A couple of days ago, I decided to hop over the fence separating my property from public lands to the west, to go walk to Lassen National Forest, which starts just half a mile down a forest service road. On the way, I planned on checking out a pond that’s located a couple hundred yards from the barbed wire fence. As I approached the fence, though, I heard a whisper. I undid my hood to uncover my ears. There was no mistaking the sound — the sound of trickling water!
I scrambled downhill towards the bottom of the ravine where I knew the sound must emanate from. The whisper turned into the full-on susurration of gushing water.
The seasonal stream was running!
Even though I’d always suspected the presence of a seasonal stream there, the sights and sounds stirred palpable excitement. Water! Gallons and gallons of water, gushing right through my property! The sudden appearance of this body of water made it seem that much more magical.
Though, in reality, the stream’s appearance could hardly be attributed to magic. In fact, the pond that I had been planning on visiting sits upstream from this creek, and is the very reason I suddenly started receiving water. The pond is actually the result of a large earthen berm that blocks that stream. When the water level rises high enough, the dam is flanked, releasing any additional water downstream towards my property.
The timing of its release is also unsurprising. It had snowed almost 2 feet over the past few weeks, but recent warm weather accompanied by rain had caused all that snow to suddenly start melting and rush downhill. When the pond filled up, the overflow started trickling through my property. Once all the snow is gone, probably in the next month or so, the stream will also stop running. But during that short window, snow melt from hundreds of acres of land will rush through that narrow gully on my land.
Exiting my property to the north, the creek eventually joins other tiny streams heading towards Pit River, which meanders west across the mountains to empty into Lake Shasta, to then continue south down the Sacramento River, eventually spilling into the Pacific Ocean where it would evaporate, condense into clouds that get blown back east, and fall as rain and snow on these same mountains to repeat the cycle.
On the way, some of it may be diverted to irrigate the rice fields and orchards in the Central Valley. So the next time you eat California-grown rice, or olives, or almonds, or perhaps fruits, you may be eating a tiny bit of that snow-melt I saw flowing through Serenity Valley.
Living here, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation for water. Water is life. People talk about the “gold standard”, but I think there should be a “water standard.” Water is what makes life possible. No water, no life.
And until recently, I mostly thought of Serenity Valley as an inhospitably dry place. Indeed, from late Spring until mid-Autumn, there’s hardly any rain. In the summer, it’s typical for there to be zero precipitation for months. Last year, I had to haul water in to irrigate my tiny garden, and even that wasn’t enough.
But, lo! When I saw all that water gushing through my property, I felt like I’d struck gold. Nay, I felt like I’d struck life. If I can contain even a tiny fraction of the water, life can flourish on Serenity Valley. I can grow a much bigger garden, and even grow fruit trees. I can raise livestock. I may even be able to raise fish! It’s so dry here in the summer that things don’t even compost very well, but water changes that too. The soil isn’t great, but, as long as there’s water, I could build it up.
When I bought this land, I hadn’t really considered the possibility of homesteading here. Now that I’ve been contemplating that option, I was starting to doubt the suitability of this land for sustaining life. That changed the instant I heard that stream. Sure, there are much easier places to homestead, where growing seasons are longer, or summers aren’t so dry, or the soil is better. But with all that water, I think it’s at least theoretically possible to turn this land into a productive little farm. It wouldn’t be easy. It’d be an uphill battle all the way. But it just might be possible, and that’s pretty darn exciting.
As new possibilities blossomed in my imagination, I continued with my walk to Lassen National Forest as planned. I was tempted to spend more time around the new creek, but reasoned that it would still be running for at least a week or two.
The next day, having slept off my aquatic euphoria, I turned to more practical considerations. I started by walking the entire length of the creek, following it all the way through my property and out. The goal was to get an idea of the creek’s path, and to gain a better grasp of the terrain surrounding the stream. For the water to be usable during the dry season I would need to collect it, either with a dam of my own, or by diverting the water to a cistern. My hope was to spot potential sites for one or the other.
After entering my property from the west, a few hundred yards north of the south-west corner, the creek rushes down the steep ravine that I mentioned before, at a east-northeasterly orientation. The ravine eventually opens up to a bigger valley, the one I think of as actual Serenity Valley, which slopes gently down almost due north. The creek gradually wanders to the east, flowing out my property lines, then continues north parallel to my eastern border, eventually pooling in a flat area near the paved road, before disappearing into a large duct under the road just yards from the peg marking my north-eastern corner.
As I walked the length of the creek, it became obvious that damming a considerable quantity of water would quickly become a monstrous logistical and engineering feat, probably beyond my budget or skills. A more practical and practicable solution seemed to be to set up a small dam, maybe just a foot or two high in a natural bottleneck, to raise the water level just enough to make water collection easier. From there, some of the flow could be diverted by a series of pipes to a cistern located in a reasonably flat and clear area about 100-150 yards away. The terrain would allow the cistern to be located at a slightly lower elevation, and could be fed by gravity.
