The federal government should implement a National Cisterns Project designed to turn around and dismiss widespread but misguided angst that has been permitted to develop and fester over supposed water shortages in much of the water-blessed USA. All over this mostly wet green nation, cisterns newly added to most buildings and virtually all freestanding houses would catch and use the abundant free crystal-clean rainwater with which Divine Providence constantly blesses this nation. Then, with common sense newly governing the acquisition of naturally distilled pure water that everywhere falls as rain from the sky throughout this great nation, we would outlaw installing of new water mains and—an ultimate hubris—the unnatural diversion of whole rivers from where nature put them. Throughout the USA, dams would be removed, natural river flows and wetlands would be restored to great benefit of the nation’s rich wildlife habitats, and watering lawns would be made a felony. Also, and not as an afterthought, price controls would be imposed on water pump sales. May it please God all this shall happen sooner rather than later.

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The United States has a water problem and I have a fix for it. I’d like to get the two things together.

I’d like to see major incentives for local small entrepreneurss to engage in the business of clean water acquisition and storage. High national priority should be placed on a National Cisterns Project that highlights several features including, and not limited to:

  • public education concerning private homeowner cisterns, designed to dispel the prevailing monumentally vast public ignorance of the ancient catchments known as cisterns, including elementary education of ignoramuses who suppose that cisterns breed polliwogs; and
  • amending equally ignorant local zoning ordinances so that they will both permit and require quick, easy and cheap construction of both poured-concrete and/or pre-fabricated (non-plastic) cisterns for all new housing and commercial buildings in the USA, as well as
  • subsidies for retrofitting existing structures with such cisterns; with understanding that
  • cisterns in both instances are to be filled by naturally distilled rainwater captured from the roofs of such housing and commercial buildings.
  • Public education on simple chemical-free cistern water filtration and water pump maintenance would be expeditiously implemented, and water pump and pre-fab cistern manufacturing and installation would be heavily subsidized in every U.S. region.

Implementation at governmental initiative would be first undertaken as demonstrations in areas of the United States most seriously experiencing long-term drought, declining aquifers and/or traditionally limited rainfall. Implementation would then be progressively expanded into areas with more ample annual rainfall.

Diversion of rivers for irrigation of historically arid lands would be abolished and declared illegal. The Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers would be fully restored to their natural flow, and resulting municipal water deficits not yet alleviated by newly installed cisterns, if any, would be offset and incentivized by massively expanded water conservation policies and practices including major reduction of loss due to evaporation from municipal open-air reservoirs.

Such full-flow restoration would then be expeditiously extended to all U.S. rivers, and all dams that degrade and destroy essential natural wetlands and natural fish migrations would be removed throughout the United States. With sincere gratitude for the nurturing rains provided by Divine Providence in whatever quantities Divine Providence chooses to send, lawn watering would be outlawed throughout the United States.

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I am one of the fortunate few who has real lived experience with domestic water sources that some would call primitive but I’d call simple, obvious, and the answer to our water problems.

Such experience began through ten of my formative childhood years, lived on the water-rich Wabash River floodplain of west central Indiana between the old French names of Vincennes and Terre Haute. Every soul on that flat prairie in the 1940s, even us kids, knew that a great pool called an aquifer lay beneath the ground we walked on. We understood that the aquifer got recharged by rainfall, as well as floodwaters under which the entire landscape disappeared at least once every year when levees bordering the Wabash inevitably became waterlogged by heavy rains and collapsed. From our back door to the western horizon, familiar fields turned into an endless shallow sea from which scattered trees protruded.

Right beside our kitchen sink under the window by our back door, there arose through the countertop a galvanized pipe on top of which sat a standard waterpump with handle. When one wanted a drink of water, one held a glass under the pump’s spout and thrust its handle up and down as fresh, cool, pure water flowed forth direct from the ground through the pump into the glass. I wouldn’t dare do that today because groundwaters everywhere have been irretrievably polluted by chemicals that industrial and agricultural polluters have so profligately dumped into our common environment for about a century now.

I suppose that kitchen pump was good preparation for my second major water experience when, a quarter century later, fate led to my possession of an enormous old antique two-story farmhouse created by some barons who had owned a nearby distillery. Built in 1815 and again in 1841 after the original burned to the ground, every inch of wood from joist-beams to toe molds were of yellow poplar—wonderfully workable wood, everlasting and impervious to termites. The big old house’s only source of water was its cistern.

