Rain Harvest

By Linda Stalvey

There is nothing new under the sun, as the old adage goes. There is also nothing new under the rain. Rain is a free source of nearly pure water. Catching or harvesting rain is an ancient technology that may have been used by our cavemen ancestors. Ancient writings, including the Bible, abound with references for water harvesting, although not necessarily in today’s terminology. Remember Latin I translations about Roman cisterns--cisternae? How about ancient battles that were won by the side with water? What is stimulating this renewed interest in harvesting rainwater, and how is it being used?


The short answer to what is stimulating the interest is need. In an era of dwindling resources, water is the new oil. As the climate changes and the population increases, the need becomes acute.

From one end of the country to the other, rain catchment systems are providing water for irrigation, livestock, wild animals, cleaning needs and, in some cases, drinking. You will find the systems on public buildings, private homes, park systems and demonstration projects. In some cases the use is legislated, in others purely voluntary. The uses for rainwater are limited only by the imagination and investment.

Just What Is Rainwater Harvesting?
Heather Kinkade-Levario, president of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (ARCSA), and author of Forgotten Rain--Rediscovering Rainwater Harvesting, and the newly published Design for Water, describes rainwater harvesting.

“Rainwater harvesting usually involves collecting rainwater runoff from cleaner surfaces such as rooftops. The aim of rainwater harvesting is to concentrate runoff and collect it in a vessel to be stored for future use.”

ARCSA was started in Austin, Texas, in 1994, and has slowly grown to about 250 members drawn from those who use, sell, or want to learn about rainwater catchment systems. There are national and regional conferences to promote the growth of rainwater harvesting. ARCSA is also instituting an accreditation process for Rainwater Harvesters to train in the basic knowledge of the technique. “Members who are drain salesmen or roofers will have an additional knowledge base and potential uses for their products,” says Kinkade-Levario.

Rainwater harvesting is common in many parts of the world, including India, Africa, China, Australia and the United Kingdom. It is an idea that is slowly catching on in the United States, especially in the Southwest where arid conditions and population influx are stressing the water reserves.

There are two tenets Kinkaid-Levario is passionate about:

1. The true value of water needs to be recognized.
2. Water should be used more than once.

“Our most pristine water should be used for drinking,” says Kinkade-Levario. “Storm water or harvested water can be used for flushing toilets and washing cars. It doesn’t make sense to pump water from the ground, purify it, and then flush it back down the drain.”

The bigger issue is one of personal responsibility. “Because you have it doesn’t mean you have to use it all up,” she adds. “We need to think about the future.”

United Nations studies predict that as a consequence of climate change, more than one billion people will lack fresh water by 2100. Glaciers that now feed the water systems that provide water to 40 percent of the world’s population are melting. Today’s hot and dry areas will become hotter and drier.

Positioning For the Future
In July 2005, Texas published the third edition of The Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting. Hawaii is also a leader in water harvesting and conservation. This past December, the city of Seattle passed legislation to reduce storm water runoff by capturing rain before it could enter the lakes and streams and harm Washington’s famed salmon. Santa Fe, N.M., and Portland, Ore., also are on the record with water conservation-based initiatives and legislation.

Mike Mecke is an Extension Water Programs Specialist with the Texas Water Resource Institute. He first became interested in rainwater catchment while working on an Indian reservation in Arizona in 1980. Half of the reservation’s cattle were watered through rainwater harvesting. The tribe also used landscaping techniques to capture flash-flood waters for irrigation.

Hooked on the advantages of rainwater harvesting, Mecke lists several:

• Rainwater harvesting promotes self-sufficiency and fosters an appreciation for water as a resource.

• Rainwater harvesting conserves energy as the energy needed to operate a centralized water system is bypassed.

• Local erosion and flooding from impervious cover associated with buildings are lessened as a portion of local rainfall is diverted into collection tanks with less polluted stormwater to manage.

• Rainwater is one of the purest sources of water available.

• Rainwater often has a nitrogen content that provides a slight fertilizing effect for plants.

• Rainwater is soft. It can significantly lower the quantity of detergents and soaps needed for cleaning. Water heaters and pipes are free of the deposits caused by hard water and should last longer, thus saving money.

Mecke is quick to point out several rainwater harvesting examples in West Texas that show the variety of style, size and use. The McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, Texas, captures stormwater for fire protection from 80,000 square feet of paved area into a 20,000-gallon covered tank. A much smaller application is the Alpine, Texas library that provides water for gardens from two barrels collecting rain from roof gutters. In between is the 3,000-gallon tank at the Van Horn, Culbertson County courthouse, which will be hooked up this spring to a drip irrigation system on a native plant garden, and to a bird bath by an employee’s picnic table under a shade tree. While many examples are for irrigation, others are for watering wildlife.

