by Jennah Feeley
During heavy storms urban residents work to expel excess rainwater away from their properties and into the gutters. But amidst the not-so-sporadic dry weeks, city dwellers rely on pumping water back in from outside sources to keep their landscapes lush.
According to Palo Alto resident and Acterra Senior Ecologist Claire Elliot, an observer from outer space would think we are totally bonkers -- and she agrees. Her view of the backwards water system is why she takes advantage of torrential storms by catching rainwater in barrels.
"I was able to collect 400 gallons of water last December and this December too," Elliot said of the 2-year-old system set up at her Ventura neighborhood home. "And I am hoping this winter we get more rain coming."
Elliot's main catchment system is comprised of six barrels lined up like bowling pins in a three-two-one formation in the corner of her backyard. She supplements that with a repurposed wine barrel that connects to the downspout in her front yard. Elliot uses the water she collects to hydrate her garden.
Advocates of rain harvesting say rain barrels and cisterns conserve water, reduce flooding and minimize pollution. Reusing water for landscaping reduces the use of the Hetch Hetchy supply and minimizes the amount of road runoff that reaches local water sources during floods, Elliot said.
Collected rainwater is not safe to drink, but it is useful for lawn and garden watering. And, according to Elliot, as long as containers are properly screened to keep out organic debris, the rainwater can be stored indefinitely.
As of October 2014, Bay Area community members can receive rebates for installing rainwater catchment systems on their properties. Palo Alto residents and businesses are eligible for rebates from the city; rebates are also available through the San Mateo Countywide Water Pollution Prevention Program for San Mateo County residents.
The combined rebates total $100 maximum per storage device. Barrels and cisterns must hold at least 50 gallons and be newly purchased to qualify for the rebates. A full list of requirements and installation guidelines are available on the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency website (bawsca.org).
Just under 100 residents have taken advantage of the rebates since the program rolled out, according to Michael Hurley, BAWSCA water resources manager. Elliot said a six-barrel system such as hers cost less than $300, which could be covered entirely by the two rebates.
Rain catchment systems vary in volume and style but are generally simple enough for residents to set up themselves. Typically, barrels are connected to a roof downspout with a small screen-covered opening. A spigot near the bottom releases the collected rainwater, which can then be transferred to other receptacles for watering.
Due to the limited local rainfall, residents should consider building large enough systems to collect a significant amount of water at a time, according to Kit Gordon, GreenTown Los Altos watershed stewardship chair.
"We get our water at almost all the same time of the year, so you need a pretty big system in order to be sufficient," Gordon said.
Multiple barrels can be connected with hoses to aggregate higher volumes of water. Elliot calls the method she used to fasten her six barrels the "daisy chain," and it allows her to hold onto a larger volume of water during dry weeks.
When installing barrels, residents should be wary of mosquitoes and the setup location. Barrel openings must be fitted with screens to avoid creating a bug haven, and residents should avoid placing barrels on impervious ground surfaces, as significant overflow could topple them. Elliot suggests building systems on permeable ground, such as gravel, which allows excess water to sink in.
Residents who want to take their barrels to the next level can hook up pumps and hoses to create a rainwater sprinkler system, which Elliot plans to do in the near future. Residents hoping to make a bigger impact on flooding can also plant perennial grasses and install absorbent driveways, which hinder impure water from reaching the local creeks.
For hillside properties like hers, Gordon said planting trees can prevent large quantities of urban runoff pollution from hitting the storm drains. Local environmentalists also advocate for the use of greywater systems, which allow residents to recycle water from baths, sinks and laundry machines for different uses.
For people interested in creating a rainwater collection system of their own, Hurley suggests looking at information posted on the BAWSCA website, or participating in a free workshop hosted by the agency.
"We have landscape education courses," Hurley said. "As part of those classes there's a segment that discusses the use and operation of rain barrels."
Occasional workshops are also hosted by Greentown Los Altos and Acterra. The City of Palo Alto website also provides more information about rebates, barrels and rainwater uses.
To see a catchment system in action, Elliot suggests visiting the Arastradero Preserve where a row of barrels are on display behind the gateway buildings.
"We need to work on changing policy and peoples' perspectives on the safety of rainwater," Elliot said. "There's still a lot of room for us to be increasing the amount of recycled water."