Monday, July 6, 2009

Water Rights, Water Choices

We never really intended to live out here. We bought this place as a weekend escape and somehow, fell in love.

Our little lake cove has eight houses, and we're the only ones who live here full time. The rest come in from Houston, El Paso, and Austin, on weekends and holidays. We all share a well. It's not much of a well, really, sunk shallow, built on the cheap, without a water holding tank. The decision to build a well on the cheap was made long before we moved out here and we didn't realize how much this was going to effect our lives. Most of the time, it's just fine, but when the weekend people come, they bring guests. Lots of guests. Who are heavy water users, not used to water conservation.

This weekend, with the cove packed with weekenders and their guests, the water situation came to a head. We had hardly any water pressure, and the well pump was really struggling to keep up. While we worried and tried to conserve, our sometime-neighbors stewed over my use of water to irrigate our little patch of garden.

The truth of it is, I have no rights to irrigate with our well water. The well belongs to our neighborhood, and my annual dues pay for household water, and specifically exclude any outside watering. The truth of it also is, if we were watering a patch of lawn or some ornamentals, no one would blink -- they all do it. But this neighborhood has always been uncomfortable with my veggie garden. They feel it brings down property values. It's just too...rural.

So I have some choices now. We could sink our own well, and do it right this time. Nothing in our neighborhood bylaws precludes us from doing this. But I don't want to. Another well would stress our already-drought-stressed water tables, and possibly further deplete the neighborhood's water situation.

We have been planning to build a water collection system for the garden, drawing and re-drawing plans for a barn, from which we'd collect the water. Rainwater catchement is the perfect solution for our area, where we get plenty of water in the winter, and often in the spring too. But that's going to take some time -- a lot of time. And I need an immediate solution.

So here are my choices to get through the next few months, until the rainy season, and until we build a water catchment system:

1. Buy a water tank for the garden now and have a commercial bulk water supplier fill it. Use this water to get through the next few months.

2. Abandon the garden until we build a water catchment system.

There is also a third option that I'm trying to think through. Our house perches on a steep hillside overlooking the lake. To get to the lake we have a wooden stairway, in three flights of about fifty stairs each. At each flight, there's a landing, and along each landing is a naturally terraced strip of land. The second terrace might be a suitable place for a garden.

When I think about having a lovely, secret garden, away from dissaproving stares, I get pretty excited. I'd love to just make the tension go away. But I need to think this through logically -- building a brand new garden is a lot of work. So here are the advantages and disadvantages to each site:

Advantages to the Existing Garden:

  • Open field with plenty of sunshine.
  • Fenced.
  • Reasonably good soil.
  • Garden beds already constructed.
  • Plenty of room to add more garden beds, orchards, or even to have animals like chickens or goats.

Disadvantages to the Existing Garden
  • In full view of my neighbors. They drive by frowning and muttering and I hate that it makes them so unhappy. I also hesitate to do other things that I know would drive them crazy, like have big piles of compost, dirt, and manure. Or get chickens. Or try making biochar.
  • No trees for windbreak, which is very rough on young plants.
  • Far enough from the house that I can't see what's going on -- like a deer or raccoon invasion.
  • Open field make it less pretty, and more simply utilitarian, despite my efforts to plant vines on the fence and flowers in the beds.
  • No easy water source.
  • Will be very expensive to build a water collection system here. Since it's uphill and across a private road from our house, we need to build a barn for water collection. The barn will have to be approved by the neighborhood architectural committee.

Advantages to the New Garden Spot
  • Very pretty place to garden, with a view of the lake, across the cove to unspoiled land.
  • Shade trees nearby.
  • Trees provide a windbreak.
  • Will be very easy to create a waterwise irrigation system. I can hook up to our existing lake-water pump, and/or build a simple, gravity-fed rainwater system, fed by the house above.
  • It's private, with no possibility that the neighbors will be disturbed by it (unless they sit on my dock below and stare up at us with binoculars.) I'd be more experimental without their frowning stares.

