Finding Water

by Fred First

Water. All my life it came out of a tap every time I turned the knobs on the kitchen sink or wanted a hot shower. It always worked that way, always would. I was an otherwise science-and-planet-aware, touchy-feely tree-hugger type, but took water for granted for thirty years. I confess this. I swam in pools full of the stuff whose existence in this world began the second it left the nozzle of the garden hose or kitchen faucet. This was true until I found water 1981.

That was the year we bought the farm — the one we started imaging in 1973 from the congested ugliness of near-town Birmingham. We moved to Southwest Virginia the next year and lived in a large, rambling, impossible-to-heat home on a busy street in Wytheville for five years before we found our place in the country. Our back-to-the-land dream had come true at last. We became the caretaker-owners of a twenty-two acre homestead where pasture and woods offered freedom for the dogs and the kids and parents in their prime to roam and explore.

We were disappointed that the place had no creeks or ponds, which was at the top of our list of must-have features for our first country home. But this land had none. We’d make do, because so much was just right.

We moved there to Greasy Creek, five miles from town, in March — triumphant, zealous and clueless homesteaders. April exploded. Spring green washed over the monochrome of winter. Getting to know the place was to romance a new lover, discovering her charms and beauties, warts and freckles. We walked every square inch of the place — a cosmic expanse compared to the half-acre yards I grew up in or the in-town lot with seventeen trees we had just moved from. It was our first experience of that much solitude, quiet, darkness, and good earth.

Just over the ridge from the house, down below the barn, we noticed the distinctive soft yellow greens of willows that emerged in a knot of tall growth near the bottom of the hill. A swale led from that small thicket, gradually falling toward the dirt road. A wet-weather stream appeared in that narrow valley after a heavy rain — our temporary running water on the place.

With the willows grew spicebush. Both these woody plants like to live with their feet wet. Could there have once been a spring here in this rangy depression? I began to meet the neighbors and ask questions.

Yes, there was once a spring in that weedy spot, the Catrons told us. Cattle had watered there, but the owners did not protect the source. The hooves of horses and cows eventually compressed the wet soil and closed off the flow out of the limestone seep. Consequently, none of the subsequent owners — now including us — could keep livestock unless watered from the well. The thirsts of a half dozen head of cattle would have the submersible pump running constantly. The capacity of the deep well that supplied the house would be stressed, at risk of being depleted for human drinkers in dry spells.

And so, in my Can-Do zeal as a new Mother Earther, I began to conjure the notion of finding the old source of the spring, digging it out to flow again, and maybe even feeding the flow into a pond for fishing, ice skating and skinny-dipping. It was a long shot, but what if?

One hot day in June, I came home after my last biology lab, changed into my grubbies and set about the task of clearing back the weedy depression with my chainsaw, swing blade and a lot of sweat equity. The woody plants came down, cut as near to the ground as I could without dulling the chain on rock. After a couple of afternoons, the tall Joe Pye Weed, ragweed, Jewel Weed, Poke Salad and anonymous greenery ended up in a shed-sized burn pile not far away. And I could see the lay of the land.

Sure enough, there was one side of the little slump where the soil was dark and damp, and only there. This must be near the source of the old spring. Maybe a muddy patch was all we’d ever have here. But if it had been flowing once, and the limestone passageways were intact and only the outlet had been plugged by cow hooves, there was a chance it could be brought back to life.

I had water on the brain there for weeks, working with shovel and mattock and a long tamping iron in the daylight hours that I wasn’t holding a piece of chalk in front of a class of biology or anatomy students in my day job.

I began asking neighbors and colleagues at the college about the placements and flow rates of their wells and springs. I starting paying more and more attention to water, even as I came closer and closer to reviving the possibility of clear, cold ground water brought to the surface once again on our little dude ranch.

An AHA moment came to me on our two-mile drive from the main road to the house. There, grown up in vines and shrubs, was an old abandoned fish hatchery I had not really paid much attention to before. No creeks flowed that high on the hill. So there must be springs of such volume that good-sized trout ponds of cold groundwater could reliably sustain the fish-rearing business that once thrived there. I asked more questions.

