Rick and Molly's Moat Creek Adventure #5

Date: April 27, 2006
From: Molly Morgan <morganm@sdsc.edu>
Subject: #5: Rick and Molly's Moat Creek Adventure

(for the illustrated version http://www.amazingpossibilities.org/moatcreek/adventure20060401.html)

Dear Friends and Family:

Wow, eight months have passed since we last wrote! But after a long period of delays and inactivity, things have really been hopping since the first of the year -- the boundary line adjustment, our new land partners Robbin and John, composting toilets, parties with chainsaws, solar system upgrades, well drilling, community activism. Pheww! New pictures start on the website http://www.amazingpossibilities.org/moatcreek with picture #147.

Boundary Line Adjustment: COMPLETED !

We were beginning to think it would never happen, but more than two years after Rick initially purchased the land, the boundary line adjustment (BLA) is finally completed. (If you want to refresh your memory of this complicated saga, see newsletter #4.) This process is long partly because our plan had to be approved by two government bodies, Mendocino County and the Coastal Commission, both of which are overworked and understaffed (especially the County).

At the end of October, Molly was able to attend our hearing in Ukiah at the county Planning Department offices. It did not last long, and because all the details had been so well handled by the fellow we hired to help us through the process, our application was approved right away. The hearing must be followed by a ten-business-day waiting period, during which time any of our neighbors or other offices in the County could appeal the decision, and then another ten-day period at the Coastal Commission for the same reason.

Except . . . we didn't hear anything for a long time. The problem: our paperwork, which was supposed to go from the County office in Ukiah to the Coastal Commission office in Eureka, was mailed (along with everyone else's paperwork that day) to the San Francisco office instead. People finally started calling to find out if their deals had been approved . . . which eventually led to the discovery of the missing paperwork . . . which eventually led to trying to find it in the San Francisco office . . . which eventually led to finally getting it to Eureka . . . and then (and only then!) could the second ten-day period begin. As you might imagine, locating this misplaced paperwork was not first on anyone's to-do list. So the waiting periods didn't actually end until two months later on December 30!

With signed approvals from the County and Coastal Commission, it was time to draw up the legal papers to record revised deeds. Now we discovered to our chagrin that even though Rick had approved the surveyor's drawing of the changed boundary lines six weeks earlier, our surveyor still hadn't sent them to the County Surveyor (another backlogged office), PLUS our surveyor still had to come out to our land and put markers into the ground at the new boundary line points. We learned that surveyors don't work in the rain . . . and now we were in the rainy season. Finally we got some clear weather in early February, and after a couple of weeks the iron pins were in the ground and the paperwork filed with the county. Our BLA consultant called in a favor with the County Surveyor to process our revised legal property descriptions quickly (turns out Jim used to head the planning department for the County, and he seems to know how to finesse everyone), and then we were ready to draw up the deeds. This meant it was time for a final meeting with Riley Keith (our neighbor) and John and Robbin (who would become our land partners) to go over all the final details one last time.

Coincidences again! We were very pleased that Riley's daughter, Marina, who had been such a help to us before, was available for the meeting -- and we managed to schedule it just before she left the country for another extended period. The meeting went extremely well. We noticed a few errors on the draft deeds, which were subsequently corrected. Escrows were opened, lots of pieces of paper were signed, money was reallocated, and now Rick has 60 more acres of land and two land partners!

(By the way, if anyone knows a California-licensed land surveyor who's interested in living in a beautiful place, send them to Mendocino County. There aren't enough up here, and their phone would never stop ringing.)

Robbin and John Move Onto The Land

John and Robbin, our new land partners, used to live in Riley's house when they were land partners with him. In October of 2004, the relationship had become so strained that they found a place to rent in Point Arena. When their one-year lease was up, their landlady decided to sell the house, so last fall it was time for them to move onto the land. They had purchased a well-used, 32-foot fifth-wheel trailer last spring, which John had intended to fix up and resell, but they decided to live in it instead.

This is a trailer with a history. The original owners had it parked in a place where neighbors objected to it looking out of place, so they painted some artwork to make it blend in with the forest. It subsequently blew over in a ferocious wind storm (which also took out 600 young trees), but amazingly, except for some dents, it survived quite intact. The owners had moved east so they sold it for salvage to a friend of John and Robbin, and his son lived in it for a couple of years. It hasn't travelled much, but this thing has some "mileage" on it.

We were grateful for the opportunity to help John and Robbin get settled on our land, since they had done so much for us when we first decided to buy the land up here. Now, in addition to hooking them up with propane, electricity, water, and phone, we were able to share our newly acquired trailer knowledge as they figured out how to use various appliances and systems, several of which failed after a few weeks of use and had to be repaired. While Rick and John were working out the bugs in the phone line, we had a few days in which there was a lot of line bleed (we could hear each other's conversations almost as if we had a party line). Turns out that one of the junction boxes slipped off the branch and got an inch of water it; we literally sounded like we were under water! But all that got sorted out and we've had no problems since.

