Column: There goes the water

Jane Reddington

Sounder Staff

Tuesday, May 31 2016

We’re getting closer to June now, and I always think of this time of year as the tipping point, where we go from freely running our faucets and taps to watching every drop. From now until mid-September, for those of us on rainwater collection, it’s a time that’s fraught with frustration as the plants need to be watered, showers need to be taken and clothes need to be washed. When the sky doesn’t open up, we start to feel the worth of water like never before.

Our first two houses on the island had wells. As a newcomer to the island, even having a well made me uneasy. This was a living rural wake-up call. Particularly when the pump burned out and we’d bought our house not knowing where the well actually was. I remember my son on my hip, my husband with a sore neck and me grabbing the pickaxe and beginning the trench that would need to be dug, following the wire out from the house to the well. After a caterpillar came, we found the well, and days of people dropping by telling us “this is the worst house on Gabriola” came to an end. 

We found a plumber who was willing to come and assess our well and lots of water was there, just no way to get it into the house. We needed a new pump, bought a new cistern that was fed by the well, and bingo, bango, our house was set up for every water eventuality. It felt good to be sustainable and to be somewhat in control of our water situation.

But when we decided to move to another property on the island, we loved it so much that we didn’t really think about the words “rainwater collection,” and “no well.” Little did we know how much time and effort we would put into installing more cisterns, cleaning cisterns, and operating without a well. I say “we” but most of this is done by my dear partner, without whom our water situation would be lost. But, in fairness, I did help clean the gutters this year and all the filters using my handy toothbrush to get the finest granules of sand loose.

We were both born city kids, where the water flows freely and people are assigned watering days. I would sign up for that in a heartbeat. Instead, I go around peering into dark holes with flashlights, assessing water levels, tracking when we’ve bought loads of water each year, and knocking on green cisterns to see where the water level is. Then when we reach the brink, I make the call to have water delivered and feel so grateful for being given enough to make it through another hot summer month.

In my mind, we’ve had one good rain since the beginning of March, when the pollen flew. It’s now June and I’m starting to hear stories of people swimming in the ocean because their cisterns are dry. When a house goes dry, it’s almost as if the lifeblood of the house drains out. There’s no way to do dishes, prepare food, clean our children, or water our gardens. Water makes everything work. 

We tell the children to have navy showers, turning the water off when soaping up, and never to run the water when washing the veggies. Put a bowl in the sink instead and rinse in the bowl and when the water gets murky enough, take the bowl into the garden and empty it onto a plant. That’s July and August. It comes to a point that I can hear the sound of a faucet dripping from a mile away. 

So why do I have a garden with 100 roses, and why does my husband plant veggies in the greenhouse to transfer to the garden? I think we do it because we must. We must be surrounded by beauty even if it means barely getting the soap off in the shower. So we have the “drilling for a well” talk every year, and then adding more cisterns, could we? Where would we put them? And by September, when I know just how low the cistern can get before we go dry, the rain returns and the summer we have pined for all year floats away in the darkening hours.

I think living without a well, without city water, is one of the prices of living on this island. Wherever we live there is always something that’s not quite as you’d wish it would be. One year in Ottawa, I lived beside the highway and the windows shook when the buses passed by. But if you love a place enough, and invest for long enough in a property that truly delights your soul, living with its shortcomings becomes both necessary and, in the end, somewhat of a challenge that I like. And creating a drought-tolerant garden is in itself an accomplishment of which I am quite proud. 

I like walking through the jungle of roses, my sense bombarded by the beauty of a perfect flower in purple, yellow, red, pink, apricot or white. I also love to cut the flowers and send people home with a bouquet for their dinner table; after all, I was a florist for seven years. It’s something that can’t be unmade inside me. 

So for a few months, when we need the water most, we must give to the garden, because it makes us forget the day, the pressures of tomorrow and the sadness of the past.