Gonna Keep on Moppin' Till I Reach the Highest Ground

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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From time to time someone will ask us for advice about buying a rural
property. At this time of year I am reminded of one of the most
important things to pay attention to if you are looking to buy an
existing house, or to build one. Be sure to check the place out at the
end of winter/beginning of spring. Make sure that the building is on
high ground

No really, I mean it!

We looked at this place in May when it was already warm and dry. So
we weren’t really thinking in terms of spring run offs and potential
flooding. If I’d known the challenges we were going to face with this
place I probably would have bought it any way because the price was
right and I really liked it. But having buildings that flood is a royal
pain in the *ss.

As I watched the devastating tsunami unfold in Japan, I was dealing
with a little “mini tsunami” of my own. Of course, there is no
comparison between what those people are experiencing and what we
experience when a few inches of water creeps into our garage/guesthouse.
But anyone who has experienced watching their home fill up with water
and their possessions getting wet has at least an inkling of the stress
and feeling of helplessness.

We have three buildings; a small, two-stall horse barn, a garage/guest
house, and our century-old farmhouse. We experience flooding in all of
our buildings almost every spring. I have started to dread March. In
March around here the ground is usually still frozen and if we get a lot
of rain, the water has nowhere to go. We all know that water flows down
and so during spring floods, the rainwater flows to the lowest points
on our property. If you build in the lowest area, there’s a good chance
the building will flood. Seems pretty basic.

The previous owners built the horse barn at the bottom of a gully. If
you stand near the horse barn you can see that all the ground around it
runs down to the barn. We’ve been told that when the previous occupants
kept horses here, the poor horses would be standing in 6 inches of
water in the spring.

Then they built the guesthouse and I wish I could say that they
learned their lesson but where did they build the guesthouse? At the
bottom of a gully. Really. No one got down on their hands and knees and
looked around, like a golfer on a green, and said you know, I’m thinking
in March when we get a big nasty rain, all the water will run down to
this building. Not the owner, not the contractor, or even the person who
poured the concrete slab. The guesthouse is slab on grade construction,
which means that they just poured a big concrete pad on to the gravel.
Then they bolted 2×6’s to the concrete and build the walls from there.

So now if the conditions in the spring are just right and the
rainwater collects on the ground near the guesthouse it will gradually
find its way through to the inside. Usually just the garage is affected,
but from time to time it gets into the main part of the building, as it
did this year. I had dug a trench from the building to the pond, but I
hadn’t taken the time to chip out the ice dam that had built up near the
downspout. I must have been really tired because I slept right through a
torrential downpour until about 5 am. Then I got up and went out to
check on the guesthouse. It was mopping time. Well actually first I
strapped on my head light and hacked away at the ice for an hour until I
could get the water flowing away from the building. Pardon my french,
but it was a clusterfcuk. We’ve had a bulldozer here to try and sculpt
the area around the building to drain the water away. I’ve put in gravel
where I thought it would help, but when the ground is frozen, nothing
seems to work. Thank goodness for a wet vac. They suck up water!

The main house also floods. When it was originally built in 1888
there was no basement. Years later the house was jacked up, supported
with big logs and a horse with a bucket was used to drag the sand out
from underneath the house. Then wide, thick concrete walls were built
and the house was lowered back down on to it. Most springs, as the snow
melts, groundwater will seep into the basement. Some years we’ve had
half a foot of water down there. We’ve learned to not use the basement.
Our freezer is down there, on top of concrete blocks and the cats’
litter boxes are down there too.  We can always tell when the basement
has begun flooding by the little wet cat footprints that start
appearing. The cats think it’s just great, and I picture them down there
having dragon boat races in their litter boxes.

When we tell people about the basement flooding every year they seem
appalled. They picture a finished room with drywall and carpeting and
sewage water backing up. It’s not like that all. Our basement is
unfinished – concrete floor and walls, and the water that floods it is
crystal clear groundwater. We like to joke that we have an indoor pool
for a week or so every year. If we lived on the grid we’d have a sump
pump in the sump well and it would keep the water at bay, but we just
don’t have the power to run one full time this time of year.

The first spring that we lived here I noticed one sunny day that the
batteries were getting sucked down. I couldn’t figure out what was
happening until Michelle asked me what equipment I was running as she
could hear the constant drone of something mechanical. I discovered that
the sump pump in the basement was running constantly. In August, I’d be
able to keep the basement drained by running the sump pump non-stop,
but in March/April with lots of cloudy rainy days, it’s just not worth
it. We see our yearly flood as a great opportunity for the basement
floor to get a really good cleaning.

So when you’re looking at that dream home, get down on the ground,
and look around 360°. Is the house higher or lower than the surrounding
area? If it’s on-grid and you trust the grid I guess it doesn’t matter
since you can just buy the electricity to run a sump pump. If you plan
on being off-grid remember that pumps suck up a lot of juice, so better
to buy or build a home that won’t flood. And don’t assume that a
contractor will have your best interest in mind. A lot of business
people take the path of least resistance. “Oh you want the house here,
no problem.” As opposed to “No, this is the WRONG place to build.”

In the inky darkness and pouring rain the other morning as I was
getting soaked from hacking away at ice to try and drain the lake beside
the guesthouse I kept asking myself how someone could have chosen to
build there, at the bottom of gully, especially after having already
made the mistake of building the barn in the wrong place. It seems
really basic to me, but apparently it’s not. So don’t make any
assumptions about builders or building locations. Picture a March
downpour and figure out where the rain will go. If the house has been
built and situated properly, it will be away from the building.

Photo by Michelle Mather.

For more information about Cam Mather and his books and DVDs visit www.aztext.com or www.cammather.com.

** The title of this blog is a play on the lyrics from Stevie Wonder’s song “Higher Ground.” Listen to it here;

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