Archive for Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Water’s infinite value

Rural couple resourceful in obtaining water

August 7, 2002

Just for fun, Steve and Sharon Fannin try out the old pitcher pump by their kitchen sink. First they prime the pump by pouring water down the neck to moisten the pump's leather ring. Then, as Steve gives the handle half a dozen pushes, the pump sputters, trickles and finally lets go with a steady stream of cool water.

Sharon brings a dishpan to collect the water. Because the pump hasn't been used for several years the first cup or two of water is brown. But within seconds the water clears. Never one to waste a drop, Sharon said she will pour the brown water on her roses: "They won't mind a little dirt."

In this day and age the Fannins self-sufficient when it comes to their water needs are an enigma. Why when they could easily be connected to a rural water system, do they choose not to?

Obviously, it must have something to do with an inborn sort of pioneer spirit.

Sharon is a tall slender silver haired woman with a warm smile, quick step, boundless energy and friendly conversation. Steve, who carries a sturdy build like that of a wood chopper, works in construction and is an avid reader and outdoorsman. He grew up on a farm nearby where his parents still operate a sawmill.

Sharon and Steve seem well suited for the house which includes a cast-iron parlor stove with trim of polished chrome, the steady tick-tocking of at least three clocks, and an interesting assortment of antiques that could be usable in a pinch butter churns, kerosene lamps and a graniteware coffeepot.

"I wish I'd been born 100 years before," Sharon Fannin said. "I've always been like that, and Steve kind of did live that kind of life because the lifestyle he lived was rural."

Sharon Fannin, moved in 1978 from Kansas City, Kan., to rural Tonganoxie with her two young children because she didn't want her children to attend inner-city schools.

Steve Fannin grew up west of Tonganoxie in a home that until the mid-'70s, after he graduated from high school, didn't have running water.

A Realtor first showed Sharon Fannin the gently sloping, wooded 10-acre slice of ground she would buy. They stopped afterward at a local restaurant and she wrote a check for the down payment. But when she returned to show the property to her children, somewhere along the winding, undulating gravel road leading to the property she lost her way and had to call for directions.

Today, the Fannins, who have been married since 1987, laugh about her stories of moving to the country. Their first home was a garage she built from a kit. She and her children lived in the garage while they were building their house.

Sharon, who has for 28 years worked as a mail carrier in Kansas City, Kan., built her own kitchen cabinets, as taught by her father. She laid a flagstone floor, which sweeps through the house. She set her own locally harvested glacier-granite rocks in a massive hearth and chimney.

She dug a storm-shelter cave in the side of the hill that slopes upward from her house.

She installed an antique wood-burning kitchen range in her kitchen with which to bake her bread and can her homegrown tomatoes. And, for summertime cooking, purchased an antique kerosene-fueled stove to use on her side porch.

As interesting as her determination to build the house with her own two hands is her determination to live independently, without the need of piped-in water.

She took three tactics in accomplishing this diverting rainwater to an underground cistern to pipe into the house, installing a well for more home water use, and pumping water from a nearby creek to water her gardens. And, if the electricity fails, Fannin can still get water from the manual kitchen-sink pump she inherited from her grandmother in Valley Falls.

Here's how the cistern works: Gutters from the back of the house funnel rainwater into two 50-gallon heavy plastic pickle barrels, one on each side of the house. Wire mesh screens on the top of each barrel filter debris as the water flows through. In the bottom of the barrel, layers of gravel and hadite filter the water before it leaves through a hole in the bottom of the barrel and runs through an underground pipe that drains into a buried cistern.

The cistern is actually an 1,800-gallon septic tank, purchased new and lined to prevent cistern water from leaking out and groundwater from leaking in.

The Fannins use the cistern, which contains soft water, for household hot water use. Also, the cistern provides water to the kitchen pitcher pump, used during power outages.

Rains quickly replenish the cistern.

For instance, the recent half-inch rainfall increased the cistern's water level by one foot. That is about 360 gallons, Sharon said.

The cistern itself is low-maintenance, Sharon said. About every three years, if the well is dry, or if nearly dry, they pump it dry and Sharon climbs down inside to clean the tank.

Nearby, an outside well provides cold water for household use.

And to water the gardens, the Fannins dropped an intake line into a stream to pump water with a half-horse jet pump.

"Even at that we're careful with the water," Sharon said. "We only water the plants at the roots, not from above."

Marigolds and zinnias border the Fannin's vast garden, mulched thick with straw to retain moisture and keep weeds down. The garden looks like something out of a magazine lush plants, not a weed in sight, and even four raised beds that hold a bountiful supply of ruffly leafed kale, sweet basil and other garden plants.

A naturalist of sorts, Sharon shies away from using pesticides and herbicides. And, she is known to munch on non-traditional foods such as red and yellow nasturtium blooms that add a radish-like flavor, as well as a dash of color, to salads.

The Fannins' water project is not flawless. Sharon said it would be best to have two cisterns so that during rainy spells a second tank could catch the first tank's overflow. And, they mind their water usage. Now, with the cistern level dropping from lack of rain, before doing laundry with warm water, the cistern's level must be checked.

And, perhaps more importantly, after surviving a bout with cancer several years ago, Sharon said she no longer drinks the water from the well. Instead, she buys water for drinking.

It takes a little extra work to make sure as little water as possible is wasted. The Fannins keep gallon jugs beside the sink to catch the water while they're waiting for hot water. And, if their electric skillet is still warm from cooking dinner they'll fill it with cold water to heat it for washing dishes.

But the Fannins wouldn't trade their system for the convenience of rural water service. Steven Fannin said this mentality is part of his upbringing.

"I grew up knowing how to do everything that was needed to do in order to survive," Steve said. "I wish the kids ours and all of them would grow up knowing how to survive on their own. It's a knowledge that once you learn, nobody can ever take away. God forbid something would happen that they couldn't turn to the supermarket and get it what would they do?"

And, since Sept. 11, 2001, there's been another thought in mind, Sharon said.

"What happens if somebody decides to play terrorist and destroys a city's water supply?" she asked. "You've got to have an alternative. Don't depend on rural water don't depend on the other guy you've got to be self-sufficient."

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