Life in the country is one where you are responsible for all your water; your freshwater and your wastewater. When we lived in homes on public utilities we liked to think we were conscious of our consumption, but in retrospect, we did not even begin to understand water. I think most folks on public systems are not truly aware of the impacts they have on fresh and wastewater. This last week we were reminded of the cycle of water for the home.
We live in a cold semi-arid climate in southwest Montana. It means we get an average of 13 inches of moisture. That is snowmelt, rain and anything else wet that comes from the sky. Only 13 inches of moisture occur each year to flow into streams or rivers, replenish aquifers, be used for irrigation, furnish wildlife and humans with water, support the native and non-native landscapes and everything else that needs water. We are too cold for the cactus most people think of in a semi-arid climate. Instead, we are covered with bunch grass, sage, and a few slow-growing trees.
When you live in an arid or semi-arid climate you are much more aware of the scarcity of freshwater. If you live in the country with a well I think you are even more aware of your freshwater source. I look out my kitchen and see my wellhead every time I do dishes. I drive by it each time I leave and return home because it sits near the road. I am lucky because my water is plentiful, soft, nearly mineral-free (based on the lack of buildup in my shower, and tastes great because it has no taste.
When we moved here we made modifications to our home to conserve water in every way we could because though we had been on a well before this was our first time on a septic system. We swapped out all faucets for ones with aerators. We changed shower heads for something that would restrict our use without thinking. We got a front-load washing machine for the single reason of how much less water it uses than a top loader. We made sure all our toilets used a minimum of water. We don’t water our lawn. When the natural moisture causes it to go dormant, it is okay with us. We treated water like the precious commodity it is. Not only did we want to consume less water, but we also wanted to generate less wastewater for the septic system.
Our septic system was here when we arrived. We read up and researched how to treat our septic system correctly for function and to help it last as long as possible. We had it pumped on even years and did not send “bad” things down the drain. We are on our same gallon of bleach that we had when we moved in here 18 years ago. We try to use the least damaging to our septic bacteria, but effective cleaning solutions for dishes, sinks, floors, and toilets. Grease is collected and put in the trash. Obviously, we generate as little wastewater as possible based on the paragraph on our consumption. In spite of all these proactive actions on our part, it failed last Sunday. What that means is the drain field stopped draining and the tank filled up and backed up.
We had no clues or warnings this was going to happen so we ended up with a failure in the middle of the winter. We were able to get someone out here on Monday and pump the tank. We were told the solids showed that yes we should have had one more year before it was pumped. Unfortunately, the liquids were topped out and then some. We are working with our contractor to look at what may have caused this failure. Our system is 30 years old which by all standards is at the end of the lifecycle. This year we have had inadequate snow cover and there are folks around the area who have had their leach field freeze for the first time ever. This is all complicated by the fact it is winter and it is not like we can walk out in the drain field and see what is different right now from the other 17 years we have been here. Once we understand this a little better we can move forward on the “what next?” step.
I shared this with you all not because I wanted to gross you out, but because I am hoping that this will remind all of you that water is precious. Freshwater to drink isn’t unlimited and there are many things that dip in the usage pool of that precious resource. Wastewater, though most of us don’t think anything of it other than to flush the toilet is an issue out there. If you learn a little about your usage of both and change one habit to be a better water steward then I will be please and thank you for being aware, when it would have been much easier to not be.