In Praise of Salamander Water Part Two: Keeping the Cistern on the Hill

Last week I told you how my wife Julia went to turn on the tap in the kitchen and we didn’t have water. I thought it might have been a salamander plugging up the works. It turned out our cistern was about to topple off the hill.

We get our water from a spring above our house. Here’s how it flows to the kitchen sink.
One of the salamanders in our cistern. Sometimes they stop up the plumbing and I have to rescue them (and us).

In this week’s post, I wanted to show you how we repaired the cistern and got the water flowing again.

The Leaning Tower of Cistern

I have always hated climbing the steep slope that runs from the horse pasture to the spring. It’s almost straight up a clay bank that runs through a forest with trees spaced too far apart to be good for handholds. Luckily, I only climb the hill every year or two to solve the minor emergencies that affect gravity water systems. All in all, it’s been a reliable system.

The slope. It’s about a two-hundred-foot climb to the spring.

Even though it’s covered, sometimes leaves fall into the spring and clog the intake pipe that runs to the cistern. Sometimes, a crayfish or salamander gets stuck in the same pipe. Every few years, the metal pipe that runs out of the bottom of the cistern clogs.

This year, when I went to check on why we didn’t have water, I found two problems. First, the pipe that ran the water from the bottom of the cistern to the house was leaking. It had drained all the water from the cistern. That was easy enough to fix with some polysulfide sealant and a short section of PVC pipe.

The new PVC riser. Note the salamander just to the left of the mesh screen on top of the riser.

More worrisome, though, was the cistern. It was leaning downhill at an alarming angle like it was going to topple off the hill. I was afraid to fill the cistern back up just so that didn’t happen.

The cistern is built of two sections of cement pipe. It’s ancient, probably seventy years old, and damn heavy. Each section of pipe weighs three hundred pounds plus the lid on top weighs another hundred. I wanted to save it if at all possible.

The cistern (left) and the spring (hole in the bank). It’s hard to see the lean in the cistern from this angle but trust me, it’s there. The cistern collects water from the spring and gravity sends it down a pipe to the cabin.

The cistern doesn’t have an overflow pipe that leads the water away from it when it’s full. It just pours over the front lip of the cistern, down the front face and out onto the ground. That system had worked fine for over half a century. Trouble was, the water overflowing from the cistern had undermined the cistern’s poured cement foundation.

I decided that, instead of replacing the cistern, I would pour a new cement foundation for it, one that would both support the cistern and lead the water away from it. I figured that was going to take about two thousand pounds of cement.

I didn’t fancy lugging thirty-three sixty-pound bags of cement up that steep, crappy path from the hay pasture to the cistern.

Luckily, my brother Christian and my nephew Alvin showed up.

Enter the Family

Christian and Alvin live in France. Christian and I grew up in Statesville, North Carolina, an hour from the farm. He settled in Paris, raised a family there but still returns now again to visit his old stomping grounds.

Alvin and Christian riding Brick and Pie. I thought it would be a good idea to show them a good time before I put them to work.
We ended up riding to the top of the mountain behind our cabin.
Okay, we ended up spending the night up there.

A few days after Christian and Alvin showed up, we went to Ford’s Feed and Seed, our local feed store, and bought a few dozen four-inch posts and about sixty lengths of four-four long t-posts. We cut each eight-foot post into three pieces, chopped steps into the steep bank that led to the cistern and made a flight of steps that looked more like a scale model of the stairs up Machu Pichu than anything else around here.

Alvin laying out the string that marks where the steps will go

While we were at it, we put in a new trail that connected the stairs to the cistern.

Alvin preparing to set the t-posts that hold the posts (behind him) that will hold the bottom side of the trail. Thanks, Alvin. I’m sure your computer programmer buddies back home will marvel at your new callouses.

The new steps and path made it a lot easier to carry the thirty-three bags of cement, and all the other gear we needed, from the pickup truck to the cistern.

Finally, we could start shoring up the cistern.

You can see the new steps up the slope in the background on the left. That’s Magneto and Cracker celebrating. Actually, they’re just horsing around.

The New Cistern Foundation

The first thing we did was clear all the dirt away from the foot of the cistern. What started out after breakfast as a bit of innocent scratching turned into a dirty big hole by lunchtime. It’s like filling a cavity. You have to get out all the wicked parts if it’s going to work.

The cavity hole

I built a mold around the hole and installed a drain trap. Alvin hauled most of the cement from the pickup up to the cistern and then we started mixing cement. Two days later, the new foundation was done.

Mixing cement. I’m proud to announce our cement contained 100% spring water.
The mold. The black pipe is the drain pipe that will lead the water away from the cistern.
The view from above. I covered the drain box in some plastic to keep the cement from plugging it up. The rebar coming out from under the cistern will give the cistern more support from below.
The completed new foundation. The water will now drain over the top of the cistern, down the front face, down the drain and drain away through a corrugated pipe. I built a screened cover to keep leaves from plugging the drain.
`Click on video to watch the time-lapse. We didn’t work quite this fast. (Christian Harberts footage)

Life With Water

You don’t appreciate water until you have to flush the toilet with water hauled up from the creek. You don’t appreciate water until the shower stops running. That’s how far it got before I finally tackled this project.

It’s wonderful having running water again.

Cheers! A toast to running water. And a shout out to Eddie Brown who hooked us up with the KBS stout.

Let me Tell You When the New Book Comes Out.

Work on my new book Trash to Triumph is coming along well. This week I edited the third draft of riding my mules Brick and Cracker through Nebraska on my way from North Carolina to Idaho.

Brick and Cracker walking across the Missouri River from Iowa into Nebraska. It was a hell of a crossing. You can read about it right here in an article I wrote called Nebraska Arrival.

I’d be happy to give you a heads up when the new book comes out. If you haven’t already, just sign up for the newsletter and I’ll give you a shout when Trash to Triumph comes out. The link to sign up is right here. (Link:


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