John and Robbin's trailer is right in front of slash pile #1. Site choices were limited because of the need to be in a flat spot near water, electricity, and gas. There's nothing like having neighbors 42 feet away! So we see each other a lot, and we're still sorting out protocols, like phoning before coming over (even though we can stick our heads out the window and shout).

The infrastructure we had on the land for our living convenience was easy to scale up from two people to four . . . we had capacity for three phone lines, 5,000 gallons of water storage, 300 gallons of propane, and a lot of electrical battery capacity from the solar panels (with a generator backup). Well, all infrastructure except . . . you guessed it, the toilet. (Did you really want to hear about this again??)

Beyond the Envirolet

According to its manufacturer, the Envirolet -- our composting toilet in the shed -- is designed to handle the bodily elimination of two people on a full-time basis (and up to four over occasional weekends). As we described in newsletter #3, it works primarily by evaporating the liquid (which is about 90% of what we excrete) and then composting what's left with the addition of some peat moss. Except for our early-stage overflow experience, the Envirolet had worked fine for us, but Rick and Molly weren't really testing it fully because we weren't both on the land on a full-time basis. As soon as we learned Robbin and John were moving in, however, we knew we had to come up with a bigger-capacity solution. We removed a tray of compost from the Envirolet for the first time, but the Envirolet quickly filled up. Then we learned that the toilet in John and Robbin's trailer was totally unsatisfactory.

Molly started researching other options and designs, motivated by the positive experience she'd had last summer with the composting toilets at Emerald Earth (where more than a dozen people live full time and up to 30 people come during weekend work parties). She finally recommended a system using 20-gallon trash barrels; each time someone makes a deposit in the barrel, they add a scoop of sawdust to create the right carbon-to-nitrogen ratio that allows microorganisms to chow down and turn it all into compost. When one barrel fills up, we simply relocate it to a composting area where we let it sit covered for a few months while we put a new barrel into operation in the toilet. The problem was we needed to have some sort of structure to put it in and get it built (the shed is too small). After a couple of months of discussing options, the four of us agreed on the final plan in late December, hoping we could build the structure during the week between Christmas and New Year's (John is a professional builder). It was not to be. The heavens opened up and it rained and rained and rained and rained. Would you believe 15 inches of rain in three weeks? How about 10 inches during the 10-day holiday? The ground was absolutely soaked. Rick cleared the toilet site with the tractor anyway (putting deep ruts in the ground doing so), but it was still way too wet to start building. By mid-January John was finally able to start, but between weather and work commitments, it's been a slow process. You can see in the pictures on our web site how far we've gotten; we're hoping to have it in operation very soon.

Over the last couple of years we've learned a disappointing truth. Manufacturers of both yard composters (for grass, leaves, kitchen scraps) and small composting toilets like the Envirolet make it sounds like composting is so simple: just put stuff in the top and compost comes out the bottom. 'Tis not quite so easy. Since everything rots, compost will eventually happen no matter what. But it does take some knowledge to make sure the process doesn't smell, attract unwanted insects or critters, or take a very long time. If these kinds of problems occur when composting yard clippings, it's inconvenient but not such a big deal. When it's happening with human excrement.... well, not only YUCK, but it can also be a health hazard. As it turns out, the small compartment of the Envirolet requires a fair amount of managing "the mass" to keep it properly aerated and composting; it turns out this is a problem of this particular type of composting toilet. But it doesn't need to be that way, and we are learning a lot about how to make human excrement into useful fertilizer without a lot of work and without polluting our drinking water. If anyone wants to know more, let us know! Molly is becoming quite knowledgeable and passionate about the subject, but like our land partners, most of you probably would rather hear about, oh, say, the solar panels.

Solar Power for Cloudy Days

Last month Rick got a good deal on six new panels because they were factory seconds. They work just like perfect ones, however, and once they were installed they have really made a huge difference in the amount of juice we get in just one hour of sunlight! With two trailers drawing on the electrical system, this has been a big help. During the short days of winter, every minute of sunshine is important, and now we can capture much more electricity, even on hazy and cloudy days. This means less need for the generator and much less propane use. As you can see from the pictures, the new panels are in a rack just lying on the ground. Soon we will put in posts for the racks to attach to the shed wall.

We've had one major "oops" this winter with our solar power. We forgot to check the water level in the batteries regularly enough, and it got really low. The day we discovered this, John and Rick poured literally gallons of distilled water to the 16 batteries in our array (remember: these are really big batteries). We're not sure of the consequences of this. The batteries seem to be operating normally, but this episode may have shortened their life span.

