Water and Sustainability: The New-Old Idea of Rainwater Harvesting

Americans have come to take for granted the abundant clean water which so conveniently pours out from our faucets. Drinking water seems so abundant here we often let it just run down the drain unused without even giving it a second thought.  In developing countries people are sometimes painfully aware of how important and valuable water is.

Seattle-ites get pretty tired of the rain sometimes. How could wet rainy Seattle ever have a water shortage?  The fact is there have been many water shortages during the summer months when demand for water is higher and rain is rare.  Since the droughts of the 1980’s water use restrictions and new tiered water rates have encouraged a change in how we all use water.  The most noticeable difference in Seattle is that it has become socially acceptable to let your lawn turn brown during the dry summer months. Those who still keep their lawn green may pay almost 3 times as much for each extra gallon of water!

The newest culture change for water conservation is the advent of the rain barrel.  Across the country, cities are doing pilot programs for encouraging rainwater harvesting using rain barrels.  The idea is for people to collect rain water from roof downspouts and use it for watering their outdoor plants to relieve some of the strain on municipal water supplies.  City employees wondered whether people would go for it.  The surprise has been how popular the programs have been!

Rainwater harvesting in Seattle

Industrial-strength cisterns store rain water for use by gardeners at a community garden in Seattle

There’s nothing new about rain barrels.  Rain barrel technology is as old as barrel technology, although there have been some minor refinements with newer matterials. Ultimately it’s a new/old idea that is catching on because of a new awareness of how valuable water really is.

wooden barrels being used as rain barrels

Wooden rain barrels and wooden downspouts in historic St. Charles, Missouri


2 thoughts on “Water and Sustainability: The New-Old Idea of Rainwater Harvesting

  1. One of our downspouts empties onto the driveway, which slopes downhill to the street. When our driveway was redone several years ago, it was slanted a bit to one slide, just slightly, but enough so that the water runs off into the grass. Unfortunately this has put a rut in the lawn next to the driveway. I wondered what to do about it, until the light bulb went on the other day — put a rain barrel under the downspout! The water can be released slowly, taken to the garden, or put to some other purpose.

    Rain barrels — is there anything they can’t do?! 😉

    • Rain barrels are starting to be seen as multi-purpose. When water supply is a concern, they can suppliment municipal supply. When stormwater management is the driving issue, they can reduce the amount going into storm sewers — or at least level out the peaks. Ideally no rainwater would run off into the storm sewer, but would be retained in storage for later use or absorbed into the ground on site. That’s the ultimate model of sustainability. Rain barrels are an easy inexpensive first step towards that goal!

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