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California Drought: A Run On Rain Barrels

February 7, 2014

By The San Jose Mercury News

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With California facing dire water shortfalls after the driest year in recorded state history, Gov. Jerry Brown has called on residents of the Golden State to conserve water "in every way possible."

I feel like I am doing my part. Last year, we installed low-flow toilets. We have mostly drought-tolerant landscaping and wood chips instead of a green lawn. And we put a bucket in the shower every morning to capture water that we then use for our potted plants.

Next on the list: rain barrels! It`s not raining right now, but when it does, wouldn`t it be great to capture as much rain as possible that falls from the sky?

I figured that I could buy a couple of cheap rain barrels, stick them under the downspouts of our Oakland house and be done with it. We have one 60-gallon rain barrel already that we got a few years ago, when the city of Oakland had them available at a discount. But there`s a lot more to learn about rain barrels than I first realized.

For one thing, the East Bay Municipal Utility District doesn`t have a rain barrel program. That was surprising: I assumed that local water agencies would be making rain barrels widely available to customers, given the severity of the drought.

"While we too are eager for any rain to fall, I would caution your readers to consider the limited yield that rain barrels offer in our Mediterranean climate," said Abby Figueroa, a spokeswoman for EBMUD, which serves 322,000 homes from Crockett to Berkeley, Oakland and south through the San Ramon Valley. "There is more potential to save water by finding and fixing leaks and making adjustments to irrigation schedules."

Rain barrels come in an astonishing variety of shapes, sizes and models, costing anywhere from roughly $125 for a 60-gallon barrel to several thousand dollars for larger systems. A screen on the top is key to keep mosquitoes from breeding.

So I called in Tony Poeck, a water-wise man who is widely known as one of the East Bay`s leading rain catchment experts. An EPA certified landscape water auditor, Poeck is the owner of Indra Designs, a small company that specializes in stormwater management, rainwater collection system design and consultation, "greywater" systems, irrigation system audits, water-efficient landscape design and native plants. "Indra" is the god of rain and thunderstorms in the Hindu religion.

"For every 100 square feet of roof, 1 inch of rain yields 60 gallons of water," said Poeck. "So if you have a 1,000-square-foot roof, an inch of rain will give you 600 gallons."

Poeck came to my house and asked my husband and me a great question: How, exactly, did we plan to use the collected rain water? The answer was easy: for the vegetables in our raised garden bed.

But that led to a host of other issues. Poeck looked at our roof, which is decades old and badly in need of replacing. It`s also shaded, in part, by a large willow tree, which means that the gutters are regularly clogged with leaves.

"When water comes off the roof, there`s all kinds of stuff in it, especially during the first big rain of the season," he said. "Bird droppings, grit, leaves."

Poeck stressed that you don`t want any of that gunk to get into the rain barrel itself, where bacteria could breed. He recommended installing a "first flush diverter," which diverts pollutants in the initial flow of water into a special chamber. Eliminating any contaminants before they enter the storage system is critical to keeping rainwater clean.

Poeck also noted that rain barrels, when full, are incredibly heavy: Each gallon of water weighs roughly 8 pounds. When full, the barrel can easily tip over if not mounted properly. He suggested positioning the rain barrel in gravel, so that the barrel could self-settle. It would also be safer in a potential earthquake.

Then there are all kinds of different barrels, tanks and cisterns to sort through. One of the leading manufacturers is Bushman, an Australian company. Rainwater harvesting was not big in suburban Australia until the country experienced its blistering drought, starting in 2005; the company then adopted a practice that had been used in the bush for 200 years. Bushman sells everything from 60-gallon rain barrels to 530-gallon Slimline tanks.

"The Bushman Slimline tanks are thin, long and tall -- they are perfect for the urban center," said Poeck.

But they are not cheap: A 130-gallon Bushman Slimline costs $741 at the Urban Farm Store, which has locations in Mill Valley, Richmond and San Francisco. Contractors may be able to get them cheaper, and you can search online to compare pricing.

I realized that I needed to think more about rain barrels -- including where in our small yard to put one and how much it would cost -- before adding more.

Poeck feels strongly that rain barrels are a critical piece of a much larger puzzle. Besides conservation, they raise consciousness. Neighbors see the rain barrel and start to think about water use in a way they haven`t before.

"Rain barrels bring an awareness," said Poeck. "Look at your most recent water bill. You probably go through much more than 60 gallons of water in a single day."

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Copyright San Jose Mercury News (CA) 2014

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Story image courtesy of the Rain Barrel Workshop, vastateparksstaff, and Wikipmedia Commons

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