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Pumped Up In The Outdoors

Water has always been important in Southern California, but it has never been as valuable a resource as during this summer’s scorching weather and brutal drought conditions. For the past three years, the California Department of Water Resources has reported that the state received only a fraction of its average annual rainfall, which means there is less water in the reservoirs and aqueducts that supply our parks and communities. Beyond just using water more efficiently, many large properties and water companies are looking to diversify where they get their water by finding new sources of this so-called “liquid gold.”

The Irvine Ranch Outdoor Education Center in Orange County found a creative solution to the water problem by drilling a 200-foot-deep well to pump and store groundwater for future use on the property. Not only is the well quenching the thirst for irrigation water, it also is used as a staging area for teaching lessons about sustainable water and renewable sources of energy.

A Working Well

Owned and operated by the Orange County Council, Boy Scouts of America, the center is on 210 acres and serves local scout and YMCA groups, school outdoor education programs and other community youth organizations.

Since most young students have never seen a well before, having an opportunity to see how it is built gives them first-hand knowledge of the engineering feats required to get fresh water to their faucets.

The first 100 feet of the well consists of 6-inch solid pipe, the upper portion of which is surrounded by bentonite clay to seal the well off from surface-water contamination. The total diameter of the bored hole is 12 ¼ inches. From 100 to 200 feet deep, 6-inch slotted pipe is surrounded by Birdseye gravel.

Water flows through the gravel into the slotted pipe of the well-casing from an aquifer between 120 and 180 feet below the surface. The water in the aquifer is under pressure, and rises in the well-casing to 30 feet below the surface when water is not being pumped. This suggests that the water is flowing from a higher elevation.

The well is outfitted with a gauge that indicates the depth to the water surface in the well. There are plans to track the depth of the water surface when no water is being pumped, and to note any correlation between changes in local rainfall and water level in the well over time. The goal is to see if a discernible pattern emerges and what type of lag factor there is between the two. It also will be possible to note the effect of pumping water on the water level in the well.

Preliminary tests indicate that, with the solar-powered pump pumping 10 gallons per minute, the water level goes from 30 feet below the surface to 120 feet below the surface and stays there while pumping continues. Charting what happens at various rates of pumping will give a better picture of how water flows in the aquifer. Guests will help create the log books and learn about the principles of hydrology and hydraulics in the process.

Evidence Of Effort

Three water-pump system options were installed--hand pump, windmill and solar pump--to show the history of technology that has occurred in water distribution and delivery.

First, students learn how the Tonva Indians of the Santa Ana Mountains and early settlers depended on the surface flows of local rivers and streams, and how they mostly survived based on what was immediately accessible. After grasping subsistence practices, students are led through the operation of the hand pump, windmill and solar pump. At each station, students record the rate at which water is pumped, and discuss which method is the most efficient and provides the most water. Instructors also teach guests at each pumping station how local history and the development of Southern California cities, agriculture and industry were enabled and made easier by the engineering accomplishments of the twentieth century.

The three pumps also teach kids about renewable energies. Words like ”sustainable” or ”renewable” are tossed around these days without many people understanding the concepts behind them. With the water pump, groups start at the hand pump so they fully appreciate how much grueling work it takes to get water out of the ground and into their canteens. After establishing this principle, they move on to using wind power and solar power, which pump water at higher rates, and don’t require nearly as much physical labor. This activity reinforces an appreciation for technology, but also teaches students about what renewable energy is and how it differs from non-renewable sources of power, such as nuclear and coal power plants.

Once participants have extracted water from underground, they use testing kits to examine water samples for nine different parameters, including coliform bacteria, dissolved oxygen, nitrates and pH. During the activity, instructors teach the basics about watersheds and the typical point-source and non-point sources of pollution in local water supplies and aquatic ecosystems. Not only do students learn how society pollutes its resources and ecosystems, but they also learn how to clean up water pollution using treatment plants and natural methods, such as wetlands.

Edible Application

Ultimately, the water pumped from the well is stored, then gravity-fed into the camp’s irrigation system, which provides water for a two-acre, 187-tree citrus grove and raised-bed vegetable garden.

The water pump with its solar-, wind- and human-powered mill and well are the centerpieces of the center. Its programming allows young people to perform tasks common to Native Americans, Spanish settlers and Western ranchers in the 1700s and 1800s. With more than 30 varieties represented in the citrus grove, including mandarin, grapefruit, kumquat, lime, lemon and several varieties of orange trees, kids learn to harvest and make their own marmalade, and fresh fruit from the grove is served in the dining hall during meals and snacks.

The Ranch Camp also focuses on early agriculture and stewardship of the land with areas of study that include:

• Plants

• Animals

• Agriculture techniques

• Land management

• Water quality

• Food and nutrition

• The food chain.

Following the educational experience at the camp, young scholars will value water, soil, food and energy as the valuable resources they are.

Sean Noonan is the Lead Naturalist at The Irvine Ranch Outdoor Education Center ( For more information, contact Sean at

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