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

Catch The Rain

Air Date: Week of

Texas rainwater expert Billy Kniffen beside one of the tanks that feeds his home in Menard. (Texas Co-op Power)

In recent years, as places from Atlanta to West Texas have dealt with debilitating drought, people have turned anew to rain catchment. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet has our story.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s just rain! And in a world where water is increasingly scarce don’t look to a super hero in spandex to save the planet. Look to the past. As Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, ancient methods to catch rain can do a super job.
LOBET: In a growing number of places around the United States, people are taking a second look at their roofs, wondering how much water they might catch.


DOWNEY: In this illustration we are looking at a one-inch frame producing 650 gallons per one thousand square feet of roof.

LOBET: That’s Nate Downey of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He’s written a book called “Harvest the Rain, Seeing Every Storm as a Resource” and is on the road giving workshops.

DOWNEY: Who here lives in a place that's really cold in the winter? You probably want to go with an underground cistern. Who here lives in a place that is really warm? You are going to want probably an above ground system, because above ground cisterns are much less expensive than underground cisterns.

A vertical water cistern in Santa Monica, California (Neal Shapiro)

LOBET: Catching water in tanks and cisterns is now common in Santa Fe where the city can ration water during drought and wells can run dry. Landscape contractors like Downey even have a monthly get-together called the semi-arid café to discuss technique and tour new installations. But renewed interest in rain reaches far beyond New Mexico. Here’s a sample of the folks who came out to learn more in Los Angeles:

PORTILLO: I’m here because I’m studying anything and everything related to permaculture, horticulture, agriculture. I want to incorporate water harvesting into whatever it is that I do.

SEVEN: I’ve owned property for the past 40 years and I’m at a point where I need to figure out where we want to put a cistern. I grew up going to an island in Connecticut that used a cistern.

FINLEY: I have a property that used to be a swim school. So I have a 50 by 25 foot pool in there that I collect rain water in, and I put it in barrels, and I need to figure out a another way to do it where I don’t have to physically be there pulling hoses and all that crazy stuff.

LOBET: This workshop is taking place in a café and dance space called Club Fais Do Do in mid city Los Angeles. The club’s owner, Steven Yablok, says he wants to invite nature in to the place where people party. He plans to collect water off his large roof.

YABLOK: The downspouts are easily accessible so we can pick that water off. We have an area in the backyard of the restaurant where we can have storage tanks and use that water for growing some of the foods that we will be serving here.

LOBET: It’s a sort of extension of the local food movement, or rooftop solar. Make your energy here. Collect your water here. Fifteen miles to the west, the City of Santa Monica aims to get all of its water locally. That’s a feat in the southwest. By 2020 the city wants all of its water to come from its own groundwater or rainfall. But don’t call it rainwater capture.

SHAPIRO: I’ll call it rainwater harvesting. Capture can have negative connotations when you think about war and stuff.

LOBET: Neal Shapiro is Watershed Management Program Coordinator for Santa Monica and has advocated rainwater use and water self-sufficiency for years. The city now gives incentives to people who direct their downspouts into rain barrels and use that to water plants.

SHAPIRO: We have rebates of up to 100 dollars per rain barrel or, in some instances, 200 dollars per rain barrel.

LOBET: But rain barrels, Neal Shapiro and other seem to agree, are only the beginning.

SHAPIRO: That’s called the gateway drug to rainwater harvesting - that kind of gets you into it. Then if you really get excited about it, you would move up to the larger systems - containers called cisterns.

LOBET: For Shapiro, there’s something wrong with a system that spends vast amounts of energy to pump water into southern California, then more energy to clean it to drinking water standards, just to flush it down the toilet or water plants.

SHAPIRO: Sixty percent of our water is used outdoors. And that’s for non-potable purposes, so that a huge waste of valuable potable water resources. And indoors, you're talking, 65 percent of that water is used for non-potable purposes. So that’s why I believe we should really start moving in that direction.