Of course, there were many springs in Wythe County bubbling up out of the limestone bedrock of the long reach of the long-eroded valleys, from the Shenandoah southwest to the Tennessee. This was all old seabed-compressed-fossil remnants, the calcium of tiny plankton now in deep soft rock pocked and carved by rivers and caves below the valley surface. My little seep only hinted at where an enormous volume of water was hiding.

Yes, in the end, I did find water. And there was good news and there was bad news.

The fine-work process was tedious to the point of exploring finally with a screwdriver to expose the vein of water-bearing rock that the cattle had trampled twenty years back. With cautious careful excavation, the flow increased over a week of afternoon prodding from a few ounces a minute to a little more than a gallon a minute. This was just a drop compared to the fish hatchery’s tens of gallons a minute, but that slow and steady rate could produce about 1,500 gallons in a day. This was enough to warrant securing the spring head and setting up a watering trough for cattle and our daughter’s horse.

We sealed the source and piped it into a holding trough near the spring head. We excavated a half-acre pond, with a gravity-fed watering trough below the dam. [ I say “we” meaning we arranged to have it done through the county extension service, from which we received a much reduced cost almost to the point of FREE! ]

The pond’s filling up with water was a miracle that we went down to witness every few hours those first weeks. We put a stick at the edge of the water and thrilled to see just the tip of it sticking out by the end of the day.

When we were confident we had a full, permanent pond, we stocked it with bream and minnows. The kids ice skated on it the second winter. It was such a joy to have the sight and sound and fishy smell of water where we lived!

And then, the second summer the pond filled up with parrot feather — aquatic vegetation that made it impossible to swim. We almost lost our water-loving black lab Zach, who swam to the middle and got his legs tangled in it. And the third year, the pond went dry almost overnight for lack of an adequate clay seal in the construction. I can tell you, you miss the water when the pond runs dry. We had water, and we lost it. But I never took it for granted after watching it flow from the ground in that willowed dry thicket.

We moved away from our little Wythe County farm in 1987. Ten years later, we moved to Floyd County in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and soon thereafter, a whole new story of water began with life a stone's throw from the confluence of two creeks, babbling just outside our bedroom window

To most palates, a drop of our water from the Blue Ridge tastes the same as a drop from our little ‘80s homestead in the Great Valley, but where it lives before it comes out of your faucet into your glass is way different.

The story of Blue Ridge water goes back to the early origins of the mountain chain. This geology consists of uplifted continental rock that is hard and resistant to wear. This provides a very different container for percolating rains than the soft limestone of the New River and Roanoke valleys. And so there are no true aquifers like the caves and underground rivers of the Great Valley along the I-81 corridor through Virginia and Tennessee.

Instead, Blue Ridge groundwater flows in fractures in the rock. These fractures interconnect in an irregular and unpredictable trellis pattern, extending down many hundreds of feet and laterally perhaps for miles. Nobody knows for sure what the exact pattern of cracks and fractures looks like down there. A drilled well in Floyd County will pass through one or more of these cracks and be limited in its pumping capacity by the volume of rainwater that can be stored in that particular network of water veins.

In Floyd County, the only recharge is from the rain we get. No water enters the county to be stored in natural or manmade impoundments for municipal supply or to refill the underground fissures. The water we drink is what fell from the sky onto this high plateau of old rock. Most of it flows away untouched, in creeks to rivers to the oceans. Some perks in and stays for a while, used by humans, grasses and trees, sheep and bears before returning to the clouds.

When the underground reservoir of cracks and fractures becomes filled to some capacity by regular and ample rains, there is more volume than the rocks can hold. Underground Blue Ridge water is cold, clear and clean. From its temporary containment deep and dark underground, much of this stored rainwater will find its way into lateral cracks that meet the sloping surface. The point where it leaves the underground is called a spring. The water that flows from the spring is called a spring branch or a run. Like most creeks in Floyd County, our creek — Goose Creek — is formed by a succession of springs. The deep scours in the cold water, escaped from deep underground, were once excellent places for native trout to thrive. The road that follows the creek is Goose Creek Run.

