Droughts and Flooding Rains

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

Lord Howe Island lies several hundred kilometres off the Australian mainland. Yet Dorothea Mackellar’s words ring as true here as they do in Broken Hill, Bourke, or beyond.

Summer was tough this year. At Thornleigh Farm, we didn’t begin well. Two factors loomed large over the property as the temperature rose:

First, the house roof. The house roof is the primary catchment area for the farm’s water supply. During the months leading up to summer, the roof was being replaced: Little water was being collected.

Second, an error led to the loss of a substantial amount of water from one of our massive water tanks. An error we will learn from, and never repeat again!

Had the summer been mild, we might have recovered. It was not. Across the whole island, grass browned, trees wilted, and streams dried up. Water reserves maintained by the local authorities were called on by the community.

Summer drought Lord Howe Island Thornleigh Farm
Luna standing in a dry paddock in summer – Her diet was supplemented with banana leaves

Our farming strategy depends on being able to irrigate the gardens by drawing down large reserves of rainwater during dry periods. With our tanks running dry, we could not sustain the gardens. Irrigation had to stop. Water was preserved for the house and the animals. Our crops wilted.

This was a trying time. Yet we have emerged stronger. Over the past months, replacement of the house roof has been completed. Huge tropical gutters, installed along extended eves, channel water towards enlarged downpipes and into newly refurbished underground tanks.

Water tank lord howe island
Re-concreting, sealing, and lining an underground tank

We can now hold tens of thousands of litres of water in those tanks. Submerged pumps, automatically actuated by float switches, drive water to the main (and much larger) above ground storage tanks whenever the water rises above preset levels.

Water tank Lord Howe Island
A submerged pump sitting inside a newly lined underground tank

The difference this work has made cannot be overstated. At a personal level, I can attest to the dread I used to feel when heavy rain began pelting at the old house roof. Water would flow in through the ceiling, the windows, and towards the doors as it ran past damaged gutters and through rusted roof sheeting.

Now, the roar of rain can be enjoyed again. It means only one thing: A torrent of water flowing into our water tanks. And has the water ever poured! Big low pressure systems arrived in April, bringing heavy rain and taking our tanks from empty to full in no time.

I love this sunburnt country, especially this island portion. Lord Howe is a jewel upon the sea. A ragged mountain outcrop, joined by little mini-plains. Now, at Thornleigh, we will mitigate her droughts by harnessing the flooding rains.

Topping Up

Nearly everything we do at Thornleigh Farm is structured around water. How to harvest it, store it, deploy it, measure it, and more. Recently, two water-related projects have been underway: A new roof for the family residence, and the restoration of a well.

Work on the new house roof includes the installation of massive new gutters, which will help us harvest more water. But the installation of those gutters takes a long time, and while the house has no gutters, we are not collecting water.

Thornleigh Farm Lord Howe Island
Water pouring into a tank from the well

This has put significant strain on our crop irrigation efforts. Recently, our supply of water for irrigation ran very low. Fortunately we had prepared for this eventuality by restoring the well, and installing underground pipes to transfer water from the well to the irrigation tanks.

Thornleigh Farm Lord Howe Island
A diesel water pump bringing water out of the well and toward the tanks

Consistently sucking large quantities of water out of the ground is not an environmentally sustainable method of irrigating our island farm. That’s why we’re investing so heavily in rainwater harvesting and storage. But in this unique case, with no gutters on the house and water levels running low, it was appropriate to draw from our backup source.

Thornleigh Farm Lord Howe Island
Pipe drawing water from the bottom of the well

In future, we will no doubt need to occasionally call on the reserves of the well. It’s comforting to know that our irrigation system is now sufficiently developed to allow us to draw from the well when needed.

Over Our Heads

The family residence at Thornleigh Farm is, in parts, over one hundred years old. The roof is not quite that old, but it was leaking all over the place and rusting through. It has had its day.

Thornleigh Farm Lord Howe Island
Pieces of old roofing ready to be carted off for disposal

Any restoration of the Thornleigh farm was going to have to involve a new roof, and a new roof it now has. Matthew Retmock has been pounding, nailing, drilling, and hammering away to apply brand new corrugated iron sheets.

Thornleigh Farm Lord Howe Island
New corrugated sheets warming in the morning sun

Roofing is important to protect a house, to be sure. But Thornleigh’s roof is doubly important: It acts as the largest rainwater catchment on the farm. Rainwater is utterly crucial to our farming efforts. To that end, Josh Owens has been installing brand new 200mm gutters to feed off the new roofing.

Thornleigh Farm Lord Howe Island
New gutters sitting ready for rain

A new roof and guttering have two practical benefits: First, the family home is now secure against the weather; Second, we will be able to collect much more rainwater for irrigation. Aside from the practicalities, all this new metal is helping a grand old home stand proudly again.