Water Rights and Wrongs: Musings

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Local resident, Dave Reagan, muses about water and the lack of water.


We have no water on our land.

That is to say, beginning sometime in May, or June, or these days, April, the small, seasonal feeder creeks all dry up. So from that point on through summer and until the first significant storm of fall, we get nothing.

And yet – we have half-a-dozen fruit trees, rose garden, roof-top garden, and a small medicinal plot. We take regular showers and baths and have filtered drinking water that would be the envy of nearly every city in the country.

We know how much we have stored and that’s how much we use.

How much water do we have? Five tanks. 2500 gallons each. About one per month.

When we tell this to people who live in the area, mostly we get blank responses, like they can’t even fathom it. Sometimes people will think they misheard. Mostly we get sympathy. With maybe just a tinge of guilt, eyes looking down and away.

I remember a few summers back having a water-use conversation at the New Harris store. At that time I had only three tanks and when I said this, someone said that was all he had as well, meaning that he had three tanks that he just kept refilling every week or so. I had to tell him again that no, no, no, that was really all I had. Total. For the whole summer. The look I got back made me feel like I had been speaking in Mandarin. Absolute incomprehension. Blink blink.

This was when I had been regularly commuting out that way for a number of building projects (small “cabins” that no one ever lived in, “barns” that never held horses, that sort of thing…) from a woman who lived just down the hill from the store. Janice S. Or more generally, to those who live out there, Crazy Janice.

Janice was one of the original homesteaders. I’m inclined to say hippy homesteader, as those two were fairly synonymous back then, but by the end of her years her life in no way resembled anything like the freelovetreehugginglong-hairedtye-dye stereotype that really wasn’t her ever anyway, not really. The Janice I knew was a tough, hard-working, big-hearted, bad-ass, Italian, fuck you if you even look at me the wrong way woman-of-the-hills. And as such, as you can guess, didn’t exactly get along with her neighbors. Especially when she drilled yet another well right on the property line.

How much water do we really need? Janice apparently needed all of it. She had all the money she could possibly spend and yet she had to go even bigger. And she was a fighter. I think at that point in her life she was doing it mostly to piss off her neighbors.

Last year we, too, pissed off our neighbors when we needed water to fill our tanks. Ordinarily we pulled from a spot higher up on our property, but if you remember, the rains had all but stopped mid-winter, and then stopped completely in mid-April. So we got caught off guard and had to pump at a lower point on our property, where two small streams came together further down, just along the road. The pump hadn’t been running for more than six hours when the calls started coming in.

If janice had lived here she would have just stood by the road and raised her index fingers at the neighbors driving by. Afterall, it was within our rights to be pumping there. (though now we are all finding out otherwise)

But I knew that mostly they just cared about the river. Not a bad thing. So when I fielded all the phone calls that spring I listened respectfully, gave appreciation for the concern that all of us should be having, and then gave them my explanation as to why I felt that what we were doing was entirely appropriate. We were filling our entire summer water storage from a small seasonal creek in the spring. What I didn’t ask, and should have, but will do so now, is this – what makes our pumping off a seasonal creek that runs dry in May somehow more wrong than the hundreds of thousands of gallons that the rest of our neighbors take right on into November from the year-round creek and “spring” that would otherwise be making its way down to the parched banks of the Eel? Just because they have the legal “right” to it, could it also not be at least just a little bit wrong these days?

I’d like to say that what we are currently experiencing is only a temporary “crisis” that people are already well on the way to addressing. Though they are certainly less numerable than the dirt trucks climbing the hill, those carrying storage tanks are a common sight these days. And as I talk with neighbors and friends, more and more of them are taking their plants out of pots and putting them in the ground, mulching, setting up grey water systems, and occassionally, though still rarely, simply planting less.

There is a water crisis, for sure, but by the good fortune of a small population in a water rich area even in these drought years, we can pretty easily deal with it. Conservation, storage, reducing or banning clearcutting in favor of more sustainable selective harvest plans will all go along way to help alleviate the problem. And yes, probably regulation on grows with an added requirement for most, if not all of the water to be stored prior to planting. That’s not really that hard. And the benefits when we do? Full rivers to swim and fish in, and perhaps best of all, no more feuds.

Or at least, not about water.

(end note: since writing the first draft of this last winter we have since purchased two more tanks, partially for fire protection, and will buy one more next year to bring our total up to 20,000 gallons. Also, I’m not preaching that this is all anyone needs. We have no kids, for one, and if in fact we had more water, we would certainly use it: larger vegetable gardens, an orchard, and more available for fire. And, if I weren’t working as a carpenter, I suppose it would likely be true, more plants.)



  • very thoughtful piece–thanks for sharing it. I also live as lightly on the land as I know how to do. Drip systems for trees, flowers and vegetable beds, 2 catchment ponds for fire protection and a well that I use for potable water and monitor like a hawk as soon as the rains stop. It does slow down in late summer, especially during these drought years, so then I switch the drip systems from the well water to pond water. And like a lot of people, I added another potable water tank this year, so I now have 10,000 gallons of potable water–enough to get the 2 of us through many months. With all of the legal wrangling–and confusion and policy changes mid-stream, (so to speak!), I also am of the philosophy that it’s better to care about using water wisely, rather than standing stubbornly on whatever we think our rights are. If we all run out of water, what will our “rights” matter? By all means, figure out what your rights are, or try to as the county and state keep changing their minds, and then figure out how to use the water you are fortunate to have as wisely as possible. That’s my two cents!

