6 or even 12 hour water is not uncommon.  A gas powered water pump makes this difficult.  Doable, but more difficult.  After the Honda brand water pump died, I graduated to an electric shallow well water pump. Photo of electric water pump on pallet Not only does an electric pump afford me the opportunity to water for long periods of time, it saves me money in fuel costs and allows me to water animals if needed.

I set the pump on a pallet to help keep the pump out of the wetness and to help protect it should the water level in the dugout rise from additional rainwater collection.  Like the pump I use for watering animals, I also tie the intake hose inside a pail to help keep the foot valve off the dugout bottom thus preventing the pump from sucking in algae and debris.Photo of water pump with hose inside pail on pallet for pumping rainwater

There are two draw backs to these pumps for this application.  The first is the length of electrical cord I need to get power to the water pump. Stretching out the 12 gauge electrical cord through the cattails and reeds is a bit of a job but once in place you are set for the summer.

The second draw back to using this type of pump is the impeller in the electric shallow well water pump can not tolerate any type of debris such as algae or the sludge from the bottom of dugout flood plain. So getting the pail and foot valve out deep enough is key.Photo of foot valve in pail in the water of rainwater collection dugoutHowever, if I am unable to get the foot valve well below the water surface, the pump has a tendency to suck up debris and plug the impeller in the pump.  To prevent the pump from sucking up the debris I will typically insert the pail and foot valve into a burlap sack.  The burlap acts like a filter and prevents the pump from sucking up debris.  But as you can imagine, it filters out a lot of debris and partway through the gardening season, the burlap sack needs to be changed or alternatively the pump needs to be moved out into deeper water so that a filter is not required.  The filtration of the water from the rainwater collection dugout is to not only prevent the plugging of the impeller, but also to prevent it from plugging the sprinkler system for the garden, should some debris make it through.  For this reason, my sprinkler of choice is the impact sprinkler head.

Regardless of the inconveniences that are faced using the dugout as rainwater collection, the benefit that it gives to the garden makes the dugout water an essential water for use on the homestead.

5.  Eco friendly

When I dug the dugout back in 2008, anyone looking at the giant hole in the slough and the huge berm pile would have asked what I was doing.  At the time, I would have said I was creating a place to supply water for the house, to water the animals and garden from and to make a more permanent home for the waterfowl.  Little did I know how nature would evolve that vision and create a place of activity and natural beauty.Photo of rainwater collection dugout and trees  

Nature would flood the area as it did in 2013, and then slowly dry it up to allow cattails and reeds to grow to provide habitat for the waterfowl and shore birds to thrive.  It also provided protection for the white tailed deer and bears to come down for a drink.Photo of duck and shore birds in flood plain of essential water in dugoutI was so excited when the geese adopted the area to raise their young.Photo of Canada Goose along essential water of dugout

Or when the American White Pelican made a pit stop.Photo of American White pelicans on essential water with horse in background

Although it seemed to be a lesson in futility over the years, the experiences that I have been blessed with through the developmental journey of this rainwater collection dugout since 2008 are really invaluable.  And one thing for certain is that the ecosystem that has been created, with my help, is truly a blessing of essential water for use on the homestead.

I hope you enjoyed this next installment in the exploration of Water - The journey from sandpoint, dugouts and water tanks to a well.  

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