In our first year here, we experienced drought. While it didn’t get too bad in this exact location, we definitely saw our neighbours and friends having problems. In the same summer, we were also affected by raging bushfires in Australia (shown above). It was an eerie reminder that we are surrounded by trees, and we could experience much worse than some weird light ourselves.

To my mind, the two biggest risks on this property are drought, and fire. To survive both of these things, we need water.

I’ve talked about the excellent drainage on this property before. I hate it. Our property is mostly hills and valleys. There’s a lot of gravity involved. Most of the water that falls on our land, leaves our land rapidly by design.

Shortly after we made the offer to purchase this property, I bought a weather station. The morning after possession was transferred, I was here setting it up. I have almost a year’s worth of data now, and that data tells me a lot.

The average rainfall here is supposed to be pretty good. According to NIWA, we should get almost 1600mm per year. In our first 11 months, we’ve received more than 1200mm. That’s not too bad with climate change kicking in, a drought in the middle, and with the wettest month yet to come.

Every time we get good rainfall, I can’t stop updating the spreadsheet I have that helps me understand where we are in relation to the average, and what our deficit is. 11 months of data is nowhere near significant enough to show trends. But we have experienced 5 or 6 large dumps of rain (80mm+). These high rainfall events make up nearly half of our total rainfall.

weather data for our property August 2019-June 2020

There were also 4 months (November-February) where we received less than 50% of the average monthly rainfall. We do get rain, and we get a decent amount of it. It just doesn’t fall in a pattern that is very useful to growing stuff.

I believe that our drainage exacerbates the effects of drought. It’s too good at its job. When we get a big rain dump, the drainage kicks in and it all flows away again. These rainfall patterns are only expected to get worse. The dry months are likely to get dryer, and the winter downpours are likely to get bigger. We need to be doing every clever trick we can think of to hold onto the water within our boundaries, for as long as possible.

How much water do we lose? Here’s a video I took this week of it running out along a section of our bush after 100mm of rain.

There’s a rain-fed pond in our bush block. It’s beautiful, and we were so excited when we found it. The water level goes down in summer, but it has a pretty large catchment and one of these large rainfall events can fill it up nicely. By my count, there are at least another 4 spots on our grazing land that may have held water in a similar way in the past. Until someone ran around with a digger and sorted that all out.

Pond surrounded by NZ Native Bush

Our land can naturally hold water. Mother Nature designed it that way. But at some point, someone has intervened and prioritised extra pasture over water-holding capacity. We are not unique. This is something that still happens on farms around the country.

Beyond our property, it contributes to regular flooding further downstream in a community where flooding is a well-known and intensively-managed problem.

Our future wetland is one example of a place that should hold water. In this area, I’d like to revert back to what Mother Nature intended, for no other reason than because it’s what that land should be. Perhaps with some tweaks to make it feasible as a recreational area and walking track.

Panorama of our 'main paddock'

But our ‘main paddock’ (above) is where I’m planning to put a lot of interesting stuff. It has a lot of land-area, and a lot of gravity. It’s pretty much exactly what I dreamed of when we were searching for a place to purchase. It means I get to re-design the way the water works, and use it to the benefit of my plants and trees.

I plan to use observation and earthworks to redesign the drainage system. For our farmer of the past who dug our drains, the goal was to get rid of the water as fast as possible. My goal is to keep the water within our boundaries for as long as possible. I want to make it take the longest possible path, and travel through as many clever water-holding features as I can possibly think of.

Think of Wellington’s bucket fountain – that’s how I want to design my property. Most of the rain landing here would end up in the system. It will travel past trees, and be encouraged to sit around for a while. It will slowly collect and filter into the groundwater system. Drains, swales, ponds and dams will overflow into each other, zig-zagging around the paddock, holding as much as possible. Until the water reaches the bottom of the hill and eventually (slowly, and delayed from the runoff from other properties), re-joins the main water courses.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t ever overflow into the water courses – we would use all the water that fell on our property. But the reality of our weather patterns means we need to be prepared for torrential dumps, which means the overflow system will be important.

It’s something I’ve academically known was possible for a long time. I’ve been recording our rain data and wandering about in rainstorms observing the water for as long as I have owned the place for a reason. The thing I wasn’t entirely sure of, was how to actually go about doing it.

I had been considering an earthworks course at Zaytuna Farms in Australia, but for a lot of reasons, this has never worked out. Somewhere along the line however, I was introduced to Brad Lancaster, and I suspected I’d found the ‘how’.

Brad’s written the bible when it comes to harvesting water. It comes in two volumes. Volume One shows you the theory, Volume Two shows you how to do it yourself.

The problem was, the books were an investment. Not because they were particularly expensive, but because the shipping to New Zealand cost more than the books themselves. However, with the world the way it is, I figured now was the best moment to ensure The Outpost had a copy.

A few weeks later they were in my mailbox. I’ve got what I need.

Flicking through them, my head is already full of ideas. I’ve been out this week digging out drains. I’ve been getting soaked learning how it all works here. When my best friend popped in this week to say hi, I looked like a drowned rat.

Kat and Charis at The Outpost, June 2020

But with more observation, a little experimentation, some digging, and some clever thinking, we should be able to design our way to resilience against the things that threaten us most.