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Posts Tagged ‘rainwater harvesting’

by Charlene Burgi

Rumor has it that we are in for an El Niño winter. I am not certain what that means since every report comes up with various predictions that span from getting drenched to mild inclement weather to continued drought.

Predictions are something to approach with a discerning ear. The fall/winter season would be better met with preparedness. Preparedness comes with paying attention to the indicators that surround us and acting prior to an event.

For example, a friend reported attending the Ready Marin program. When the earthquake struck in the wee hours this past Sunday, she was prepared with flashlights and necessary tools at hand (if needed) to turn off gas and water supplies. Yet others reported they woke up in a half stupor and attempted to collect their thoughts as to where they would even find a flashlight.

This week the news reported a water main break in San Francisco. One gentleman was capturing this precious commodity by the bucketful before it disappeared into the cavernous storm drain. He was prepared with whatever collection method he could find and conserved as much as he could.

Conserving water is more than turning the faucet off while brushing your teeth and exchanging high-water-use for high-efficiency fixtures in the house. It is more than switching to a smart controller or adjusting your controller to reflect the current ET loss for the week. These steps are extremely important for saving the water in our reservoirs, but by being prepared and making the best use of the water sources at hand we can conserve even more.

Each winter we anticipate rainfall, but are we prepared to utilize the falling rain? If we live on any kind of slope, we can create multiple bioswales running across the length of the slope to slow down the runoff. A bioswale requires some trenching, compacting the lower edge of the bioswale for erosion, and backfilling with porous material, such as bark. Planting two of my favorite deep-rooted shrubs—Pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) and red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)—will help penetrate the clay soils above the swale and move the water deeper than the trenched bioswale.

Aster novae-angliae

Aster novae-angliae

Another idea is to collect the water from the downspout into trenches to carry water to a rain garden or meadow at least 10 feet away from the house foundation. Choose plant material that will thrive on the abundant rainwater that will collect there in the winter. Use rain garden plants such as Aster novae-anglaie or Lobelia cardinalis that attract butterflies and bees and provide nectar in the summer months.

Try designing a dry creek bed to capture the precious liquid from our rains. Wind the bed through the garden to deliver water to your trees or shrubs along the way. Tuck native grasses and wildflowers along the edges or plant some color into the dry creek bed. This task requires preparing now for winter.

These suggestions will take more than a shovel and wheel barrow. It will take planning and a list of equipment as follows:

Flowers in dry creek bed

Dry creek bed color (photo courtesy of Marie Shepard)

    • Soil, sand, clay, organic mulch
    • Building materials and construction (if built)
    • Organic compost
    • Tools (tractor, rakes, shovels, gloves, etc.)
    • Vegetation (seeds, plants, trees)
    • Gravel, rocks (large and small)

Are you prepared for the task at hand or will you watch the precious wet stuff disappear into the local storm drain this winter?

It is Labor Day weekend. Why not take a ride to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed and glean ideas for imitating nature in your own garden?

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by Charlene Burgi

covered rain barrelAll reports are that you’re been enjoying some good rain in Marin! Are you considering ways to start catching some of this precious stuff to use during the dry times? Do you have a plan?

You might ask what’s to plan except to run down to the local hardware store, pick up a barrel or two, and direct your downspouts into the open barrels. Or the plan may entail setting out buckets, pots, and pans around the garden with the thought of capturing any raindrops that happen to fall into them.

Several questions come to mind when thinking about these types of plans. Did you calculate the amount of water that will be collected from the roof going into the barrels? What happens to the overflow? Will the excess water erode the area around the barrel, or is it directed away to protect your foundation and prevent flooding? What becomes of the harvested water until it is used? Will the uncovered barrels, buckets, pots, and pans become a breeding ground for mosquitoes or see critters falling in with no way out? So many questions!

Harvesting rainwater comes with a responsibility that is often overlooked. The concern isn’t about taking advantage of falling rain for conservation purposes, but doing it in a way that considers the health and welfare of your property and our environment. If you don’t have a plan yet but would like to collect rainwater, let’s outline a plan that is a win-win for all concerned.