Perhaps the most notable example is the home of Menard County Extension Office Agent Billy Kniffen. The water needs for his entire home are provided through rainwater harvesting. Kniffen does not even have a well on his 10-acre property!

Mecke encourages experimentation with rain barrels. They are easy to build and inexpensive. You can build one for about $15; for directions, check out the following site: www.dnr.state.md.us/ed/rainbarrel.html.

He has other tips for for those just starting to experiment with rainwater collection:

1. Decide how you want to use your water.
2. Find someone with experience … or send someone to Texas!
3. Consider placement; rainbarrels can be subject to vandalism.
4. Incorporate a special interest group in the project, like the Master Gardeners.

“Zilker Park in downtown Austin, Texas, has a beautiful rainwater harvesting system built by volunteer Master Gardeners and funded by the city’s Water Conservation Progam,” says Mecke. The city has been promoting water conservation for several years by selling rainbarrels, giving rebates for larger systems, and conducting tours of commercial and residential rainwater harvesting systems.

Buying a Rainbarrel
Tony D’Amico bought two rainbarrels from Arid Solutions last year, and he’s ready to buy some more. Tony is the Assistant Park Director for the Wake County portion of The American Tobacco Trail in North Carolina. Currently at 14 miles, the trail eventually will span more than 22 miles in Durham and Wake counties. Trail users walk, bike, rollerblade, and ride horses on this shared-use greenway. The Wake County trail, the more rural portion of the trail, also enables wheelchair users to access the quiet beauty of the land.

D’Amico’s rainbarrels capture water off a restroom roof. “You’d be surprised how much water we harvest from a one-quarter- or one-half-inch rain off a small portion of roof,” he says. The water is used to clean the restroom.

“It’s great!” Tony says. “Staff no longer has to haul water to the restroom site.” While he hasn’t actually done a cost analysis, he knows he is saving staff time and gasoline.

The only downside to the rainbarrel was its popularity with folks on the trail who loved to use it to provide water for dogs. D’Amico had to add a lock on his rainbarrels to ensure water for staff use.

The folks in tiny Kendrick, Idaho, are also using rainbarrels to provide deep irrigation to newly planted trees on a portion of a 150-mile trail system that was once an old railroad grade. The trees are necessary to provide a respite from the sweltering summer heat, but getting them started with enough water on isolated parts of the trail proved difficult.

Using Arbor Day and local park-and-recreation-department grants, the Kendrick Urban Forestry Board, presided over by Andrea Masom, purchased the barrels and ran drip hoses from each barrel to three or four of the newly planted trees.

“They work wonderfully. Each tree is now getting 15- to 20-gallon soaks to the root where it needs it,” says Masom. There are plans for Kendrick to purchase more rainbarrels for their newly planted trees.

While they cheat a bit and actually fill their barrels, the value of growing trees for the trail makes the polyvinyl cylinders worth their weight in gold.

It’s hard to pass up freebies, whether you are browsing in your local stores, attending conventions, or purchasing for flyer miles or rebates. Do yourself and the environment a favor and catch some rain. Try it, you’ll like it!

Linda Stalvey is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Camp Business and Parks & Rec Business magazines. She gave up Washington, D.C., public relations to indulge her passion for parks, the environment and outdoor activities in Medina, Ohio. You can reach her via e-mail at lstalvey@verizon.net.

Bar-T Camp Snapshot
Taking the Next Step

By Linda Stalvey

Joe Richardson, owner of Bar-T Camp in Gaithersburg, Md., says he is not inherently a “green” person, but is fast becoming one. The 115 acres purchased for his new Mountainside day camp in the Maryland hills did not purchase a well for septic. He looked at drip irrigation systems that were outlandishly expensive and unwieldy. Residential neighbors across the street were concerned that the camp would suck water out of aquifers that were already challenged. The state had estimated 25 gallons of water per camper (300 of them) per day.

Out of necessity, Richardson turned to Clivus Multrum composting toilets and has been thrilled with the results. The water consumption at the camp has radically decreased from state estimates. Richardson estimates that less than one-gallon per day per camper is used. Instead of 96,000 gallons of gray water down the drain, Richardson now generates 350 gallons of compost tea, which can be reintroduced to the land.

True to the claims, the toilets are water-free, odor-free and easy to maintain. The acceptance level has increased--especially when the ecological advantages are pointed out. Some of the state administrators who had been Richardson’s biggest detractors as he moved his proposal through the state system have become his biggest advocates. In mid-March Bar-T hosted on-site the National Organization of Wastewater Recycling Association--invited by one of those administrators!

Richardson is now looking at rainwater harvesting, natural methods to reclaim a pond that is clogged with nutrients from neighboring soy bean fields, and gray water reuse. He is positioning his camp to be an ecological education site.

His Web site says it all: “We feel it is our responsibility to further environmental stewardship, not only in our facility, but in the minds of every person who visits.”