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Su Lum: Cool, clear water

The other day I read in the paper that the number of people in town is calculated by the amount of water used, based on a per capita estimated use of 90 gallons per day. Ninety gallons a day for each man, woman and child ? 360 gallons a day for a family of four!

This put a whole new light on the drought situation here in Colorado. If 90 gallons a day is considered the norm, we’re not in trouble yet. When they stop watering the golf courses, then we’ll know we’re in trouble.

I know I’ll sound like an old crone, saying that you young whippersnappers don’t know a thing about hardship (which my generation heard from our parents, who went through the Great Depression that made our current recession look like a dimple), but I do know a thing or two about living on rationed water.

On the wilderness homestead in Alaska in the early ?60s, water was our most precious commodity.

That first summer we camped out on the land in jungle hammocks, with tools, clothes and supplies stored in a little white “clothing tent” and a large Army surplus tent with one side ripped out (the “bear tent”).

Our kitchen consisted of a big gas range fueled by bottled propane, a chest of drawers holding food, and an artist’s easel hung with an arsenal of weapons. Sheltering this area, hung in the trees, was a 10-foot-square waterproof canvas tarp.

There was a slow trickling spring about a mile away, from which Burt filled 5-gallon cans for drinking and cooking water ? we’d go through one or two of those a week ? but our primary source of water was the tarp.

It is amazing how much water you can collect in the dip of a 10-foot by 10-foot tarp in a heavy rainstorm. At the edge of the tarp we had the homesteader’s standby ? a 55-gallon lard barrel.

Lard barrels had to be begged from bakeries in Anchorage. There were plenty of oil barrels around, but you could never clean them well enough to get the taste out. Lard barrels were no joke to clean either but, once done, made a fine water barrel.

When the rain came, and the tarp began to sag with water, we’d poke the center with an axe handle, tipping the water over the edge into the lard barrel and, in a really good storm, when that was full we’d fill all our pots and pans, too, celebrating with shampoos and sponge baths. You could DROWN in 55 gallons of water!

That was when we still had enough money for occasional Laundromat runs in Palmer.

By winter, the situation was acute. We had moved our 8-foot by 33-foot trailer onto the land, and the spring barely coughed up enough water to make homebrew. The laundry (now including diapers; our daughter Skye was born at the end of August) and wash water all came from melted snow.

It takes a trailer full of snow to make a gallon of water, and it melts down very slowly. Also, contrary to the image, it doesn’t snow that much in Alaska ? usually it’s too cold. And because it was so cold, there were no icicles ? icicles are as good as rain.

Finding, collecting and melting snow was an all-day, everyday routine; not a drop was wasted, we even recycled it: the soapy dish water became soaking water for the diapers, the dish rinse water the diaper wash water.

Thinking back on that, 270 gallons a day for the three of us is unimaginable.

[Su Lum is a longtime local who can make do when her pipes freeze. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.]


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