Let’s do the easy step first. If the collection containers are not covered, move the water into an enclosed container immediately. Many commercial barrels are sold with a water faucet already attached for easy hose or drip assembly. Next, consider what you are going to do with the collected water. Rain barrels are a good fit for watering a few plants under the eaves of your house during the winter. However, watering the entire garden will require a much larger vessel in the form of a tank or multiple connected rainwater catchment containers or bladders—which leads me to the next step.

Calculate the amount of rain runoff from your roof so you can anticipate what size tank/container to purchase. Measure the square footage of the portion of the roof that directs water to the downspout(s) you are using for collection (length x width = square feet). Now, multiply the square footage by the number of inches of rainfall, then multiply that times a conversion factor of 0.623. For example, let’s assume the roof collection area is 1,000 square feet and that during the big storm earlier this month your neighborhood received 10 inches of rain. The calculations would look like this:

1,000 x 10 x 0.623 = 6,230 gallons of water

If you only have two rain barrels collecting a total of 90 gallons of water, where, might I ask, does that remaining 6,140 gallons go? The plan must include directing excess water into rain gardens or bioswales to soak it up, spread it out, and sink it into the richly prepared soil.

rainwater harvesting tank

At the Marin Art & Garden Center, runoff from a shed roof collects in a 2,500-galllon tank.

If you like working out these problems, calculate the gallons of rainfall you can collect for the year based on the above formula using your average yearly rainfall. Now calculate the water needs of the plants in your garden for the year based on the average evapotranspiration rate for your area. (Hint: WUCOLS can help with water needs of your plants and CIMIS can help with yearly ET averages.) Is your water storage big enough to support your garden for the year? How about a month? And where on your property would you install a container able to store all that water?

I hope this exercise has been fun as well as informative. Meanwhile, enjoy the pitter patter of raindrops! I know I will!

Go Green with Graywater

The County of Marin is hosting a workshop Saturday, March 15, to teach the community about graywater reuse and installing laundry-to-landscape systems. The workshop is open to all and will be 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. at San Rafael Corporate Center, 740 Lindaro Street in San Rafael. Get the complete details here.

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by Charlene Burgi

Golden retriever pups in the snow

Snowy paws: The pups at 11 months old

Alarm clocks are no longer needed in our home since the pups arrived on the scene. Every morning between 5:30 and 6:30, four front puppy paws appear on the edge of the mattress to let Jack and I know it is time to get up.

Those paws, to my consternation, tell me more than the time. They also reveal the current weather conditions based on the mud or snow they track in as they race through the house after being outdoors. The dilemma is that Misty knows how to open the front door if it isn’t locked, so unwelcome tell-tale (no pun intended) paw-print signs show up all over the floor.

The bad news is the carpets and tile floors are in a constant state of being shampooed or vacuumed. The good news is the pups’ imprints tell me if the soil outside is like a sponge or in need of amendments. One could almost say their paw prints in the house are sure indicators of which outdoor areas they’ve explored. Did their paws sink into the rich, healthy soil of the garden area? (Muddy prints.) Or did they explore an area in need of more amendments, where water tends to collect or run off? (Wet prints.)

Pooling water on soil

Soil in need of amendments

Indicators help us all know what to do to create living sponge-like soil in our gardens. Marin is famous for clay soils where water pools up in level areas or runs off on slopes. Runoff carries away nutrients that plants need, erodes what little topsoil may exist, and will shorten the life of asphalt. Clay also compacts easily, trapping rich nutrients within and requiring us to buy fertilizer to feed our plants.

In last week’s workshop, Brad Lancaster mentioned various ways to create living sponges in the garden and avoid funneling precious rainfall straight to the bay. First, direct water to your plants—or as he says, “plant the rain.” This is done by grading the soil toward your plants, creating conduits to guide water to where it can soak into richly fed earth. Second, amend and mulch. Leave your clippings around the base of your plants unless the material is diseased. This natural mulch will break down and add nutrients back into the soil. The more leaf-drop and amendments left to decompose, the more sponge-like the soil will be. Compost made from kitchen scraps and added to the garden will also provide healthy and diverse life while breaking down clay soil conditions. In turn, the soil absorbs more water. This synergic process reminds me of a childhood song called “Dem Bones” that describes how our bones are all connected to make a whole!

