by Alayne Blickle, Horses for Clean Water
Boy, it’s dry! If you live in the Western US, you are most likely looking at ways to help curb your water usage. Maybe you’ve had a well run dry, or are on restricted water use, or are worried about resources for fire season. In any case, conserving our precious drinking water is always a good idea, whether you live in a drought stricken area or not. Below are a look at some ideas to help conserve water on your farm.
Continue Composting. If you’ve been composting your horse manure and spreading it on your pastures, landscape, lawn and gardens, your plants are better prepared for dry weather than most. Soil that has been amended with compost absorbs water easily and retains moisture—the end result is that your plants fare better in dry weather.
Use Mulch. If you don’t use mulch (wood chips, compost, bark, dry grass clippings or rock) around your plants already, this is a good time to start. Using mulch will significantly reduce evaporation on the soil surface—you will be amazed at how well a good layer of mulch retains moisture. Stall waste that is mostly composed of shavings (with very little manure and urine) can also be utilized as mulch. Shavings can immobilize nitrogen however, so only use them on large, established plants or plants that do not have high nitrogen requirements. Note: if you live in a fire prone area, avoid flammable wood mulches around buildings, and instead use a crushed rock mulch.
Water Deeply. Fortunately, most landscapes require very little watering after plants are well established—this takes about one to three years. In fact, watering frequently in small amounts will encourage plants to keep their roots shallow, which can result in poor growth and disease. Watering deeply, but less often, encourages roots to grow deeper.
Water Efficiently. Water in the evening hours when evaporation is less likely. For maximum efficiency, use drip irrigation, micro-sprayers or soaker hoses on all plants. These systems apply water directly to the soil with minimal evaporation or runoff. Soaker hoses (which sweat water along their entire length) will only save water if they are used for the right length of time. To moisten the top 6 to 12 inches of soil, a soaker hose may need to be run for about 30 to 40 minutes for loamy soils. Sandy soils may need less time; clay soils may need more. Tree watering bags can be used on newly planted and established trees as another efficient way to reduce water run-off and curb evaporation.
Replace Water Intensive Plants. Consider replacing water intensive plants, like lawns, with drought tolerant and native species that are well-suited for your conditions and group plants with similar water needs together. Look online at design ideas that utilize xeriscaping to help transition to a drought tolerant landscape. Not only will you save water, you will save time and labor.
Consider Rain Gardens. When soils are too wet or too dry, rain cannot penetrate the ground. Having well-placed rain gardens to catch and contain rain water can prevent flooding on your property and help to re-charge aquifers. Rain gardens allow collected water to slowly percolate through the soil, filtering debris and recharging ground water. Having rain gardens can also prevent pollution by keeping sheeting water from traveling and picking up sediments and pollutants on its path to ditches, storm drains, rivers and other water bodies.
A rain garden is simply a shallow, planted depression in the ground. It captures and temporarily holds rainwater from downspouts and from water running downhill across ground or pavement (called surface run-off). Rain gardens should be constructed to maximize the capture of water. You will need to study or get help determining how the water flows in rain events on your property to place them correctly; they usually have an ‘inlet’ and ‘outlet’ and should be constructed in areas with the right type of soils that allow water to eventually drain. In winter, or in times of heavy rain, they may look like a small pond planted with native or ornamental plants (use ones that don’t mind having ‘wet feet’), and during dry times, they will just look like a planted depression in the ground. See the resources at the end of this article for tips, pictures and an excellent manual on constructing a rain-garden from the Washington State University website.
Add Rain Barrels and Cisterns. Rain barrels and cisterns are another great way to save water. Rain barrels are designed to capture and store rainwater coming off a roof and are usually attached to a downspout. They consist of a storage container (typically food-grade plastic), a system for diverting downspout water into the barrel, and an overflow that returns to the downspout or diverts water safely away from the structure to percolate into the soil. The overflow can also be diverted to a cistern. Cisterns are above or below ground storage systems designed to serve large portions, or all of the water needs of a building or landscape. A 3000 gallon cistern can be quickly filled from an average sized roof with just 1/2 to 1 inch of summer rain, supplying precious irrigation water.
Cistern water collection system, downspout diversion to stock tank, MiraFount self-waterers, Treegator watering bags
Divert Roof Runoff. To conserve water you can devise a system to capture the water from your barn roof downspouts and divert it to stock watering tanks. You can do this using existing gutter equipment or you may be able to design something yourself. Note: this practice is recommended for fiberglass or metal roofs, but is not recommended for composite roofs. Extra water not used to fill stock tanks can then be diverted to cisterns or holding tanks for other uses.
Utilize Automatic Watering. Automatic watering systems conserve water because they only use as much water as your horse can drink. Look for systems with moderately sized water pans—a large one will get dirty and can quickly fill with algae, requiring you to clean it frequently. Another advantage to using an automatic waterer, is that since water is circulating and not stagnant, it won’t provide habitat for mosquitoes. One example of a useful automatic waterer for horses and livestock is the MiraFount, by Miraco. MiraFount waterers don’t require energy to run, and since they hold only five to ten gallons at a time, they are quick and easy to clean. They are also insulated to help keep water cooler during the summer and to prevent water from freezing in the winter.
Catch Running Water. Keep spare buckets handy to catch water in while you are scrubbing and rinsing buckets or doing any other chores at the faucet or hose bib. You’ll be amazed at how fast you can fill up a three or five gallon bucket and re-purpose the water for plants, instead of letting it go down the drain or into a paddock. Keeping plastic dish tubs in your sink is another easy way to catch ‘gray-water’ and use it elsewhere.
WaterSense Fixtures Work! By replacing inefficient toilets, faucets and shower heads, according to the EPA WaterSense website calculator (website below), a family of four could save 32,000 gallons of water per year by replacing their old fixtures. Currently, the latest WaterSense toilets use 1.28 gallons of water instead of up to 6 gallons, and ‘outperform’ older fixtures as well. Shower heads and faucets have also come a long way in performance. Look for the WaterSense label, and check out the WaterSense website below for rebates in your area, product guides and ideas for replacing your current fixtures.
Check for Leaks. There are a lot of smart devices and meters now available to enable you to monitor your water usage and determine if you have a leak. In addition, you can check for leaks the low-tech way. Check your toilet for leaks by putting some food coloring in the tank (toilets are a big source of ‘silent’ leaks). Wait 20 minutes, and if color appears in the toilet bowl, you are continuously running water through the toilet and down the drain. For leaks in your entire system, check your water meter to see if it is metering water usage when you know you have all of your water turned off. If the meter is running, you may have a leak in either a water line or a plumbing fixture.
Graphic provided by: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, State of the Climate: Drought for June 2015, published online July 2015, retrieved on July 28, 2015 from: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/drought/201506
Current Drought Conditions, Weather Data: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/drought/201506
Puget Sound Area Water Conservation Topics and Utility Rebate Programs: http://www.savingwater.org/
WSU Rain Garden Information: http://raingarden.wsu.edu/