At its highest point less than two miles from home, our road is within a fraction of a mile of the headwaters of the south fork of the Roanoke River. Where this river finally meets the Atlantic shore, the early settlers called it Goose Creek. Our creek, then, carries on that early place name. It connects our water, by history and by flow, with the Atlantic Ocean and a people who could only imagine where this water’s source must be in the unknown interior of the continent.

Ninety-five percent of Floyd’s water goes the other direction. Just the other side of the hardtop above the source of Goose Creek Run, a raindrop will flow into another ocean by way of Little River, then the New, the Kanawha, Ohio and Mississippi, to the Gulf of Mexico

The visible camber of one near-by, well-traveled road determines a raindrop’s destiny. Flow, it must; its fate is sealed by where it falls. Right of the center line, it trickles down one pasture slope to ultimately reach the Atlantic; left of the line, to the Gulf. This boundary line of ocean-bound water is called the eastern continental divide. Our drop of rain enters one of two vast regions that receive seeps and runs and creeks and rivers. These large irregular pieces of map on one side or the other of the divide are called the Little River and the Roanoke River watersheds.

Watershed: one of those landscape physical-geography based terms used in everyday language that lacks for many or most the significance it has for me. I live near the divide and frequently see that middle of the road that so clearly separates the two possible destinies of a raindrop.

A watershed moment or watershed decision, then, literally means that the directional shift from a moment of change or the placement of a certain choice on one side or the other of the knife-edge of fate will result in far-reaching differences in the final endpoint of consequence and history. I see the metaphor more vividly, grasp the AHA comprehension of the language by the reality of it on the ground. And when I take it in, it makes me consider:

We live as both the past victims and the future choosers of watershed moments and choices. We suffer the consequences of the former by decisions made in our collective past by other choosers. More importantly, we stand with the bucket at the crest of the divide, actively and by our wisdom or our ignorance, determining the fate of our children’s great grandchildren by the choice we make in this watershed moment. Which way will the flow of the future go?

I “found water” in the ground again on Goose Creek, though I only watched the discovery this time. When we first came down this gravel road to inspect the derelict house and acreage we now call home, it had never had indoor plumbing. People who lived here since the 1870s had to have water, of course, to drink and cook with, and bathe on Saturdays. Even though there was a spring branch trickling over the surface not twenty feet from the house, the cleaner, safer source was a spring a three-minute walk up the road. To get to it, you had to wade through the creek. Some of the old-timers pointed it out to us, hidden near the base of an arching beech tree. If you dig back through the tangle of Rhododendrons, you can see where flat stones were stacked up in an attempt to protect the source from animal contamination and forest litter.

Now, those folks that fetched water from across a raging or frozen creek did not take their water for granted. Getting in the water was not a small part of every day. We opted to put in a deep well instead.

“Where’d ya want it?” the well driller asked. I assumed there was a science to well placement, or that you’d need a “witcher” to divine it, but apparently the odds are good that anywhere you drill in Floyd County, you’ll hit a vein of water at some point, and you can’t really count on when and how many dollars-worth of drilling it will take to start pumping it.

We were lucky. The drill found water at about seventy feet and drilled down another thirty for capacity. And I’ll never forget, as I stood by, fascinated in watching this day-long process, water began surging from the top of the well casing, flowing down the driveway into Goose Creek.

“Well I’ll be darned. You got you an artesian here.” The driller told me that about one in a hundred wells in Floyd has the well head lower than the water table reservoir at a higher elevation. Down here in this deep valley, we are lower than the mountainside of fissures in the rock above us. As long as that water reservoir holds sufficient water, there will be enough pressure to push water out under some force without the need of a well pump.

So to take advantage of this, we put a faucet on the well head (in addition to a submersible pump down the casing). And when the power is out, we tap into the unseen lattice-web of rock cracks, and water comes out of the faucet and into our cup. And I am amazed and grateful we are well-watered here, inside and out.

We live now in a two-story white house with double porches at the confluence of two mountain streams — Goose Creek, and another more hidden-away flow of equal volume. This second creek follows the edge of our pasture and has no official name on any maps I can find. And so I call it Nameless Creek. And now it has a name for us, at least, and its name reminds me that this globe didn’t come with names for places. Those place names come from lives lived and stories told in and about those places. We live in our maps and make spaces into places by the memories there.