Dating from 1815, the rocks-and-mortar cistern was shaped like a modern two-liter beverage container—round and tapering inward at the top. Rudimentary plumbing of great age brought water from the cistern through a waterpump hidden in a closet, and delivered it to the house’s kitchen sink and only bathroom.

It had probably been more than adequate for nineteenth century lifestyles. For a modern family of two adults and three children, the cistern—ten feet in diameter and twelve feet deep—simply wasn’t big enough. Though we quickly learned to be sparing and economize, it didn’t hold enough water for daily washing of dishes, bodies and dirty clothes, not to mention brushing teeth and five glasses of water with meals. It ran dry just about every month. We would then call the man whose truck brought “city  (chemically infused) water” to rural folk who depended on undersized cisterns.

This experience served well when we built our new house in 1991. Designed by myself, beneath the back porch of our modern house lies a cistern eight feet deep and the size of your average swimming pool. It is decidedly big enough. Even in the severest rare drought, we’ve never come remotely close to running out of water. Every rainfall replenishes our b-i-g cistern with fresh, pure water naturally distilled in the sky in an evaporative-precipitating process invented by God called “rainfall.” It mostly stays full to overflowing.

Our cistern water contains not one slightest iota of the chemicals dumped into the nearby Kentucky River by factories and farms upstream from nearby Frankfort—their traces diluted but impossible to completely filter out. Nor has our cistern’s rainwater any of the allegedly decontaminated sewage dumped in the river by upstream cities, against which Frankfort’s water is filtered and “cleansed” by adding chlorine in hope of killing all harmful bacteria. Nor has our rainwater any slightest trace of fluorine, thoughtfully added to the public water with intent to reduce cavities in the citizens’ teeth. We brush, we get regular dental checkups.

Also we are mindful that chlorine and fluorine, those most reactive members of the halogens, are sometimes called “the friendly elements” because of their affinity for merging with other chemicals, such as those several hundreds found in the Kentucky River from upstream factories, the overall potential of which has been calculated at roughly 250,000 possible compounds among which only five percent are carcinogenic.

Lest I forget to mention it, as owners of a (more than adequate) cistern we have no water or sewer bill.

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Some glimpses of the nation’s water problem

From the great American Southwest these days there arises to high Heaven the plaintive cry: Water! We need more fresh clean safe-to-drink water—not to mention the irrigation of crops in our vast fields. We must at all costs arrange for our politicians to take all the water we want from someone else’s supply of it.

Perhaps they will take still more from the great Colorado river—already so tapped and canalized that its life-sustaining waters, which historically flowed down to the sea, now sink ignominiously into the sand many miles short of their old oceanic terminus.

In our seven southwesternmost states one searches in vain for a natural free-flowing creek much less a whole river that hasn’t been dammed, tapped for canals and aqueducts, or otherwise tampered with to divert its flow away from the course nature provided, to a distant new destiny serving the watery wants of people who live nowhere near it. All of the fast-growing big cities in those seven mostly-arid states years ago diverted away from their natural courses great streams of water that, if left alone, would now belong to somebody else whom we shall designate “the natural rightful owners of the water.” You know, Native Americans—people like that.

From Mexico to Canada, for over twenty years now, the entire American west has been suffering the severest prolonged drought of the past twelve hundred years. Driving across a barren tan desert landscape one day enroute to far Albuquerque, I topped a rise and suddenly could see many miles across a great swale to the next rise. There, perhaps ten miles distant on the far slope, a bright green postage stamp stood out dramatically from the brown desert surround. It was a town. Somehow, way out there in the desert and miles from other civilization, they had acquired water. And quite clearly—visually—they were using it to water their lawns and verdant gardens, for nothing so brilliantly green was seen surrounding that manmade anomaly. It reminded me of the extravagant, wasteful fountains along the gaudy Phoenix strip, one of the morbidly driest cities in the nation—which also, somehow, tapped into somebody else’s water.

The same cry is lately going up from the American Southeast, also, where less severe versions of the southwestern drought have grown progressively worse every year since the year 2000. From Florida’s panhandle up through Alabama and Georgia through Virginia, the extended drought is now “moderately, abnormally or severely” dry, especially in the Carolinas—though “extreme” and “exceptional” drought are not yet set seen as they are in the southwest. But the southeastern outlook is not optimistic.

These days the climate scientists all agree: these droughts result directly from human-caused global warming. Even the number of climate deniers is going down—some by admitting the reality of the weather they’re experiencing, others by dying. I wonder how they’ll take to the idea of needing to install a cistern.

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William D. Coffey, 2023


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