The day the well ran dry

On Wednesday 20th July our water stopped running: after providing our farm with running water for 36 years our well was dry. For us this was serious and scary. We were already being careful with our water use as it has been dry since the New Year. But then, suddenly, the only source of water for our home, our garden, our livestock buildings and half of our fields has run out.

John Whetman, Audrey’s husband, setting up an emergency water supply.

We farm on the drier, eastern edge of Dartmoor, not far from the beautiful River Teign. We keep around 30 cattle and 20 sheep who graze our flower-rich pastures, making sure they are full of insects, spiders and birds. We have a garden full of vegetables and fruit that feed us right through the year. We farm with nature, not against it; we don’t use fossil-fuel based fertilisers or sprays and we heat our house using wood cut from our hedges when we ‘lay’ them. We are trying hard to minimise our effect on the planet – but our well is dry.

For many years we have known that our climate is changing and becoming more erratic, so six years ago we spent £2,000 on reserve water tanks, which we fill up with winter and springtime water. But we only have 10,000 litres, so we had to act fast!

The first thing we had to do was to move our cattle to the far side of the farm, where they can drink from the brook, or to our furthest fields, where there are mains water troughs. The cattle have now eaten the remaining dried-up grass in our far fields and we are feeding them our winter hay. It is going to be a long hot start to the winter! Thank goodness we have small fields and big bushy hedges that give our animals some shade throughout the day!

In the garden, anything that isn’t essential has been left to its own devices. In the house we minimise water use, but every evening we soak our tired bodies in a few inches of (shared) hot water. When we have finished, I add some eco-detergent and the dirty washing for a bit of a scrub and a good soak. In the morning we drain the laundry on a clothes horse propped across the bath before putting it out on the washing line to drip-dry. The rest of the bath water is used to flush the loo or water plants. Across the world millions of people live with very limited water, but many people in the UK turn on the tap and don’t even think about how it got there.

Why has our well dried up? We’ve only had 22cms of rain this year (less than 1 inches). In July we had less than 0.5cm. We’ve also had higher temperatures than we have ever experienced before. So climate change is definitely a big factor, but it is more complex than that. People use more water each day than they used to, and there are more people too! To satisfy the demand, water companies are extracting extra water from rivers and reservoirs. As a result, our natural underground water levels are falling, and in the summer the water is below well-level.

So, what next? It will probably be months before our well runs again, and we are fortunate that our neighbours have invited us to plumb into their supply until the situation improves. We have bought 250 metres of pipe to bring the water down to the farm and now we can start to be just a little less miserly with our water. So, we will get through, but this scorching summer has given us a lot of gruelling, extra work!

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