I'm writing a story set in the immediate (and eventually distant) aftermath of the human race globally being given access to a runic magic system in the modern day. This... eventually goes very, very wrong. It's not entirely humanity's fault, but eventually the dangerous powers humanity is given access to, combined with the main villain causing all technology running on electricity to be unusable for the rest of her life (however long that winds up being), cause the complete and total collapse of human society.

Now, one of the things I want to do with this concept is show the evolution of a single location from quiet, modern, pre-magic New Jersey suburb, to different but still relatively stable post-magic New Jersey suburb, to ash-risen, self-sufficient, magipunk post-apocalyptic city-state. The problem with this, of course, is that usually when the apocalypse hits, 99% of people on the planet die, and most of the remaining 1% who survive had to pack up and move somewhere more conducive to life without modern infrastructure. So if I want my story's pre-collapse setting to be the same as its post-collapse setting, I'm tasked with creating a location where staying put is actually a wise and viable idea: a place that has everything it needs to function post-collapse, as long as its residents can get their act together in time.

Designing this location is a complicated task, so I've decided to split it up into several parts. And to start, I'd like to focus on the third-highest tier on the rule of threes of survival, right after oxygen and shelter: water.

What would be the best source of water for a soon-to-be post-apocalyptic settlement that used to be a quiet American suburban town?

The criteria for best answer:

1: Believability. If this is something I can put in this town without it qualifying as a plot contrivance, awesome, that's ideal. The fewer rare things this town just so happens to simultaneously coincidentally have before the apocalypse happens, the better for reader suspension of disbelief. This should ideally be something that wouldn't remotely be out of place in our average middle to upper middle class suburban town.

2: Reliability. While this can be supplemented with other efforts to gather supplies, for the most part this will be what the town depends on to stay hydrated, so it needs to be consistent and not prone to things going wrong. This needs to provide the post-apocalyptic water needs for the town with enough consistency that they can compensate for any shortfalls.

3: Quantity. Obviously. More water provided by this source is better.

4: Potability. While the magic humans have access to means that most of the town isn't susceptible to disease anymore and could conceivably make do with less sanitary water sources, everyone under the age of 13 has no such luck, and so the closer this water is to being drinkable, and the easier it can be made so, the better.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks. (a) You have magic... what are the limitations of the use of magic to provide water for the settlement? (b) What research have you already done? Why would rivers and lakes (which exist in NJ) not meet your needs? (c) Have you picked a specific location (city/town)? If not, let me recommend that you do and we can provide specific answers for that specific location, rather than simply listing the obvious. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 28, 2019 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ How many people are we supporting, here? 200? 20? 2000? $\endgroup$
    – MarielS
    Mar 28, 2019 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH Thanks for the heads up about language. Just fixed it. EDIT: Or not. Thanks for catching that last one. As for your other points: B, no magic the people have access to can create water. There’s magic that lets them move water to a limited degree, or move through or over water more effectively, but none that lets them create more. C, I didn’t want to come into this with any assumptions about what the best water source was. Rivers and lakes did occur to me, but I don’t know how well they fit all of my criteria in practice. D, the town is fictional, I don’t plan on using a real place. $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2019 at 23:36
  • $\begingroup$ Can magic purify water? Desalinate? The best solution is the one needed for the town. A generic list may miss things appropriate to a real town. It's curious that you didn't bring in rivers & lakes because you didn't "know how well they fit all of my criteria" and yet you want us to provide answers with even less criteria than you gave yourself. Even if your town is fictional, I'd recommend you choose a real one for these questions. Remember the old writer's adage, "write about what you know." Finally, remember to edit your question with all these clarifications. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 28, 2019 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ BTW, the reason I'd like you to pick a real town to represent your fictional town is, for example, the possibility that the town's existing aquastructure (if that's a word), which may include piping, aquaducts, canals, resevoirs, etc., can be believably supported post-apocalypse. Without this point of reference, at least half of those ideas may not come to an average answerer's mind (and how to use them post-apocalypse, not at all). $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 28, 2019 at 23:53

5 Answers 5


A bore/well

A lot of places use a bore or a well for watering gardens. A lot of them are perfectly drinkable. Others can have an aftertaste. Others undrinkable.

If the water is drinkable, you could hook up a windmill or a hand pump. An existing windmill can be collected from a rural area to replace the electric pump

Alternately a lot are areas have natural springs so the water flows out of the ground naturally. This is where the spring water companies get the water they bottle from.


A small, tight knit community at a fair distance away from a city center, out into the boonies. A community or maybe several dozen houses that ran on a communal well. The electric pump for the well will no longer work, but its a ready made one that does exist that can be jerry rigged to make it work.

I use to live in a community 20 km from a small city, on the side of a mountain. there was maybe 100 houses on a shared community well. If most of the people died and the survivors worked together, such a situation would give them a leg up in terms of water supply than others that was dependent on city water. (Plus there was a fresh water lake near by and a stream that ran through my backyard, so water issue was not top of my list there for survival.)


