Max: water is a very political subject in Spain, everyone has an opinion and people rarely agree. Tensions between Spain’s autonomous regions and the central government in Madrid often flare up over the sharing of this precious resource. Water is also a contentious issue globally with some countries going to war with their neighbours over water security.
If you’d like to avoid going to war with your neighbors over water rights you should read this article by Josie, my co-moderator from the Living Off-Grid in Spain Facebook group.
You can read part one of our series about water, climate change, and living off-grid here.
You can read part two here.
Josie: Water has to be one of the biggest selling points when it comes to homes when you are “off grid”, but what can you expect if you are lucky enough to buy a property that says it has water? The first step to success is understanding what type of water the property has.
When you talk about a property having a “well”, most people automatically think of a structure with a bucket on a rope or chain that you lower using a winch, either hand-driven or mechanised. (Think of a wishing well or something out of a Disney movie, and you have it).
All wells, irrespective of type, rely on finding and tapping into the “aquifer”, or underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock, rock fractures or unconsolidated materials such as gravel, sand or silt. Aquifers rarely run dry, but it is not impossible. However, knowing the expected annual rainfall and careful usage is always a good management tool.
There are actually 3 types of well…
Dug wells are holes dug by shovel (not a fun day out if you are trying to dig this yourself) or by a backhoe attachment on a digger. Generally speaking, hand- or backhoe-dug wells rarely go deeper than 20ft or 8 metres, but you may come across one that is 30ft or 9 metres deep. In modern dug wells you usually find they are lined with concrete rings, but in older wells it can be brick or simply rock. How you get the water from the bottom of the well to the surface is reliant purely on whether you have a pump or a bucket on a rope. It sounds romantic/rustic, but after hauling just a few buckets in hot weather it starts to become something of a chore, but maybe that is just me. Irrespective of how the water is drawn, most dug wells don’t normally come with a quaint storybook building on top, (not here, that I have seen) but rather a man-hole cover to stop mosquitoes and other insects from laying their eggs in it and to stop the sun from spoiling the water.
The depth of a “dug well” therefore is subjective to how deep the water table (aquifer) is. If the water is deeper than 8-9 metres (20-30ft) you will need to look at a different kind of well.
The next type of well is known as a driven well. These are constructed by driving a pipe into the ground. I don’t know of anyone with such a well but I guess in soft soil areas they may be a thing.
Drilled Wells or “pozo”
The third kind is drilled wells/boreholes, or as they are known in Spanish, “pozo“. These are constructed by drilling down into the ground and then inserting a plastic or metal pipe, usually with a diameter of no more than 15cm or 6 inches (for domestic use). Whilst sometimes a larger diameter pipe can be used in agricultural pozos, the wider the pipe the more money the drilling, piping and pumping costs. For a basic diesel-powered pump (solar can’t pump up more than 150 metres) we were quoted 2000€. Ouch!
How much the actual drilling costs is another story. We are in Catalonia and we could only find one company that would come to our region to give us a quote, much less start drilling. The “aquifer” below our land is (or so we were reliably told not only by the company but the Ministry of Water) is approximately 210-220 metres below the surface. That is one of the drawbacks of living on a “mountain” with fantastic views: the water is a long way down. We were quoted (bear in mind this was several years ago) between €60 and €90 a linear metre. The €60 was if they didn’t hit any snags the €90 if they ran into difficulties. The good news was that the piping was included. The bad news was that should they not find water, they would still charge me €40 a linear metre. I paid €200 for an engineer to come out to find water, and he kindly marked 6 likely spots, but as he could not give me a definite pointer as to where to drill, I was less than enthusiastic about the hit or miss approach they had with regards to actually finding water. Especially when the sum of the engineers’ high tech equipment was a couple of divining rods. Now don’t get me wrong, my old dad used to divine water. But for €200 I was kind of hoping for something a little more space age. In the end, we decided to forego drilling a well/borehole/pozo because of the prohibitive cost.
What about the other types of “water” you may find your real estate agent boasts as being available?
Cisterna or water tank.
Often you will see properties that detail it as having a “cisterna” of x thousands of litres. These can be either under the house or elsewhere but all are usually reliant upon rainwater for filling. A cisterna tends to be the cheaper, lower-tech method of supplying your property with water. Many people will tell you that in x number of years they have never run out of water, but what they tend to neglect telling you is that many of them don’t have flushing toilets or washing machines, and the occupants limit the number of showers they have. They buy their drinking and cooking water or collect it from the village fountain. It’s a good option for people with minimal usage, but it’s not failsafe, and you better believe that it can run out. If I told you that every time you brush your teeth and leave the tap on you use at least 3 litres of water would you believe it? How about 30-50 litres for a shower of 3-5 minutes, or the 4 litres you use to wash your veg, or the 20+ litres you use to wash the dishes, 6-10 per toilet flush, 60-100 for an eco wash in your washing machine. It soon mounts up, and if I told you that a few years ago we didn’t have any rain in Catalonia for nigh on 10 months, you may start to get the idea that maybe that cisterna might not last you until it rains next.
This is usually used in one of 2 ways. The pipeline is opened and the field is directly watered or the pipeline feeds into a balsa/water tank. This is not an unlimited supply. You are metered. What you use the water for is your affair, but the amount is capped and you are fined (usually) and/or restricted the following month for overuse. Just because you have the canals or sluice on your property, it is not a foregone conclusion that you can actually be connected to it as some will tell you, nor is it free. You pay either a set figure per month/year or by the litre.
Before you buy
Let’s say you have found that piece of paradise, and you are told it is just a formality regarding your being given access to agricultural water.
Firstly, your application has to go before a committee that considers it and asks the people already using the water if they have any objections to your inclusion. If no one objects, it then goes to the Ministry and they calculate your allowance. You are then told it will cost you x amount of euros to connect (this may include the laying of pipes) followed by x per month or year. You are then usually (at least in my region) given a key which will open the valve and the meter starts running.
Now of course different regions may work differently, but I don’t know of any water authority that just tells you to “go ahead and help yourself”.
Water by delivery
It is also an option to have your water delivered like I do. I have 2 water tanks, or balsas. One is for the house, which I have potable water delivered to, approximately 13,000 litres every 2-3 months (it holds 36,000 litres). The other tank is of roughly the same size, and is for the land/garden which is filled by rainwater collected from my roof. I conserve water wherever and whenever possible and the system works well for me.
However you get water: well, borehole, agricultural or delivery one thing is for sure. Whilst water does fall from the sky when you live off-grid, it is neither free nor easy no matter what anyone tells you!