No water supply, no homestead – it’s as simple as that. To which I will add, water pumped from far underground in this era of diminishing aquifers is a very risky proposition. The primary reason we bought this place is because of the water resources.
Water rights and water access were behind many of the range wars in the American Southwest. States vary in the laws regarding water rights. In most states, surface waters (lakes, streams, coastal waters) are publicly owned. Groundwater comes from underground aquifers and is privately owned. People who use groundwater cannot legally exhaust the water source or prevent other people from using it. You have a seasonal creek flowing through your property and want to dig a pond or make a dam? Make sure you are legally permitted to do so, as the dam will interfere with other peoples’ water access. In some areas you cannot build dams or change run-off patterns because it affects fish habitat. Never buy a property unless the water rights are spelled out. If there is a beaver dam on your property, treat it like the priceless jewel it is.
Water Supply and Storage
Our well pumps groundwater from a “house spring” that is around 65 feet deep. We could easily switch to hand pumping or use a bicycle-driven pump to fill cisterns and gravity-feed our house and garden water. The spring doesn’t recharge very fast, especially in the late summer. We supplement it with water storage tanks placed above the kitchen garden so we can gravity feed to the beds and containers. Water to fill these tanks currently comes from the big pond. One tank is on a trailer. We haul it to the pond using the backhoe, pump in water using a small gasoline submersible pump, and then pump it into the other tank. Then we go back and fill the tank on the trailer. This is not an ideal situation because it requires heavy equipment and fossil fuels. We’re planning a roof collection system and larger storage tanks to collect rainwater.
We flood irrigate the pastures and supply drinking water to the livestock from our “big spring” at the other end of the property. The big spring is an artesian water source that flows out of the hillside 100 feet or more above the level of the various pastures. Even in the worst drought years, it has consistently pumped better than 500 gallons of water a minute. Everything is gravity fed; irrigation is a matter of changing gates and doing a little shovel work. Runoff from this irrigation also provides summer water to the north orchard.
We have multiple springs that flow from the hillsides on our property. Some are seasonal and some year-round. They provide enough water to keep quite a lot of the annual and perennial grasses and forbs going during the summer months. The original owners of this property created ponds and catchment basins in various places to collect as much rainfall runoff as possible. I suspect many of them were dug/built using horsepower, just as the original irrigation system included hand-built wooden flumes. While most of them dry out in the summer and there is certainly evaporation loss, the soil absorbs much of the water.
Money usually is an object, but whether you are rich or not rich, expect to spend it to assure your water supply. Accept that in order to secure adequate water, you will probably have to choose land that is less desirable overall. If rainfall is adequate but on the low side, plan on collecting rainwater into cisterns or storage tanks for your house, livestock and garden water. Cisterns can make a low-water homestead livable. A suitably located cistern can also provide you with gravity feed water for the house or water you can pump with a small solar pump.
Water Supply and Floods
Unless you want to be a desert hermit and have extensive skill in desert living, I would avoid homesteads in the American Southwest. Such places are already overpopulated from the water standpoint and will just get drier. The classic advice is to choose a place that has a year-round spring or creek. One downside of this advice is most land that fits the description has already been snapped up. Another is that real estate agents and the average homeowner have heard the classic advice and jacked up the price accordingly.
On the other side of the coin, the more humid eastern states may have adequate rainfall. Compared to the arid west, however, they are also much more susceptible to flooding. Coastal states must deal with storm surge. Flat states like Florida and Louisiana were originally swampland. Many low-lying areas in the south or California’s Central Valley are also prone to flooding.
Too Much Water
Even living in the mountains is no guarantee you won’t have a flood. Many years ago, a rain cell became trapped over an area near us where the elevation is close to 2000 feet. That cell dumped five inches of rain in one hour. A shallow gully caught a large proportion of the run-off and funneled it across a small vineyard and the state highway. The water was at least two feet deep. In flatter areas, rivers may go over the banks or levees fail. Just look at storm damage from hurricanes or the recent California floods to see how destructive too much water can be.
When it comes to water supply, apply the Goldilocks principle (just right). Give very careful thought to how you will manage either a dearth or an excess of water on your homestead.