Building a Gravity-Powered Spring System

Recently, we ran out of water here on the land. Last year, at this same time around Labor Day, we found a very healthy looking spring at the top of our land, about 900′ feet away from our homesite, and about 400′ higher elevation from the homesite. That 400′ drop meant that we could create some outstanding pressure (better than city pressure) in our gravity-powered water system.

But, being located so high up the mountain means that our main spring is more susceptible to drying out. Which has unfortunately happened. Now, our spring hasn’t dried up completely, but it’s regenerating water at a lower rate than we are consuming it (especially with garden irrigation needs). So, we’re on a tightly-rationed water regimen right now.

We haven’t been around long enough to understand exactly why our spring has such diminished water flow this summer. We’ve had adequate rainfall and snowfall this year (our part of Oregon is one of the few parts of the country that has not experienced reduced rainfall this year). But, we have had a couple of harsh heatwaves, so it’s possible that the snowpack melted too fast, leaving our land without as much water flowing down it, in August/September.

By the way, this wouldn’t have happened had I plumbed in more capacity. Last year, I was learning a lot, and building a lot (and spending a lot) all at the same time, so to keep things simpler, we went with a single water tank. Because we placed that tank so high up the mountain (to build more pressure in the system), I figured that 500-gallons was the largest we could get up there (and even that wasn’t easy). So, our main water system has only a 500-gallon storage capacity.

The 500-Gallon Tank, In Position

I plan on increasing that to 1,500 or 2,000 gallons this winter (by daisy-chaining 2 or 3 more 500-gallon tanks into the water line). Thus, by next summer, we’ll have thousands of gallons of water stored up, which should get us through these driest weeks.

But, back to this summer. It sucks being on a rationed water supply. So, we decided to do something about it. The first thought that occurred to us was to plumb in a line to the creek on our property — a creek that has reportedly never once run out of water, even in the driest months. There was a natural basin in the creek, which I reinforced earlier this summer to serve as a dipping hole on the hottest days. I thought I could drop a pump in the dipping hole, and run a hose across the property, to supply water to the garden.

The Dipping Hole in the Creek

Unfortunately, that creek is 1/4 mile away from our homesite. What’s more, a 1/4 mile on mountainous hillside means something more like 1/2 mile of hosing would be required. Laying 2000′ feet of hose across the land wasn’t even so daunting, as the thought of the complexity of using this emergency back-up water system. My wife here in the garden, and me 1/4 mile away at the creek pump, communicating over walkie talkies, coordinating the watering of the garden… I thought it would be so complicated that we would never actually use it.

So, before plumbing in all the way to the creek, I thought I would go exploring for some other, closer springs. And voila! I found one, nice and wet, only about 400′ from the homesite. And, importantly, this spring is above the homesite. Which means that we can tap it for a gravity-powered spring-fed water system. The water just emerges there from the ground (because we’re on steep land, the water table can be accessed horizontally, as well as vertically) into a little pool. It’s really just gorgeous to see — especially when so much of the rest of the land is dry.

I went to the store to purchase the supplies I would need. There was one catch — last year, I had the help of a friend, and experienced forester, in getting all the supplies up the mountain.

Help Getting the Tank Up the Mountain

This year, I did not; we need back-up water now, and there just isn’t time to coordinate for assistance. Even though this system is so much lower down the mountain, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to carry a 500-gallon tank up the mountain myself. So, I opted to purchase a 65-gallon tank for now, and install a larger-capacity tank later this year when I can have help.

I lugged all the supplies up the mountain (remember, this is raw land, so the growth and downed trees make for a rather difficult haul), including the tank, 600′ of hose, a bag of sakrete concrete, two buckets, a pulaski and other assorted hand-tools and plumbing connections. I used the pulaski to dig out the spring, and a path for the intake pipe (2″ PVC, with a 45-degree elbow at the head, and reduced to 3/4″ hose connection at the tail). Because there will be very little pressure at this point in the system, and to facilitate future maintenance/access, I opted not to glue any of this assembly.

I laid the assembly in the ground at about an 8 or 10-degree decline.

The Spring Intake, Pre-Burial

Then, I covered this intake assembly with dirt.

The End of the Spring Intake

I then went to work securing the spring-head with concrete (not so much an issue for now; but we don’t want the entire spring intake coming loose, and down the mountain, later this year when the rains return rushing down the mountain). We mixed the concrete on-site.

Mixing Concrete

First, I concreted the spring source, securing the head of the intake.

The Concreted Intake Head

Then I concreted in the tail end of the buried intake assembly.

The Concreted Intake Tail

At this point, the intake was complete, so I could move on to working on the tank. I positioned the 65-gallon tank at the highest stable point that I could find, that was at a lower altitude than the spring intake (this is a gravity system, so the tank has to be below the source). I cut away a flat(ish) piece of land, and placed the tank.

The 65-Gallon Water Tank, in Position

Unfortunately, none of the tanks smaller than 500-gallons come with standard plumbing intakes. This meant that I had to rig an ugly system for the spring water to feed the tank, through the cap at the top. I covered the opening with two layers of screen (like on a screen window, but made of fiberglass so no rust) and secured the screen to the lid with a clamp. I then sliced a hole through the top layer of the screen, and inserted the hose. Again, ugly. But it works. (Though, because this is not a properly sealed connection, it means that any pressure that had built up prior to the tank is now lost, and the system starts building pressure from 0 at the tank.)

The Spring Hose Feeding the Tank

I finished by tying off the tank to three nearby trees (again, so the tank is secured, and does not come rushing down the mountain when the rains return).

The Water Storage Tank, Positioned and Secured

Once all that was in place, it was a simple matter of running the hose down the mountain. Because I purchased a small-capacity tank, I wanted to add more capacity to the system by increasing the diameter of hose. So, instead of 3/4″, I went for 1-1/2″ hose from near the tank to the homesite. 300′ of 1-1/2″ poly pipe adds about 28-gallons of capacity to the system. The tank itself only has 3/4″ outtake, so I run 3/4″ hose from the tank to the 1-1/2″ line.  Because I want flexibility in this system (for when we add the real storage tanks later this year), I kept the full reel of 300′ of 3/4″ hose in the system, looped up in a roll. This also adds a few extra gallons of capacity to the water system.

The 3/4-inch Hose, Looped Towards the Top

Once down the mountain, I reduce the 1-1/2″ poly pipe to a standard 3/4″ hose fitting, and then run that hose into our garden irrigation rig. So now, we can water the garden using either of our water sources, with the simple flip of a valve.

The New Water Line, at the Homesite

I only finished the system yesterday, so it’s still charging (meaning, we can not yet use the water). But it is exciting for us to have identified and harvested another water supply here on the land. And with any luck, in a few days, our rationing will be over.