Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Well, oh well...How will we water?

During this year, we saw an unusually warm winter and a dry, hot summer.  By early May, it was clear that if our hops and vegetables were to survive, we needed irrigation.  Weeks without rain and hours spent lugging around hoses and hand watering both the hopsyard and the garden pushed the issue to the top of our priority list.  With the help of Bree’s dad (a retired citrus farmer from Arizona) we developed an irrigation plan.
In the process of laying drip-tape irrigation
 Some plants need more water than others, so we built two types of high-efficient irrigation systems. Trickle irrigation for the hops, tomatoes and gourds/squashes, and drip irrigation for the other herbs, vegetables and flowers. Trickle irrigation is a small stream of water directly targeting the base of the plant.  Drip irrigation (using drip tape) uses considerably less water than trickle irrigation.  It lies on the ground along the rows of vegetables and delivers a continual drip of water. Ours is spaced 12 inches apart.
Trickle Irrigation in the Potatoes
The big issue we faced with irrigation is that there are no wells anywhere near the house!  This is very unusual predicament for a185-year-old property.  As a result, we had to use city water for irrigation.  If you have ever heard me talk about this issue, you know our biggest drawback is having to pay a sewage fee for water that will never enter a sewer. (Being located in a city and outside an agricultural district prevents us from obtaining an agricultural water meter that other farms typically use to get irrigation water from nearby fire hydrants.)  

After nearly three months of virtually no rain, (3/4 inch), it was clear we needed a well. References are everything, so we asked around and called a local drilling company that has worked in the area for over 35 years.  Together we selected a location behind the apple packing shed because it was 1) a low spot, 2) near the hops and garden, and 3) close to a source of electricity.

The goal was drill down about 30’-40’ and hit a gravel bed which usually has the highest flow-rate in a well.  This was a pretty typical result for wells in this part of Lockport and we were hoping for the best (while also knowing there was a possibility of a dry well).

They came early one morning, raised the boom on their high-tech drilling rig and went at it.  Things went smoothly at first and we had a good feeling about it until they hit something at the 10-foot mark.  Solid rock.  They punched another five feet down and realized this wasn’t some boulder that the glaciers left years ago, this was a huge mass of rock.  It was the Medina Sandstone formation, not something that should be so near the surface in our neck of the woods.  This isn’t the soft sandstone found out west. This dark red-colored stone is very hard and relatively impervious.

Bree's Father in his Supervisor's Chair
They switched the drilling bit to an air hammer and went back to work, blasting small chips of rock out of the well with pressurized water and air.  20 feet.  30 feet.  Still solid rock and little water.  The drill went down to 42 feet when we decided to stop.  We transected a few seams of water, but not many.  We were reaching a maximum flow rate of about 4 gallons per minute.  Very slow for an irrigation well.  Deeper drilling was unlikely to reveal more water.

We tasted the water collected at the base of the well and tasted something very familiar.  Salt!  And lots of it.  The experienced well drillers were as perplexed and disappointed as we were.  In their over 35 years of experience, they have never hit salt water at such a shallow depth in this area.  Somehow, we must have broken through a seam of salt leftover from some ancient seabed. What are the odds of that? (see video below of them flushing water out of the well)

As you probably know, plants don’t like salt (Fun fact: The Romans plowed salt into the fields of their rivals around Carthage to make their land barren for generations.)  We sent the water out for testing.  People can usually taste salt in water at 200 parts per million (PPM).  Plants are usually tolerant of salt up to 900ppm.  The test revealed that saltwater in our well was at 2,000ppm! Not good.  (As a reference, the ocean is around 35,000ppm).

Oh, well…So, we now have a saltwater well with very low flow rate.  All is not lost.  We will pump the well for a month and try to flush some of salt out and lower the salinity.  If that does not work, do you think there’s a market for a McCollum Orchards mineral baths and spa?  Or, how about an all-natural pickle brine?


  1. That's really too bad...and must be quite frustrating! (though I love the pickling idea...)
    How much water do you think you could capture via rainwater harvesting and would it be enough to get you through the seasonal lows?

  2. Hi Saleem. We have six 55-gallon rain barrels which can capture a total of 330 gallons. An acre of hops requires nearly three times as much water per week during peak growing season (garlic also requires an inch of water per week), so we'll need to either dig a large cistern or use an above-ground pool to store rain water. Another option is to drop a second well elsewhere on the property and use a solar-powered pump and lots of pipes, but there's no guarantee we'll have any better luck. Unfortunately, the ice pond near the house dries up in July, so we can't use that either. Very frustrating.

  3. Goodness... How frustrating! -- I love your perspective and sense of humor, though; I vote "yea" to the Mineral Baths & Spa!! ;)

    Could you filter the salt out of the water? Is that prohibitively expensive? (I recently heard from some friends that they are installing a filtration system on their sailboat so they can use the salt water for drinking/cooking/etc on board. But obviously that would be much smaller quantities to be filtered than what you need... Though, also, much saltier water...)

  4. Have you looked into getting a well? The water well drilling in Alberta has been really useful to me.

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  6. Have your water tested on a routine basis for a reasonable fee and be comfortable knowing that you and your Water testing