Are you thinking of harvesting rainwater? Soaking up the rain with your soil is the first and healthiest step for your garden. Take a walk. Do you see any indicators of erosion, puddles, or salt stains on hardscapes from irrigation runoff? How much water can you save by planting it back into the garden instead of into storm drains? How much money can you save by using such amendments as home-grown compost or allowing the leaf litter and garden clippings to stay where they fall? How much rainwater can you save by keeping it on your property? Let your eyes be the indicators and use your ingenuity to come up with ways to turn hardpan clay into a living sponge.

For those ready to grow their rainwater harvesting and graywater expertise to the next level, there are two upcoming courses that may be of interest. Both are geared to landscape professionals. The American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association presents a two-day rainwater harvesting accreditation course March 10-11 in Napa. And starting March 25 in Santa Rosa will be a free, four-session Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper (QWEL) Graywater Training. Please share these opportunities with others who may be interested!

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by Charlene Burgi

This past week found us all embracing the rains falling from above. A whopping 14.76 inches of rain fell at Lake Lagunitas. The 41,924 acre-feet of water stored in our lakes before the storm rose to 50,748 acre-feet after. Are we out of the woods regarding the drought? Can we return to our old ways of thinking about how we use water? No. We are in much better shape after the storm, but we can’t let the rain make us complacent. Keep up the great work you are doing. Keep focused on conservation!

It was easy to stay focused on conservation with Brad Lancaster, the guru “water stretcher” extraordinaire, speaking in the Bay Area on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning found the room packed as Brad shared his experiences and findings in such places as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and South Korea. Some of the sites he spoke of lived successfully on as little as four inches of water a year!

Brad spoke about how these countries focused on graywater use as well as capturing and storing rainwater. He talked about using plant materials that were indigenous to the region and about grading to create bioswales so water slows down, spreads out, and sinks into the soil instead of running off. He talked about creating sponges of our soils by letting clippings lay where they fall to allow for natural composting.

His lectures were so detailed it would take several blog posts to cover all the points that he discussed. Therefore, once I get home, I plan to spend several weeks exploring in more detail the topics he covered.

I must admit, being in Marin in February was a double treat. First, the rains seemed to lift everyone’s spirits. Secondly, everywhere I went, Daphne odora was in bloom. The fragrance wafting through the air intercepted me entering the bank on Fourth Street in San Rafael, walking toward the building where Brad spoke, and even visiting my daughter’s home. Daphne is the perfect plant for me. Deer don’t eat it; it thrives in the deepest shade with minimal water; it blooms at the time of year when most other plants lay dormant; and, oh, that fragrance can stop you dead in your tracks! It is a plant that thrives on neglect. Pampering it will leave you disappointed.

Flowering quince

Flowering quince

There is another plant that captured my attention while in Marin. Chaenomeles, otherwise known as flowering quince, is a beautiful plant that is rarely seen in gardens anymore, yet carries many of the same favorable qualities as daphne. Deer don’t bother it; minimal water is needed to keep it looking good; and it comes in beautiful shades of red, orange, pink, coral, or white. The difference in the two plants is flowering quince is much happier in the sun and, while lacking fragrance, it will thrive in temperatures well below zero—a plant after my own heart. It didn’t take long before I was driving to the local nurseries choosing just the right plants to live in Lassen! Of course, while there, I couldn’t leave without picking up bareroot edible crops such as asparagus, seed potatoes, and onion sets.

Water HarvestingA busy week in Marin has come to a close and finds me preparing to go back home with my head filled with new ideas about how to approach rainwater harvesting and graywater use, and a burning desire to get my hands in the soil to plant new-found treasures. I can only hope our heavy rainfall at home provides workable soil that is no longer frozen!

Wishing you all a very Happy Valentine’s Day.

