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La Fuenta de Agua

September 24, 2021

“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” — Jacques Yves Cousteau

Our ‘Fuente de Agua’ at Reserva Las Tangaras

The trials and tribulations of living off-grid are the challenges that make one appreciate many of the things that we take for granted in the modern world. With the average household in the West using 1000+ litres of water a day, such a vital resource can pass through our taps, toilets, showers, washing machines, dishwashers, and mouths, without a moments thought or contemplation. Transparent, tasteless, odourless, its no wonder its so easy to forget about. Yet we are surrounded by it. Made of it. Depend on it. No more so does this become apparent to those that become custodians of Reserva Las Tangaras. With a water system that is gravity fed from a local tributary, it is a “free” resource. That being said it does not come without its challenges and remains the bane of all managers lives here at RLT. A storm, a drought, a landslide can all decide whether or not that day the water will flow when you turn on the faucet.  It is humbling to be at the mercy of the elements, but it can also be frustrating. As seems to be human nature, we have innovated and tried to adapt to these conditions (or fight them).

Our most recent, and arguably most triumphant addition to the Reserve has been installing a back-up water tank. A simple system utilising two tanks, one that acts as the “main” body of water which then feeds into a smaller reservoir (see diagram below). This provides us with a number of benefits. Firstly, sediment is collected in the first tank meaning that water heading to the cabin is cleaner and puts less strain on the filter. Secondly, it gives us an early warning when the source is disrupted. This is due to the fact that the smaller tank is fed from a higher level and will only fill if the water in the back-up reservoir is at a height equal to or greater than that of the other. Therefore if the water level drops in the first tank it will stop filling the second. Thirdly and most importantly, should something happen up stream that stops the flow of water, we simply turn the valve and our reserve chamber will see us good for 2-3 days of normal use, that means hot showers, clean dishes, and drinking water!

Whilst its nice to think we have an unlimited supply of (free) water its worth treading with an air of awareness when using it. There are a number of simple steps, which can have you saving water in no time, steps which we employ here at RLT and will transfer to our normal lives back in the UK. 

In the bathroom:

  • Half of all water usage takes place in the bathroom.
  • Turn off the tap while shaving or brushing teeth.
  • Showers use less water than baths. A hot shower is one of our greatest luxuries at RLT but it’s worth keeping an eye on how long you’re in it for.

In the kitchen:

  • Plug up the sink or use a washbasin if washing dishes by hand.
  • Use a dishwasher—and when you do, make sure it’s fully loaded!
  • Scrape your plate instead of rinsing it before loading it into the dishwasher.
  • Keep a pitcher of drinking water in the refrigerator instead of letting the faucet run until the water is cool.

In the laundry room:

  • If it’s not dirty don’t wash it! It can be customary to wear an item of clothing once and assume it needs washing – this is not true! Albeit we have been known to take this to extremes… a natural musk is nothing to be ashamed of!
  • Wash only full loads of laundry
  • Try use a biodegrable, planet friendly detergent if possible – the majority of our water at the reserve goes back into the local water cycle.
  • A great natural alternative to commercial laundry detergents is soap nuts – these little guys contain a natural surfactant, saponin, which breaks the surface tension of water to penetrate the fibres in clothing to lift away dirt and stains. Soap nuts can be re-used multiple times, they are non-toxic and sensitive-skin friendly, and most importantly they don’t pollute the water cycle like chemical detergents!

It’s also important to stay on top of leaks; small household leaks can mount up to gallons of lost water every day!

When we take water from its source we invariably alter it in some respect. Phosphates from cleaning products, microplastics, and cooking oil all contribute to water contamination. Water used in agriculture can hold onto residues from fertilisers and pesticides even after being extensively cleaned and treated. Even air pollutants can make their way into rivers, lakes and seas. Why is this important? The Earth’s water system is constantly recycling itself. Whether it is evaporating from the ocean or sublimating from ice and snow into water vapour, water is being circulated around the atmosphere at all times. Chemicals and microplastics that make their way into the cycle negatively impact, not just human health, but also all organisms that live in or use Earths water. Human activity also impacts the distribution of it. Water taken from one body of water can sometimes find itself transported to the other side of the world. What begins as a local resource and thus presents local environmental issues should be seen as part of a bigger picture, a global body of water, that we all draw from and that we are all custodians of.

This is the final instalment from Jack and Meg as our tenure here draws to a rapid close. Living at Reserva Las Tangaras has been instrumental in more ways than one and an experience we would urge anyone to take. It has taught us humility and a greater appreciation of the natural world that surrounds us. We wish the next volunteers the best of luck and hope that they enjoy their time here as much as we have.

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