  • the misadventures of bunjee

    I’ll just leave one simple slogan for everyone, as I too have to run in and around some of these folks from time to time, even though my daily doings have really nothing to do with theirs, and I’d rather see people get along than bicker all the time.

    “Be a cool neighbor. Fill up in November”.

  • The problem with words is they are always inadequate and often more problematic than if you simply sit quietly.
    I wrote this piece mainly to try and suggest that we all need to be careful in pointing fingers. The way we use and acquire water was the primary story, but in writing it, other issues came up, and in hindsight, I think I inadvertenly might seem to have made some judgements of my own.
    For example I just had a conversation on the phone with someone I know and respect who took my story to be putting down large grows. It surprised me, but I can see how it might be taken that way. I said to him (as I have said consistenly to anyone when this issue comes up) that I don’t blame anyone for “going big”. I think we all base the size of our gardens on a combination of factors – how much we can get away with probably at the top of the list. I personally don’t have the land, the water, the exposure, the connections, or the risk tolerance to put in anything but a very small garden. On the other hand, if you are damning up a creek that would otherwise flow through your neighbors property or is perhaps a critical salmon tributary, etc., well then that’s a bit of a problem.
    And in this way I was also unfair in how I portrayed Janice. Again, it was unintentional, and I don’t think my characterization was off, but I gotta say, that women worked for everything she got. I honestly have not met anyone up here who was tougher than Janice. Nor anyone with as big a heart (assuming she actually cared for you…). Nor did she die alone for lack of friends. Many people were able to say goodbye to her before her final day, and I regret suggestiing that her dying alone was just. For many months after her passing I had thought to write a piece honoring her life, all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly they say. I should have. Maybe I still will. For now, this will have to do.


  • When I was a toddler I was thrilled by life in this magnificent world. I marveled at the magic of houses, the mystical devices that provided you with everything you need. Flip a switch. Turn a knob. Dial a dial. Push a button. Et voila! Satisfaction.

    I was bothered that the refrigerator didn’t refill automatically, but everything else seemed to work perfectly. Faucets were just everlastingly admirably cool. You turned the tap and water, however much you needed, came out! Whatever temperature you wanted.

    I was gobsmacked to learn that electricity and telephone had to be wired in from some other location, and worse, much worse, when I found out you had to pipe in water from someplace else. This immediately filled my head with the notion of depleted supply, with no control, with why-don’t-we-stop-this-terrible-way-of-doing-things?

    That was BEFORE anyone dared mention to me that these things cost money, that money wasn’t just something you went and got from the bank to pay for stuff, that you had to put money into the bank before you could take any out.

    What a STUPID world! I started out RIGHT and I don’t get what’s wrong with everybody.


    People seem to like to take the oppressed role when it comes to property rights. Far too many people are willing to line up and follow the orders of the current occupational authorities. Nilly wonking spouting 6 gallons a plant is a complete cop-out.
    Most people that choose to live off grid respect nature, granted there are people that abuse the setting, but why throw us ALL into a label?

    We USED to be AMERICANS.

    Now simply NWO subjects….

  • Treat your neighbors with respect and kindness no matter who they are. It is an attitude with in you. On the water you should be collecting from roofs also. All of our water is harvested from roofs and stored in 2500 tanks (6) and two above ground pools. I suppose I need to register the pools. The original owners back in the 40’s started the pool thing. I remember going by our place when I was a kid. I have been collecting this water for over 30 years, it always amazes me how much we have, you just have to be ready to get it. Dave maybe you could put a tank or two at the bottom collection location and use a solar pump to fill the tanks on the top of the property? For me it would be the noise thing, you are probably use to it as a carpenter , (also to loud of music you might be deaf), but living in the hills is suppose to be quiet. Hell my hard drives make to much noise I am converting to solid state.
    Mostly we are in it together if we like or not, Any of my neighbors need my water to fight a fire it is theirs, I even have a 3″-pipe to the road to fill the tankers or vice versa, but I have never needed to buy water. Just takes a little planning.(not the city kind)

  • Again, not all plants need 6 gallons a day, nowhere near that actually!

    • Lost Croat Outburst

      Very true. We can’t let the police or nay-sayers “stipulate” to “facts” not in evidence. Depends on the definition of “plant.” Four or five seedlings in one big pot or only one female clone or pre-sexed seedling? Two or three gallons a day per one plant per large pot should do it. If you’re in the ground and it’s 90 deg. F, you might as well just leave the hose in the ground and run the whole creek into it. Six gallons, maybe, but that’s the extreme figure for a small raised bed or such. Does take some water.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience. Seems like permitted water storage and no-draw from may through summer would improve all our lives.

  • Lost Croat Outburst

    Very interesting report. Putting plants in the ground instead of large pots will gain you nothing in water conservation and expose your plants to additional attack from soil-dwelling pathogens and critters. Even in a normal year, the dry ground will suck away your water and increase your water usage multiple times. Also, even in a normal year, surrounding trees and shrubs will insinuate their roots into the water and nutrient source you provide, clogging your hole and stunting your plants. In the ground vs. in pots is a terrible strategy. Put your pots on pallets to keep drain holes clear which allows you to easily observe excess drainage from your pots and prevents extraneous roots from entering your pots through the drainage holes. You can time your watering to stop as soon as the holes begin draining. Good luck!

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