Aquaponics Disaster Preparedness

By: Tawnya Sawyer

Boulder FloodTo say this past week has been a tough one for the communities where I live (Boulder, CO) and work (Longmont, CO) would be an extreme understatement.  Record rainfalls causing major floods have forced us all to focus strictly on life’s basics.  Is our home safe?  Is the drinking water safe? Are our friends and family safe and accounted for? Do we have power?  Can we run water into the sewage system? Is there a passable route to drive to work, and then get back home again?

Fortunately we’ve come through the disaster with relatively little damage.  We had some water in the basement, but because of two long nights spent running a shop-vac which we pumped out with a submersible pump, we kept the damage to just the carpets.  And since we had moved The Aquaponic Source out of our home six weeks earlier, the basement was almost totally empty.  Carpeting is the only thing that needs to be replaced.  We definitely count ourselves among the lucky ones.

All of this caused me to do a bit of thinking about aquaponics disaster preparedness – in other words, how do I keep my aquaponics system safe in times like these?  Here is what I’ve concluded.

  1. Aquaponics Disaster PreparednessBackup Aeration – I can’t emphasize enough that you risk the death of your fish and the failure of your aquaponics system by not having some form of automatic backup aeration on your fish tank.  This doesn’t just apply to disasters – last year a car ran into a power line near us that took out power to our neighborhood for about twelve hours.  Natural disasters, however, tend to go hand-in-hand with power outages.  On the afternoon of September 12th, which was the first true day of the crisis here, we lost power in Longmont for a couple of hours.  Only Matt and I were in the office, and we quickly realized that we had just brought about a hundred fish over from Boulder, but had never set up an AquaBackup system for them. Fortunately we had a prototype handy (we were out of the “official” versions that we sell) and our fish survived the weekend because of it.
  2. Cover your system – This rain event was incredibly rare for arid Colorado.  Prior to this past week, the record rainfall for a single storm was 7.4” set in 1969.  This storm, so far, has dumped nearly 17” of water.  Again, timing is everything and thank goodness we had moved the outdoor fish to Longmont days prior!  That aquaponics system would have been thrown completely out of whack had it still been active because of the extreme dilution of the nutrients, not to mention that the super high water levels would have endangered the fish.  If you live in an area where massive rainfalls like this are not so rare, like Florida or Hawaii, you should consider either having a permanent protective covering over your system, or a plan for quickly rigging one up if the need arises.
  3. Water source – The other critical resource in jeopardy during a disaster is your water supply.  While we are currently safe, surrounding mountain communities are being told to boil their water before drinking it.  Now imagine you are in one of those towns and you had the foresight to plan for both of the issues above…but the water in your aquaponics system is running low.  If you as standard practice, off-gas your system water using a reserve tank you will probably be just fine, since you will already have water set aside. But if you fill your tanks using municipal water straight out of the tap, perhaps with a chlorine filter, you could be in trouble.  My advice, if you have the space, is to add a tank or two to your system for off-gassing chlorine.  Then top up the water in your aquaponics system from this tank rather than straight from the tap. You will find that this system has the added winter benefit of giving the water a chance to warm up a bit from the extreme cold water that comes straight from the tap.

As I look outside onto our wet deck in these early morning hours, I’m feeling a bit sad about the lack of predictability we must sometimes face in our lives.  Unfortunately it seems that the best we can do when it comes to Mother Nature’s capriciousness is to just try to be prepared.