Let’s Talk About Water

Water is one of the few things absolutely necessary and with no substitutes for life. We need it for our bodies to function and we need it to grow food. Interestingly enough, both abundance and lack of water can be devastating. A quick look at this week’s news exemplifies this as the Mississippi watershed struggles with record water levels and Texas is facing serious, long-term drought conditions.

I grew up in the desert – Vegas to be exact. In that school district, water conservation has been integrated into elementary school curriculum for years. We had ‘turn off the water while you brush your teeth’ pounded into our heads long before local and state government became serious about measures such as restricting landscaping to force conservation.

So imagine my surprise when I showed up for grad school in Portland, Oregon to see water conservation on everyone’s radar. I was sitting in on a Masters of Planning course where each sub-specialty group was asked to adopt a plan. I chose to join the environmental sub-specialty group and was genuinely surprised to find they wanted to adopt a watershed plan filled with advice on water conservation. How could this be? There was water EVERYWHERE and it was raining all the time!

It turns out that urbanization (and suburbanization) destroys mother earth’s way of dealing with water in two ways. The first is to eliminate natural channeling of water with development of fertile farmland (primarily in wetlands) and with buildings on wetlands and dry riverbeds. When record rains fall, the man-made replacement channels tend to not be enough and thus property and lives are destroyed with floods.

The second thing that urbanization does to destroy watersheds is by placing impervious surface everywhere in the form of houses, concrete, and asphalt. Rain that hits an impervious surface cannot recharge (sink into) the ground and thus runs (faster) down the street into storm drains – picking up surface pollutants on the way – to overwhelm the water channels. Think of this as mini flash-floods during wet weather.

For most of the US northwest and northeast, storm drains are combined with sewage systems. These ‘combined sewage’ systems can lead to of ‘combined sewage overflow (CSO)’ in heavy rains. For obvious reasons, the EPA regulates the amount of CSO days allowed; being out of compliance results in hefty fines. Hence Portland is incentivized to be on the cutting edge of slowing down that water reaching the storm drainage system and maximizing water recharge on site.

While I find the techniques used to do this very interesting (and will be sharing them over the next month or two), what is most interesting to me is the social aspect. How is it that a place with water everywhere is far more conscious about water conservation than an area like SLC or Vegas? There is much to be learned in the Mormon-belt from places like Portland because while some techniques won’t transfer well, many will. Further, many that have become standard in Portland (rain barrels for instance), might actually be more effective in arid climates where the distribution of the rain is more even across the year. As someone who has spent significant time in both regions, I hope to start this conversation.

Do you do anything to capture rain on site at your house? What do you wish you knew more about in order to do so?


9 responses to “Let’s Talk About Water

  1. mfranti May 12, 2011 at 7:51 am


    I have four 50 gallon barrels that I hope to (with DH’s help) install at each of the downspouts from our gutters

    I’m well aware of the benefits of collecting the water that falls on my roof and it’s so much more than water to irrigate with.

    Speaking of water, have you read the link on the about page describing the masthead picture?

    There’s another post in the queue about gray water collection. It’s posts like these that make my gardening, biking, and low consumption habits feel insignificant (even though I know that the best thing I can do is reduce my consumption overall).

    I want to do so much more, but I’m so dang lazy.

  2. missy. May 12, 2011 at 8:04 am

    Interesting stuff, Nicole. I look forward to the follow-up.

  3. Mary Cate Bassett May 12, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Our house gutter empties into a 300 gallon storage tank near the veggie garden, and our enormous outbuilding gutters empty into a 600 gallon storage tank near the orchard and berries. In addition to this, I reserve the water I use to rinse dishes and feed the landscaping with it. Some of these plants are under the eaves and get little (if any) moisture from all the rainfall. Indoor plants too.

    We also rarely bathe more than twice a week.

  4. Nicole I May 12, 2011 at 10:57 am

    mfranti – Yes, I had read the about page… it was what made me think I should join in on the writing. Did you choose the picture? Where did you learn about Arcata’s program.

    Also, don’t beat yourself up… all the little things add up. Our water issues are the accumulation of a lot of bad urbanizing/modernity habits and one step at a time will help undo them. Or that is what I keep telling myself!

    Mary Cate – So jealous of your storage tanks! We just bought our home and are trying to decide how much to store. The big tanks get expensive fast, but I think they are probably worth it. Are yours above or below ground?

  5. mfranti May 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    “Did you choose the picture?”

    Yes. If you look closely, you might see some of my hair at the bottom of the photo. I’m standing in front of treated sewage before it heads to the ocean. Pretty freaking cool stuff, imo.

    “Where did you learn about Arcata’s program?”

    I stopped in Arcata on a geography field trip (vacation) to the Redwoods last July. DH and I were driving around trying to get unlost and I saw a sign pointing the direction to the wastewater treatment plant.
    As is often the case with things like that , I got excited and made him follow the signs to the plant.

    I chose that photo for the masthead because it represents what I could hope for in the human-environmental partnership.

    The Arcata community forest is another gem of public/private/community/environmental partnerships.

  6. kristine N May 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    My understanding is that in some communities water storage isn’t allowed. Do you know where one can check to make sure putting in water collection is kosher? Even if we can’t put in water collection per se, are there other strategies we can employ individually to reduce runoff?

    Good thoughts–I’m looking forward to more of the series.

  7. Nicole I May 12, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Good point Kristine – Colorado and Utah (and to a lesser extent WA – small personal use is encouraged by large systems required permits) argued for many years that every bit of rain that falls from the sky belongs to the water table (owned by the state, leased to individuals with water rights). To harvest rain was to take water from the state and against the law. Colorado relaxed their law a tiny bit in the summer of 2009 to exempt those on a well and has some pilot programs that essentially purchase the water. Utah allows for capture as long as you register your system (http://www.waterrights.utah.gov/wrinfo/faq.asp#q1).

    There are some legalities surrounding system design because (1) it is a gray water… very clean gray water, but still has some health concerns and (2) if you live somewhere that it will regularly overflow, you have to design for that. This tends to be regulated at the state level and then enforced through municipal zoning codes. I’d start by calling the city.

  8. nat kelly May 15, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    This is very interesting, nicole, and I’m excited to see your ideas in the future. I hadn’t realized the important of permeable surfaces. I guess that makes green roofs very important. Makes you wonder if we shouldn’t all just be living in huts with roofs of sloping earth. 🙂

  9. Pingback: Rain Harvesting Part 1 – How much and why the State cares « Our Mother's Keeper

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