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by Charlene Burgi

We have heard that history repeats itself, and yet we tend to forget the past or put historical events on the back burner of our minds and only remember when similar events rear up. “Oh yeah,” we say and go our merry way. But how wise are we to neglect what we know will occur over and over again?

Recently it was recommended I read a book entitled The Cattle King by Edward F. Treadwell. The book was published in 1931 and recorded the history of a German immigrant by the name of Henry Kreiser Miller who, after settling in California, amassed over one million acres of land with an equal number of cattle spread over five western states.

Mr. Miller started acquiring his property in California during the gold rush days—not for the purpose of accruing precious metal, but with the intention of feeding the people. Even before his land acquisitions, he recognized that California experienced dry periods that would be detrimental to livestock if food and water were not saved. During the good years, he conserved and stored excess feed and water for his cattle to keep afloat during the lean years.

This book reminded me of another, much older story that tells of seven lean years that followed seven “fattened” years. In the book of Genesis, Joseph takes precautions to prepare for dry years in Egypt by directing that 20 percent of all that grew during the good years be stored to sustain the people during the lean ones.

Both books spoke to me about the wealth these wise men acquired. They were respected for their wisdom to recognize historical patterns. Wealth and wisdom? Wealth means more than amassing fortunes. The wealth I acquired this morning came in the form of intermittent showers that provided just enough rain to muddy the paws of the pups as they frolicked outside and to provide much-needed sustenance to the parched landscape. But was I wise?

Some of my planters remained under the roof of the covered deck and stayed dry. We don’t have gutters due to the weight of snow that can accumulate on the roof, but I had always envisioned collecting the water falling along the drip line of the roof in a perforated pipe. During storms, the runoff could be directed to a tank at a lower elevation and stored for use in a time of need. The water would be good enough for watering the garden! But that didn’t get done either. Graywater systems would be a task to plumb now as the poly-steel construction of the house designed for R50 insulation makes it near impossible to drill through a foot of concrete. The saying “A penny wise and a pound foolish” takes on a whole new meaning for me.

How about you? Are you wise by saving the wealth that comes from storm clouds? Can you save 20 percent of the average amount of water that you use? How about saving just 10 percent? It isn’t too late to start conserving. Find tips and resources on our website to get started. Be like Mr. Miller and Joseph—proactively prepare for what we all know happens in California. Dry years happen with regularity. It is part of our California history!

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by Charlene Burgi

Marin front yard

Do you know how many gallons of water your garden needs?

A few weeks ago I wrote about using rain barrels in the garden and how to calculate the amount of rain water that could be collected off of your roof in a given year. What I failed to explore is if you collected all that water, would it be enough to sustain your irrigation for the year? Do you know roughly how many gallons of water it takes to irrigate your garden, or how large the tank would need to be to capture that amount of rainwater?

The rain barrel example I gave used a 1,000-square-foot roof, which could potentially collect 24,000 gallons of water, assuming 40 inches of rainfall for the year. While you might say that is a lot of water, I challenge you to figure out just how much water your garden uses.

There are several factors we will need to know before starting this process. First we need to know the evapotranspiration (ET) rate—that is, how much water is being lost from plants and soil into the air. In Marin, the average ET is 44 inches a year. Visualize installing water-tight walls to a height of 44 inches around your lawn and pouring 44 inches of water into the contained area! That’s what you would need to do to replace ET. Since most poorly designed irrigation systems use 40 percent more water than is needed, you might need to build the walls much higher. Got the picture? You may note that ET is lower close to the Bay and, conversely, much higher as you move north in Marin. The lower the ET, the less irrigation is needed.

Next we have a plant factor (PF), which represents the percentage of ET a particular plant requires. I will help by providing the average PF according to Water Use Classifications of Landscape Species (WUCOLS). (Note these are typical examples—if you really want to get into the nitty-gritty each plant species will have its own PF.) Your job is to measure the square footage of your lawn area, high-water-use plant area and low-water-use plant area. Finally, we have a conversion factor of .62 that is constant in our calculations.

