When I think about what it takes to build a homestead, my #1 priority is the water system. Without water, you have no garden, no livestock, and no home. Fortunately there are a lot of ways to address this. Here are some of my thoughts about water.
There are two kinds of water on a farm. Water for animals and gardening, and water for household use (showering, washing). Drinking water is a step beyond this, but still counts as household use.
Either you have one or you don’t. This is a high priority when choosing land. Any number of self-pumping arrangements can be made, my favorite is the hydraulic ram pump. Alternately, a gasoline trash pump is good for moving a lot of water quickly, for example refilling a large storage tank in a short time.
Dams and Ponds
Every square foot of the property can contribute to the whole. Flat areas will be better for pasture land. Hills and hollers are ideal sites for creating water dams. The steeper the valley, the cheaper it should be to dam it up. Rainfall runoff will refill the dam frequently, and there should be an outlet at the base of the dam to make use of the stored water. If the hilly country is high enough above the flat land, you will have free pressurized water across the whole pasture. In a severe drought, the dam can be refilled manually, using a gasoline pump. This is only needed if there are fish stocked in the pond.
For further reading on planning dams and ponds, I highly recommend the Keyline Plan, and Water For Every Farm, books by P.A. Yeomans.
If the land is totally flat, or just for temporary use, having several large tanks around is extremely useful. They should ideally be sited higher than the livestock or garden, to provide water pressure. These together with a gasoline pump make a reliable temporary water system. However some care must be taken to check the tanks, because they are all at a relatively small volume and when connected to automatic waterers, you can run out without realizing it. This is especially true in case of a leak.
The cheapest pipe is black poly tubing. For buried line or permanent runs, this works quite well. Keep it away from vehicle tires, and chewing or rooting animals. It tends to last for many years even in direct sunlight.
Garden hose works well for the end of the line, where you may need more flexibility. It’s very easy to kink, and tends to break more easily than the poly tubing. Very susceptible to cracking in cold weather.
For simple flood irrigation, of a pasture for instance, no plumbing is needed at all. Keyline furrows should be in place, and then simply release the water from the dam, and it will find its way up the slopes and down the center, in a maximum spread.
This is the best drinking water, and the most expensive. Most wells produce water in good quantity all year round, but you can’t be sure until you’ve already dug it. Some areas have sulphurous ground water, some wells produce hard water, and some are very low producers. In a dry spell, too many people on wells can dry things up. Water is limited in any case to the amount the well produces. A storage tank can alleviate some of the demand. Wells also rely on large electric motors to pump, and can be your biggest load when going offgrid.
This is the best washing water, always soft, easy on your pipes. Very cheap to collect, assuming all building roofs are used. The first rain should be discarded, to get rid of dust and debris. Does contain some bacteria, and is usually stored in cisterns which allows some growth. Can be filtered and treated for drinking water.
Of course this only works if it rains. During a long dry spell, it would be prudent to have other sources of water.
Any water with Slow Sand Filtration
This is an interesting alternative to the usual options. Slow sand filtration works like this: A container has a gravel base, with coarse sand on top, and fine sand on top of that. Water flows from the top down. As it percolates through the fine layer, small organisms lodge there, and begin to form a biological layer. As more bacteria come through, they are “hunted” and consumed by the predators waiting in the biolayer. This strengthens the bio layer in a self-reinforcing cycle, until it becomes so thick that the water passes very slowly (occasional maintenance is therefore needed).
This type of filter is nearly 100% effective at removing viruses, bacteria, and algae’ basically all organic matter stops with the biolayer. This is drinking-quality water. While it is very slow, it can operate at any scale. Several 55 gallon drum filters are reportedly enough for a household of 4.
What this means, is that surface water is no longer off limits to the household. When properly filtered, river or pond water can be used in the house, thus avoiding the expense (wells) and uncertainty (rain) of the other options.
Activated charcoal can clean up odors, tastes, and chemicals. Whole house systems are easy to install, and last for some time. Charcoal is easy to make, too. May be used with other filters, or reserved for drinking water.
High energy inputs, but very effective. Equipment is also expensive. Useful only for drinking water. Very high purity, but noted for it’s lack of taste.
If the water is hard, possibly well water or city water. Better to avoid if possible, uses purchased inputs (salt) and energy. Water is slightly salty.