Our learning curve with the solar power has been well worth it. Winter storms take the power out several times a year for those on the grid, but we have never been without electricity!

Another learning opportunity for us has been the difference in solar arc in winter, when the lower the sun is in the sky, the more interference from the tall trees nearby. Around winter solstice, the sun can reach our solar panels only five hours a day. Surprisingly, shadows from the trees cut the electricty production to almost zero for about one hour a day! That meant we were losing about 20% of the potential recharging time when we needed it most. But we found a way to solve that problem, too . . .

Chainsaw Cocktail Party

Soon after Robbin and John moved onto the land, we were blessed by a few days of beautiful weather, so they arranged a very impromptu Friday afternoon cocktail party for a few friends. One of them cuts trees for a living and had all his chainsaws with him (they come in many different sizes). This was our chance to remove the mostly dead bishop pines to the south of us that were blocking the sun's access to our solar panels in the winter, so Jeff offered to get them out of the way. While sipping martinis (John used to be a professional bartender), we watched dead trees fall down.... an entertainment specialty here in Mendo. Since the next day was cloudy, we didn't get immediate gratification, but a few days later we were able to see what a remarkable difference it made.

One More Tool

We quickly realized that it would be much more cost-effective to purchase a log splitter than continue to rent one, so we purchased one in the fall. Molly is happy because this is one tool she can use by herself! After Rick cuts trees into lengths, she can split them for hours on end. It's still very satisfying to turn slash piles into firewood.

And no, so far we haven't tipped it over.

Well.... That's a Deep Subject

Robbin and John were eager to drill a well as soon as possible, and Rick was keen to research and design a water storage and delivery system. So in the fall we had a couple of dowsers come to the land and all recommended the same area near our gate. We got a recommendation for a driller from a friend, and Rick, Robbin, and John met with him and liked him. We had hoped to start the drilling on December 3, but yet another saga unfolded. While drilling another well, Ray's main rig got stuck in the mud on a hillside during the deluge in December, so he had to put another older rig back into use, which required a fair amount of repair. In the meantime, Rick and John spent time clearing the site and preparing a pad for two 5000-gallon tanks. They also talked about how to design the plumbing. The site of the well is about 2000 feet from the homesite. The good news is that it's also about 200 feet above us, so we'll have plenty of water pressure from gravity. The bad news is that's a lot of pipe to lay to deliver the water! Rick researched and bought a solar-powered pump for the well, so whenever the sun is shining, the tanks will be filling up. When combined with the two 2500-gallon tanks we already have, we'll have a total of 15,000 gallons of water storage, enough for personal use and gardens as well as a resource should we ever have a forest fire.

After months of delay, Ray finally started drilling on February 14. Then the nail-biting started. We did not hit water at the volume and depth one dowser had predicted, so we kept going deeper. After three days we called it quits, drilling 305 feet and getting a little over two gallons a minute. With well drilling, you pay by the foot, so the deeper you go, the more expensive it is, and you pay for it whether you hit water or not.

The saga still isn't over, however -- even though it's been more than two months since the drilling, the rig is still in the ground! Ray has had problems cleaning out and casing the well, plus personal delays, plus weather delays, plus no-crew-showing-up delays. Sooner or later, though, he'll be done and then we'll test the water and start installing the pipe through the woods. Stay tuned.

Did We Mention it Rains Here?

We got the 100-year flood in December. Check out the before-and-after pictures of the Garcia River! Rick and Molly had hoped to celebrate New Year's with friends in Anderson Valley, but there was no way to get there. If the main road is flooded..... well, you stay home! Normally it rains 40 inches between November and May in this part of the country, but by April 1 we already had 45 inches.

What's Up Next

With the BLA finally completed, we are beginning serious talks with John and Robbin about what and where and how we're going to use the land. Molly learned a lot during her three months last summer at Emerald Earth and met some people who may be useful for us in the upcoming phase of this project. We're collecting opinions and advice where we can get it. Figuring out how we'll manage the land partnership is key; many of our goals are similar to Robbin and John's goals, but they are not identical. More on this in upcoming newsletters.

Molly has been getting involved with a few local groups. The ones she's most excited about are those working on economic localization -- people figuring out how we can provide essentials like food and energy in our own region rather than depending on far-away sources. Addressing these issues provides a natural platform to bring people of various persuasions together in community-building. She's also been going to board meetings for the Arena Renaissance Company, the nonprofit that puts on local theater productions and owns the building where the movies are shown. She's meeting lots of people but taking it slowly for making commitments until she feels sure about where she wants to devote her time.

Rick is still busy with his consulting gig at the Classroom of the Future Foundation in San Diego, and lately he's augmented this with several volunteer efforts to save the little airports in San Diego from encroachment by developers. But with the plane, he flies up to Point Arena as many weekends as work and weather allow.

That's it for now!

hugs to all,

Rick and Molly

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