Water, water…

I have just passing contact with various aspects of Southeastern historic archaeology, but it seems to me if I were to brush up on domestic residential complexes, I would learn more about cisterns. Yet, I’ve never seen a modern house with a cistern in these parts (although I’m sure there must be at least a few out there). Despite the current precipitation record, it hasn’t stopped raining around here, so we must instead have undergone a revolution in how we obtain water—and switched to deep, drilled wells, and community water systems (also relying on drilled wells).

I listen mostly to NPR streaming on WUNC, and I am now hearing a friendly voice in the station’s cut-in telling me how to catch in a bucket the water that flows out of my showerhead while I’m waiting for it to get hot, so I can use that water productively.

The last time I did that consistently was when I visited rural Alaska years and years ago, where the tundra meant a water truck brought water (no buried pipes) and the honey wagon came by for the other “product.”

Even in Oaxaca, where the water truck is called the pipa, we didn’t catch the shower water, although I always wondered why. Maybe ’cause that water was pretty cheap (from our standard of living, but not, of course, for all), relatively speaking? After all, we purchased drinking water separately from the pipa water….

The other piece of our typical household water system that bypasses conservation measures, of course, is the ignored greywater, but I’ve already ranted a bit about that….

Air quality is of concern, without a doubt, but water is the show-stopper. Remember all those Roman aqueducts? The oases here and there across the globe? The explorers’ stories that recorded where the springs and “sweetwater” were to be found? The terraces and irrigation and flood control structures? Water is where it’s at in human survival. I’ve examined environmental concerns from every angle, and I come back to this….

So, although Google announced they’re investing in developing renewable energy sources (they started their philanthropy aimed at improving peoples’ health, and then saw that affordable, renewable energy underlies that problem), I keep thinking potable water, and water for living and food, is a poorly addressed limited non-renewable commodity. Or something….

Today’s vocabulary:


—tank for storing water: also, reservoir, container, butt (in the sense of a cask, a container for wine, ale, or water, possibly etymologically related to “bottle”)

…from Latin cisterna, from cista ‘box.’


  1. Pooh says:

    Our house on Crest in Ann Arbor supposedly had a cistern under the concrete slab at the bottom of the back porch steps. I don’t remember how we found out it was there, probably word of mouth from the previous owners or neighbors. I don’t know how the heck it would have filled or how you would access the water in it with a slab of concrete on top of it. Youth wants to know?

    I suspect that people moved away from cisterns b/c of the likelihood of contaminants collecting in the water either macro like leaves and bugs or micro like disease carrying bacteria. Rain barrels are not in as much vogue as before either, although my folks have a modern one.

  2. Mary Jo says:

    Until the 70’s cisterns were the common water source for houses here in Deschutes River Woods. Some were filled from private water companies water trucks, others were filled from the irrigation canals straight out of the river. I expect a lot of Clorox was used too. Our friend Dean built a house along the Deschutes river canyon in the mid 90’s with a concrete cistern filled from the irrigation canal. He had to drill a well and bypass the cistern in order to sell the house (not required by code though). Water rights out here are a tense issue. “First in time equals first in line” for water use. So if your great grandfather came by wagontrain and claimed water rights, you continue to have those rights, regardless of the current water issues (drought, pollution, efficiency of use, wildlife, etc.).