I think you need a whole list of things:

  • Running surface water / easily accessible underground water
  • Means of retention (buckets, ponds, water towers)
  • knowledge

The two first ones are easily explainable: when you are concentrating on survival, you go for the easiest means to an end first. When you have a community with no outdoors survival skills, they are going to flounder around, trying all the old methods of getting water, and fail(no electricity for the pumps). You are also going to quickly get a waste evacuation problem as well, by the way.

Once the immediate need for water is secure, the people with knowledge on how to get easier or more bountiful access to the resources are going to become powerful within their communal structure. The same thing goes for the person that remembers that there is a library with books on anything and everything within a 20-minute walk. Because we can easily imagine that an old-style handle pump could help, but does anyone know how to make one?


A river which is known to run all year round, and the lakes which conveniently store that river water for us.


100% believable. This is how many towns got their water for much of history, and how many people in the world still get their water. The main difference for your scenario is that you might have to go walk to the water source instead of having it piped into your home (though, if the place has knowledgeable people, it could still be piped in).

Personally, I live within a mile of a river and within a few miles of multiple other rivers and lakes.

This is one of the primary reasons why many settlements were made along rivers or by lakes throughout history.

Here is a list of rivers in your chosen setting of New Jersey.


Depends on the specific river or lake, up to 100% reliability for many of them. There are many rivers and lakes all over the place which provide usable water all year round, such as the Hudson River in your chosen setting.


As much as you can shake a stick at. Many rivers and lakes provide all the water that thousands or even millions of people could ever want, and not only for drinking.


This is the only one of your metrics that you may have a harder time reaching 100% requirements satisfaction for.

To continue with the Hudson example, whether you get freshwater or saltwater from it depends on where and when you take the water. From Wikipedia's Hudson salinity:

New York Harbor, between the Narrows and the George Washington Bridge, has a mix of fresh and ocean water, mixed by wind and tides to create an increasing gradient of salinity from the river's top to its bottom. This varies with season, weather, variation of water circulation, and other factors; snowmelt at winter's end increases the freshwater flow downstream.

The salt line of the river varies from the north in Poughkeepsie to the south at Battery Park in New York City, though it usually lies near Newburgh.

Millions of people around the world drink from contaminated water sources. So even if it is contaminated, technically that doesn't rule it out for your use. Obviously, the preference is for clean water...

Wikipedia's Hudson pollution:

The Hudson River's sediments contain a significant array of pollutants, accumulated over decades from industrial waste discharges, sewage treatment plants, and urban runoff. The overall water quality in the river has improved significantly since the 1990s, however.

Even if a water source is contaminated, you can filter and/or sterilize it. Use water filters to remove chemical contamination, then heat to sterilize.

Water filters scavenged from stores initially will clean water for many people for years - you can use them past their limits and expiration dates if necessary. Long term, you can create your own filters for macroscopic contaminants with sand or dirt and for microscopic chemical contamination using charcoal powder.

Dealing with saltwater would require more effort, and the easiest way to do that is to boil the water and re-condense the water vapor. That requires a lot of energy and would not be sustainable for a large population.

Many people in the world drink water from sources that are contaminated by feces. You would have that as a concern too now. Lots of freshwater sources will be clean enough to drink straight out from, but if you want to be safe just filter then heat-sterilize it first.

Required Knowledge

You will be able to sustain a larger population much sooner and much more easily if you have a sufficient number of people in the community who already have the required knowledge, or if you have a few of them but can spread the knowledge quickly enough.

This could also cause problems, if you have millions of people who all need to live off the land and who get just enough knowledge flowed to them to know how to start fires and how to use them. Millions of people descending upon the local forests who light daily bonfires for cooking, sterilizing and/or distilling drinking water, and keeping warm will quickly deforest the area and leave it a barren plain before you know it.


This was actually bit of an issue since after an apocalypse otherwise excellent solutions such as rivers or ground water might be contaminated with all kinds of pollutants. Filtration would help obviously. But I am not entirely sure how to make sure your filter is not itself contaminated with weird stuff post-apocalypse.

So I'd just go with collecting rain water. This is still susceptible to drought but most ways of getting water are for obvious reasons. Basic rationale here is to focus on what you'd have a surplus of post-apocalypse.

First thing you'd have more than you'll ever need is various containers for storing liquids. World is full of large fuel tanks you'll no longer be able to fill with fuel. Large chemical tanks for chemicals no one can produce enough to fill 1% of the tank. Various bottles and canisters of plastic, glass and metal just lying around by millions.

So having an intermittent source that requires water storage should be just fine. And indeed given abundance of available storage and the very real danger of the climate being totally messed up or your water sources getting contaminated probably a very good idea.

The second thing you have and abundance of is large surfaces that do not absorb rain and come with drainage. Think roofs, parking lots, roads. Many buildings will probably have collapsed but collapsing or burning down a typical road or parking lot requires actual effort even with magic. With shortage of cars these large surfaces do not really have anything else to do than collect rain water.

And in any first world country all those surfaces already come with a drainage system that collects all that water. Just clean it up and set up a system for storing all that water. Maybe use a wind mill to pump it up into tanks?


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