by Charlene Burgi
A few days ago a newscaster reported that February was lining up to be a dry month and suggested, to my horror, to go water your lawns. Coincidentally, on that same day I heard from an old schoolmate, Bob Olsen, formerly from San Rafael, who now resides in Australia. He shared that more than 50 percent of his stored rainwater remained with summer half over.
This information piqued my curiosity, knowing Bob had a beautiful garden but a very narrow lot of 36 feet. How did he manage to store that much water given his conditions? This was conservation at its best! Bob’s story amazed me and it is too good not to pass along to you.
In 2009, after experiencing ten years of drought, he decided to install a rainwater catchment system. The truth be told, the decision was also prompted by a rotting pergola requiring attention. While he now claims delusion at the time, he grabbed pick and shovel, planning to dig an L-shaped pit in his backyard through Merri Creek mud—better known to us as clay. The excavation left a pit 30 feet long, six feet wide and five feet deep for two 1,000-gallon bladders—and I imagine a very sore back. After two months of picking away, Bob hooked up the tanks to provide flushing water for the toilet as well as irrigation for his backyard garden.
As I pressed Bob for more details of his experience, he shared that at the height of the drought, the rainfall was less than 20 inches per year—often with a quarter of that falling in one torrential event. The drought left reservoirs with less than 25 percent of their capacity. Bob and his family had to make behavioral changes as they faced water restrictions of varying severity. Showers were limited to no more than three minutes, with buckets collecting water sheeting from their bodies to be used to keep special plants alive. Clothes were only washed as the washing machine reached maximum loads, and dishes were hand washed.
Bob extended his conservation practices by adding a solar water heater to their home, adding solar panels to the roof, and drying clothes on outdoor lines in summer and dry racks in winter.
While the drought is behind them, the Australian sun is fierce and the evaporation is high due to the hole in the ozone layer. Thus they continue to restrict their water use to 35 gallons of city water a day per person, which also includes watering the front yard. His conservation practices allow his garden to flourish despite the high evapotranspiration rate.
He sacrificed his beautiful wisteria, old deck, a water feature and a pergola that had seen better days for the assurance of having enough water to keep a garden filled with beautiful flowers, fresh herbs and vegetables. What I failed to mention earlier is that Bob is a gourmet cook. His passion for cooking and gardening was worth the effort of keeping his garden growing. Perhaps his passion will inspire you to tackle a new project or take the next step to save water.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Bob.