Let’s start with the lawn. A lawn is at the top of the list for irrigation needs with a typical PF of .80. Remember your 44-inch wall? Multiply ET (44) by the lawn’s PF of .80. Then multiply that number by the square footage of your lawn, and finally by our conversion factor of .62 to get the gallons of water your lawn needs each year.

Now measure the low-water-use plant area and the high-water-use plant area, and write down those figures. High-water-use plants such as annual color, potted plants and shallow-rooted plants can be calculated using a plant factor (PF) of 70 percent of ET. Low-water-use plants such as lavender, sages and geraniums only require a PF of 25 percent of ET.

Here is the formula and an example to calculate the gallons of irrigation water needed. Let’s assume your lawn is 1,500 square feet (SF) with a PF of .80, the high-water-use plant area is 800 SF with a PF of .70, and the low-water plant area is 3,000 square feet with a PF of .25. We would then multiply our answers with the conversion factor (CF) of .62 to get the total gallons of water needed per year.

(ET x PF x SF x 0.62) = Gallons of Water

ET PF SF CF = Gallons
44 .80 1,500 .62 32,736
44 .70 800 .62 15,277
44 .25 3,000 .62 20,460

Given the above example, you would need 68,473 gallons of water a year to irrigate your garden! And that, my friends, is a lot of water, even without going into effective rainfalls, irrigation efficiencies and various other factors that come into the picture. For those of you techies who love this additional challenge, see the MAWA table.

As for me, a breath of fresh air is in order!

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by Charlene Burgi

I am often asked how I choose the subject for the blog each week. And oft-times I can honestly say it falls into my lap either by events, conversations or current experiences.

For example, soon-to-be new neighbors stopped in to visit a few days ago. They are planning to live off the grid and spoke about the solar collection and wind power that will provide their electricity. That led to a discussion about rainwater catchment. Since they are building their home, we suggested considering metal for the roof so the first rains will clean the roof surface. We also talked about how that water will be used and what method will be employed to direct the water to its final destination. Notes were jotted down for future reference.

Ironically, I visited another friend’s home to help with landscaping ideas, and there, too, the subject came up of collecting rainwater for the garden. And again today, I received an email from another friend about living off grid, and yet another email requesting a picture of a rain garden. Is there any wonder what the topic of this blog will be? Especially as the rainy season will be here before we know it, making this the time to plan. On top of all that, as I write this I am swatting mosquitoes that entered through an open door and thinking that I need to get mosquito fish into the donkey’s water troughs. Believe it or not, mosquitoes play right into the same subject.

Rainwater catchment is an excellent means of saving water, with some provisions. First, calculate exactly how much water you will capture. A good number of people purchase a 55-gallon rain barrel thinking this will suffice. But if you do the math, you will find that one inch of rain on 1,000 square feet of roof can produce 600 gallons of water for your barrel. In Marin, our average rainfall is approximately 40 inches per year. That small roof could potentially capture over 24,000 gallons of water a year—a huge job for a 55-gallon rain barrel! The provision in this scenario is to include a means to distribute the water evenly over your existing landscape after the barrel fills up.

Water trough with rescue board

Water trough with rescue board

I have seen several pictures in well-known magazines showing cut-off downspouts directed into open rain barrels. Without realizing it, these magazines are publicizing how to create a breeding ground for mosquitoes. If you are doing any type of rainwater containment, keep the water in an enclosed tank or barrel. This also ensures other critters can’t fall in without a way out. If you have a fresh water pond or horse trough, install mosquito fish to devour the mosquito larvae and place an exposed rock, log or piece of wood for critters to exit if they fall in.

Speaking of falling in—I understand there is an opportunity to fall into water and money savings starting September 1. MMWD is launching new rebate programs for high-efficiency toilets, high-efficiency clothes washers and smart irrigation controllers. I have been told we must wait until September 1 to purchase these water-saving devices to qualify. In addition, the smart controller rebates will require an onsite water conservation survey from one of MMWD’s helpful experts, so be sure to check marinwater.org/rebates after September 1 for complete details. Plan now to take advantage of this water conservation opportunity. There is more to discuss about this subject in the next blog.

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