LOBET: Atlanta, Georgia just passed an ordinance encouraging rainwater harvest, not just for landscaping and laundry but for drinking, as well. And Billy Kniffen has become famous across his state for figuring out how to run a home on rainwater alone in sun-blasted Texas. He also promotes small structures that collect roof water into troughs for wildlife.

KNIFFEN: Wildlife waterers or wildlife guzzlers have been around the state of Texas for decades.

LOBET: In web videos, Kniffen shows off his systems: roof-to-tank-to-trough.

KNIFFEN: We have to be concerned about squirrels and other critters that might fall into here. And so we want to have some kind of material that’s going to allow those animals when they go swimming to climb back out and get out and not drown. And so this may be what you need to really take care of the habitat on your ranch.

LOBET: In certain ways, this rain movement harkens back to homesteaders and native people’s methods used long before municipal water. In some places, water catchment never really went out of favor. Take Hawaii:

MACOMBER: I think this goes back to the early plantation days.

LOBET: Trisha Macomber is an extension educator at the University of Hawaii. More than a decade ago, she took an interest in water catchment because tens of thousands of people on the Big Island drink rainwater. But the systems were unregulated. She began testing people’s water for bacteria.

MACOMBER: We were running about 46 to 48 percent of positive for fecal indicators - fecal bacteria in the water.

LOBET: That’s dangerous and unacceptable according to EPA guidelines. And it’s not hard to keep your system free of such bacteria. You just need to observe a couple of basic steps.

MACOMBER: Probably the most popular and recommended would be an ultraviolet light system. Usually you do a couple of pre-filters to pull out the sediment, and then run the water through a UV light and that is very effective and you can put it at the point of entry to home - so your whole house as treated water. But, I would say, for a good system that would handle your water pressure to run your dishwasher and all your modern conveniences, probably talking around $1,200 dollars.

LOBET: Another basic step to take if you want to drink your rainwater is to install a device that diverts the first flush of rain after a dry spell into a side channel.

MACOMBER: Because a lot of contaminants land on your roof and on your catchment surface during dry periods, when the rain hits, the first flush of rain pulls the majority of those contaminants off right initially, and if you can divert that away from the tank, then the rest of the water coming in is a lot cleaner.

LOBET: Macomber says attitudes toward rainwater catchment are changing.

MACOMBER: When I started addressing this about 11 years ago, it was still kind of … well, if you were on catchment, you were kind of the other side of the tracks. It meant you were out in the rural areas, you didn’t have the money to get a fancy place in town. But that attitude has really changed and people who used to not be happy with catchment are finding it to be pretty wonderful thing.

LOBET: Despite these changes from Georgia, to Texas, New Mexico to Hawaii, there are some places where water scarcity is not leading to more water harvest. That would include Colorado, where Kevin Rein is deputy state engineer at the Department of Water Resources. There, it’s illegal to collect rainwater.

REIN: In Colorado, a homeowner that is connected to city water supply cannot capture rainwater from the rooftop at all.

LOBET: Water that flows in Colorado, even on someone’s land or roof, must flow un-diverted down to the river. Water rights in Colorado date back 150 years. People have claims to every drop of water that flows into rivers. The only way you can catch your rain is if you measure it and put that much back in.

REIN: Colorado law does recognize that precipitation is a public resource and is to be used within the prior appropriations system.

LOBET: Is this changing at all in Colorado?


LOBET: But elsewhere in the country where water is scarce, you may well see a neighbor, hands on hips, taking a closer look at that roof. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.

GELLERMAN: And for more information about harvesting rainwater head over to our website L-O-E dot O-R-G.



Watch a slideshow about rain catchment

American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association

City of Santa Monica rainwater harvesting site

General rainwater info site

Nate Downey’s rainwater book and landscape business

Trisha Macomber and the Hawaii Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources rainwater site

Rainwater landscaping and permaculture company

Vortechnics line of rainwater harvesting filters


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