  • The land is very rocky. I'd need to either bring in new soil or try to find a way to move the soil from my existing beds.
  • It's located two levels down from my house. Every trip to the garden means descending two flights of outdoor stairs. It's impossible to get a tiller down there and pretty difficult to move soil, manure, etc.
  • It's slightly smaller than my existing garden.
  • I'd need to build a new fence.
Well? What would you do?


  1. I would first pull my hair out and curse (under my breath of course). Then I would attempt to get by to the best of my abilities with the existing garden spot while slowly working on the new one. I also have neighbors that border one side of our garden, we grow our peas, beans, and sunchokes at that end for privacy. You will be so much happier with a more private garden spot.

    On another note, my wife made your bean cake the other night... wonderful. Our grandson woke up the next day asking if she, and she did, would make another one for him to take home. Thank you so much for the recipe, we love it. Who would have thought a cake could be made out of black beans. We didn't even make a topping for it, the cake was excellent without one.

  2. What a dilemma you have. Isn't it interesting how others perceive what you are doing in your own backyard? We have some similarities. We also live on a private lake, but most people live here year round while others use it as a get away. We are also on a hill looking down on the lake and we find that we are the only gardeners.
    If you do decide to make any changes, I'd do it very gradually. Moving your garden may solve the neighbor situation, but create other problems for you such as convenience.
    I wish you luck with your will not be an easy one.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, guys, and thanks to Lori who sent hers by email. I've been reading a book by a man in Montana who started a Walden-like experiment and he says that the history of the West is the history of water rights battles. So true for Texas, except that in my case, I think water rights are a kind of proxy for larger battle about what a house ought to look like. We can see this in Austin, where the "Food Not Lawns Guys" have mostly won the battle against folks who think the manicured lawn is the perfect ideal. Every other house there has chickens in the back yard and tomatoes in the front. But smaller municipalities and POA's haven't caught on to the fact that water is too precious and that food independence matters.

    Mr. H, I'm so glad ya'll liked the cake! I have an occasional, though fierce, sweet tooth so I'm glad to have a recipe for sweets that is comprised of *food.* Next I plan to try a gingerbread with white beans.

  4. I would keep the garden you have now, and plant flowers around the borders. You didn't mention whether erosion would be a problem with the new location, but I wouldn't want to have to climb those stairs every day, or carry trellis material, or the compost needed to build up the soil every year.

    Have you considered multiple rain barrels? You could fill them during the week when no one is around for now, and when you get your barn built, the gutters could fill them.

  5. How about lining the side of the veggie garden that faces the street with more formal landscaping with flowers or something else that would blend with the style of the neighborhood? It would mask the true purpose of the bed and hopefully placate the neighbors. That said, I love the "secret garden" idea, but you're right: it is a lot of work to establish a new bed.

  6. This is a very positive experience, yes, it’s not just in places like your but all of SoCal that is facing water scarcity. While you can move your garden into a new location where there is more water available and begin rainwater harvesting, you could also try two other things. One, direct grey water from the kitchen and bathrooms to the garden and second, try to make your neighborhood folks aware of the declining water table and the need for water conservation.
    The people who waste water when they come on weekends also waste water in their homes back in the city. This thoughtless waste of water is putting immense stress on the water system. Water conservation is the need of the hour and BeWaterWise has some excellent tips that can be followed at home. Do read them at
    And find a way to create awareness on the scarce water situation in the neighborhood.

  7. BeWaterWise Rep's comment made me remember a question I was going to ask you. With all of the other permaculture techniques you're using, do you have a grey water system in place? That's something I've always wanted to try, but sadly, there's no way I'd get away with it in this neighborhood.

  8. Hi Lori,

    We don't have a greywater system in place. Unfortunately, we're in a place where they are actually not allowed -- serious fines in place if you try to sneak them through. I think this may change sometime soon. It has to do with being on the shores of the largest lake in Texas. That's one more reason we're building an outdoor shower -- at least that water can be reused. I'm searching for more ways to unofficially greywater. Any ideas are welcome!

  9. Found your blog by way of your cake recipe.
    I will be trying it soon.
    I wanted to add that one way you can grey water, is to remove the pipes right below all your sinks, and stick 5 gallon buckets under them.

    And certainly, add a trellis all around the visible road side of the garden, and plant a climbing flower.

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