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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rainwater Save Enough to Drink

Air Date: Week of

Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on a Portland couple who have just become the first city residents permitted to capture and drink their own rainwater.


CURWOOD: The MTBE problem drives home the point that clean water is indeed a precious resource. In many places where water is scarce, people are encouraged to capture rainwater and sanitize it for drinking. But in the soggy Pacific Northwest state of Oregon, rain collection has been slow to catch on. Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on a Portland couple who have just become the first city residents permitted to capture and drink their own rainwater.

(A toilet flushes)

FODEN-VENCIL: It can take 10 gallons of water to flush a toilet, 70 gallons to wash a load of laundry. And that's all water which isn't in the streams for fish -- water that's kept behind a dam for storage, then cleaned, chlorinated, and piped into homes. In fact, the whole water delivery network is quite a complicated system for something that, after all, lands on our roofs. Ole Urson [phonetic spelling], a Portland family doctor, thought so.

O. URSON: [phonetic spelling] Everybody knows now we're facing major environmental crises in modern society. And we have to make some changes.

FODEN-VENCIL: The rain collects on his gable roof, then it’s funneled through gutters to a large tank. It settles there until it's about to be used. Then it's drawn into the basement where Urson [phonetic spelling] has built a mini-water purifying system.

O. URSON: [phonetic spelling] This uses off-the-shelf components that you can get at almost any hardware or home improvement store.

FODEN-VENCIL: You've got a Jacuzzi pump there.

O. URSON: [phonetic spelling] Right, right. That's just a half-horsepower pump that is used in millions of homes in America. The only component that's fairly unique is this ultraviolet sterilizer.

FODEN-VENCIL: The water is run past the ultraviolet light, which neutralizes any bacteria. After that, it runs directly to the home faucets.

M. URSON: [phonetic spelling] I really love the rain, especially for showing.

FODEN-VENCIL: Maitre Urson [phonetic spelling] is Ole's wife.

M. URSON: [phonetic spelling] It's really good for the hair.

FODEN-VENCIL: Explain that.

M. URSON: [phonetic spelling] Well, it's very soft. And I don't even use any more conditioners, so with the rain I cut down on step. I think I like the rain better because sometimes the city water, you could actually smell the chlorine. It's just dead water. Rainwater is very, you know, it's always fresh, so straight from the sky into your, you know, kitchen.

FODEN-VENCIL: But rainwater isn't always as fresh as you may think. In heavily-polluted areas, it can absorb all kinds of chemicals and acids as it falls through the atmosphere. There can also be a problem with indoor pipes. Rainwater's like a sponge, ready to soak up any lead or copper. Home purification has other problems, too. Russell Smith is with the Department of Health in Ohio, where rain collectors are more common. He says anyone who doesn't keep a very close eye on maintaining their system risks serious illness.

SMITH: There can be just about any microorganism that's out there. Crypto-sporidium [phonetic spelling] or giardia or different bacteria, E-coli, viruses. There can be a lot of microorganisms that can basically congregate in a cistern.

FODEN-VENCIL: In Portland, Urson [phonetic spelling] has been told to test his water twice a year, and change the filters regularly. In fact, complex maintenance schedules are the reason Portland city isn't leafleting people to follow Urson's [phonetic spelling] example. Dick Gasman [phonetic spelling], a Portland city building manager, says the official position is that they're neither encouraging nor discouraging people from drinking the rain.

GASMAN: [phonetic spelling] My personal position is, in looking at it, it just looked kind of complicated. You know, I wouldn't want to do it. It's just a whole lot easier just to turn the water on.

FODEN-VENCIL: That kind of attitude is surprising, especially as the city of Portland spends millions of dollars to keep rainwater out of the sewage system. The trouble is, every time it rains heavily here, water overloads the pipes, sending raw sewage directly into the Willamette River.

(Traffic and sirens)

FODEN-VENCIL: Standing next to one of those sewage discharge pipes in downtown Portland, Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates says it's not a good system for the endangered salmon that call the Willamette home.

BELL: I think that this issue does represent one of those sort of environmental issues where you have two competing needs. And one is to get the rainwater out of the sewage system, and then the other is to try and make sure that people stay healthy.

FODEN-VENCIL: She thinks the city ought to encourage people to collect rainwater, not necessarily for drinking, but for things like gardening, showering, and toilets.

(Shower water runs, a toilet flushes)

FODEN-VENCIL: Back at the Ursons' [phonetic spelling] home, they think the dangers of running their own mini-purification plant are overblown. They'll keep drinking and showering in their own rainwater, and hope others will follow suit. For Living on Earth, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland.



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