Real Estate

Nectar from above

Rainwater harvesting captures a precious resource -- water -- for use in the garden

A medieval poet once described rainfall as sweet showers that pierce the drought and bathe every root in its liquor.

Picture bathing a garden in this nectar: Instead of letting it run into the street and sewer, you capture it in barrels to use. This practice, known as "rainwater harvesting," is catching on.

"There are a number of reasons to partake in rainwater harvesting, although the most significant benefit is saving water," Arnie Thompson, Acterra Watershed Project program director, said.

Rainwater can be used for everything from watering the lawn to toilet flushing and showering.

"In Palo Alto, we use high-quality drinking water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir for purposes of irrigation. If you use the water from harvesting, then you're saving water that would normally come from the domestic water supply."

And, it reduces pollutants in the storm-drain system.

Rainwater falling on impervious surfaces such as roofs, driveways and sidewalks slides off along with pollutants and goes into the storm-drain system, ending up in local creeks and ultimately in the San Francisco Bay.

Harvesting captures and cleanses the water running off the roof and into a leaf-eater and a flush diverter. Water can then be used for home irrigation, although one shouldn't drink it unless properly treated, Thompson advised.

Harvesting can also reduce the strain on the drain system, potentially reducing flood risk.

Strain usually occurs after a big storm, during which the drain system is under pressure because it is taking in the city's vast amount of rainwater and funneling it into local creeks.

"Harvesting reduces the strain by creating more closed-group systems," Hannah Rich, co-leader for the water sub-group of Students for a Sustainable Stanford, said.

Harvesting allows water to evenly and gently seep into the soil returning to nature rather than going rapidly into the drain system, she said.

However, harvesting has to be implemented on a large scale to even marginally reduce flood risk, Thompson said.

To encourage harvesting, the city of Palo Alto gives residents a storm drain rebate of $50 per rain barrel. Details are available on the city of Palo Alto's website.

The process of catching rainwater is simple: Rain falls on the roof and is caught in the roof's gutter, then goes through a hose to interconnected rain barrels.

The most essential materials needed to create the system are barrels (40-60 gallons), plumbing fittings, a first-flush diverter and a garden-hose fitting. Cutting and drilling will also be required so one needs a hacksaw, wrench and a drill. A more comprehensive list of parts can be found online or by contacting the city of Palo Alto's Public Works Division at 650-329-2151.

Parts can be purchased at Orchard Supply or Home Depot. Rain barrels can be found locally at Palo Alto Ace Hardware via special order or on Craigslist.

A household can have any number of rain barrels depending on how big the backyard is, how much water one wants to collect and how one wants to use it.

"One barrel holds approximately 55 gallons, which can possibly be filled up after one good rain. For every 1,000 square feet of roof, for every 1 inch of rainfall, we get 600 gallons of water," Thompson said. Most residents opt for up to seven barrels, Thompson said.

However, to meet all the domestic water-supply needs for a home, an annual water budget needs to be calculated and a system installed. Thompson suggested working with a consultant, such as a plumbing contractor, if interested in installation.

Harvesting doesn't require great expertise to undertake, but it does require a little research. There are self-guides online or experienced harvesters such as Brad Daniel, from RainSavers (Saratoga), or Thompson, can come in and do the project for you.

Another option would be to attend a rainwater-harvesting workshop, which Thompson offers at least twice a year. Workshops are helpful in visualizing the process and learning some skills such as cutting gutters.

Thompson's last workshop in January in the Palo Alto home of Richard Raffals, Acterra volunteer, drew adults and children alike.

"My volunteering is environmentally based, so I like when I find new ways to conserve power and water, and lower the carbon output," Raffals said.

Linda F., Palo Alto resident, brought her son Jacob and friends to observe. Jacob was attending to learn about the environment, which was an educational requirement at his school.

"Rainwater harvesting seemed interesting, different and I thought my son could learn a good deal from it. At home we tell our children to pay attention to water usage and it's good to have them start thinking about other ways to conserve at an early age," Linda said.

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