The two creeks babble us to sleep on a summer night. Their confluence under a rocky bluff is one of my sit spots when I am too lazy to walk back to the Fortress of Solitude. I love the framing of it — the Y of the coming-together. I slow down there enough to hear the tone each creek contributes to the water music.

Confluence: another of those geography-landform terms whose seeing makes language live. A coming together of two streams (or rivers of thought, or alliance of forces) each adding their flow to the other to form something more than either alone. I’ve driven across bridges at the confluence of great rivers, but the scale of our two small creeks is reachable; comprehensible; personal and relevant. I get it.

Five creek miles downstream, the combined flow of Goose and Nameless join Bottom Creek to form the south fork of the Roanoke River. Our drop of water traverses the river watershed, start to finish, and mingles with the salty water of the Atlantic at Albemarle Sound. It will rise in a cloud and come back to us, some day, perhaps. I’ll be watching.

We live on the “Water Planet” as Jacque Cousteau called our Earth. There may be none other like it whose surface is more wet than dry and neither too hot nor too cold to keep water from boiling away or rock-hard frozen in place. When we look for possible life in space, failing to find evidence of present or past water is a deal killer. Water and carbon are the essential components of life anything like our own.

Our cells — and all cells — are fat with water, swimming in it, giving and taking from it constantly. The just-right porridge of it irrigates our brains, wets the breathing surfaces of our lungs, and sweeps away the trash from our guts.

We know it is possible, embarrassingly quick, to die of thirst. But what dies from want of being wet is our cells. The YOU and the ME soon follow when our cells can’t drink.

A gallon a minute from our tiny spring astounded me. Now, I hear it out the open window at my desk — the combined flow of dozens of upstream seeps whose tens of gallons per second would fill a bathtub in an instant. Almost entirely, except after a heavy rain, our creeks are fed by springs, constantly feeding water from darkness into the light.

That glassful I had first thing this morning is a tiny molecule from the Water Planet. That pitcher of ice water at the dinner table is a single cell — every cell — that only exists because it is wet inside and out. Each tree and blade of grass has a water story to tell. Anywhere you look in the natural world, water is the how and why of it.

It is raining now — the tintinnabulation of its soft song a comforting whisper on the metal roof. It gurgles down the drains. The creek noise through the open window is a faint chuckling I have to make myself hear, so constant it is in our aural ambience. It would be easy to take this abundance of water for granted on Goose Creek had not our personal stories been immersed in it for so much of our adult lives.

They say that future wars will be fought, not over oil, but over water. There is far less of it than you’d think. Only 0.007 percent of the planet’s fresh water is clean and accessible for more than seven billion humans. And our water footprint—the average per-person demand for water—has increased twice as fast as population. Much of this can be explained by the water cost of our foods—especially beef.

Before the well runs dry, we can do a better job of caring for and about the water that falls on our vast parking lots, hundreds of thousand miles of city streets and millions of acres of planted fields. We are at a watershed moment, to be sure, when it comes to our children’s water future. Can we turn back from our indifference and flagrant waste of this amazing liquid? Can we pour our efforts into saving the namesake of the Water Planet so we all have enough? What can be done?

Those of us who live in southwest Virginia can build water gardens and lay permeable pavers and store more of it in our underground fractures and cavernous aquifers before the next thunderstorm’s impressive volume enters storm drains and passes down mountain watersheds to the sea. We can spoil less of it to foul rivers and create ocean dead zones. We can come together, the confluence of every peoples’ water awareness, to be conscious of and invested in the water commons — where it comes from and where it goes, every time — and so long as — it comes clean and cold out of the faucet.

Do you know where your water is tonight?

About the Author

Fred First

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Fred First is the author of “Slow Road Home: a Blue Ridge Book of Days” (2006) and “What We Hold in Our Hands -- a Slow Road Reader” (2009). He has contributed more than 30 essays to Roanoke's NPR station. His written and photographic works are published in various places including Blue Ridge Country Magazine, Petlife, Greenprints, Birmingham Arts Journal, Smith Mountain Laker, Nantahala Review and Richard Louv's Children and Nature Network.