But, is there enough water?
As I observed the creek, I tried to make a rough estimate of its flow rate. To do so, I found a natural funnel where the stream was constrained between some large boulders, then imagined the jet of water being further narrowed, and pictured the water filling a gallon jug. It seemed like there was enough water flowing to fill a gallon jug in about a second. To be conservative, let’s call it half a gallon a second. That’s 30 gallons per minute, 1800 gallons per hour, or 43,200 gallons per day. If the creek were to run for 20 days, a total 864,000 gallons would flow through. (Incidentally, this method of approximation is called a Fermi estimate and is often employed by scientists and engineers to make ballpark estimates that often yield results in the right order of magnitude.)
So, even if I over-estimated or under-estimated by 100%, we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of gallons on the lower end, and well over a million on the high-end. It seems that diverting 10-20,000 gallons would hardly do any harm, yet would provide me with enough water to irrigate a large garden, raise a couple of heads of cattle, with maybe even enough left for a small fish pond.
But, would that be legal?
My natural inclination towards such questions would be to ask, “Does it harm anyone?” If not, who cares? After all, diverting 0.5-5% of a tiny seasonal creek seems pretty harmless. Being a seasonal creek that only exists for a few weeks a year, there’s no native fish or other wildlife I need to worry about. I’m not dumping toxins downstream. So, it seemed like it’d be something so harmless as to not even warrant regulation in the first place.
But then, this is California. And this is water we’re talking about. I decided to begrudgingly research the legal ramifications, half expecting to find that what I wanted to do would be bound tightly in red tape.
As it turns out, California laws regarding Water Rights apparently include an exception for crazy (or reasonable) people like me. On the FAQ page of the California Water Board’s website, I found the following:
There is one exception to the requirement that you have a water right. You do not need a water right if you take and use a small amount of water only for domestic purposes or use a small amount of water for commercial livestock watering purposes. However, you are required to register your use with the Division of Water Rights, notify the California Department of Fish and Game, and agree to follow conditions the Department of Fish and Game may set to protect fish and wildlife. The maximum use allowed under such a registration is 4,500 gallons per day for immediate use or 10 acre-feet per year for storage in a pond or reservoir.
Furthermore, “domestic use” is defined as:
… indoor household uses, watering of non-commercial stock used for the household, and irrigation of one-half acre or less of household land, such as a garden.
So, as it turns out, what I want to do is legal, and only requires registration. Though, the registration form asks for the estimated water usage in acre-feet, and since one acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, 10,000 gallons would be about 0.03 acre-feet, or a mere 0.3% of the 10 acre-feet that is allowed under this provision. To be honest, I feel like making a state worker (and someone from the DFG) process my registration for such a minuscule amount of water would cost the state of California more than it’s really worth…
One remaining open question is the cistern. My first thought was, of course, a DIY approach. A 10,000 gallon cistern could measure 15x15ft filled to a depth of 6ft (7.48 gallons fit in 1 cubic foot), and a 15x15x7ft box with 6″ walls would require about 41 yards of cement at a cost of probably $5000-7000 (though there’s also the question of how I’d get a cement truck out there). Even if reinforced with rebar, 6″ walls may not be sufficient, so that may be a low estimate. After doing some research, it seems above-ground plastic tanks may actually be more cost effective. They seem to be priced around $0.50/gallon (+shipping) or lower, and come in varying shapes and sizes so I could start with a small tank and add more. Being fully enclosed, evaporation wouldn’t be an issue either, and the bigger ones have man-holes for cleaning (the water is pretty murky, so I suspect there’ll be a fair amount of sedimentation).
Another related idea I had was to set up a micro-hydroelectric generator to run a pump, and lift the water to a higher elevation that way. About the only good that would do is to open up more possible locations for the cistern. But using the creek to generate power wouldn’t be practical for much else, since it probably only runs for a few weeks out of the year, and the creek is about 300 yards from my camp. Re-capturing energy when water is released from the cistern might be feasible, though it’s just as likely that water from the cistern would need to eventually be pumped higher since most likely locations for gardens are located higher up on my property.
All in all, preliminary indications are promising. If water-flow I’m seeing now is fairly typical, diverting about 10,000 gallons seems both legal and practicable. Tentatively, I may try to setup a small test this summer, and see how it does next spring. I could start with a cistern or tank in the 1000-2500 gallon range, and scale-up if that works out. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if Serenity Valley is to see a transformation into Serenity Valley Farm –still a big if, mind you– it’s going to take years, if at all.
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