Saving From a Rainy Day

Liquid assets: Conserving is key, but storing water is a growing green trend


Brock Dolman, director of the WATER Institute at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, installed a rainwater catchment on a small goat shed.

By Janet Parmer, published 10/22/2009 for the Press Democrat.

If the phone calls he’s been receiving are any indication, Brock Dolman could have a full-time job installing systems that catch winter rainwater and store it for lean rainfall months.

Homeowners and businesses ask him almost daily for referrals to contractors, plumbers, and home improvement stores so they can make the most of the water that drenches their roofs and drains off their property.

Dolman, who runs the WATER Institute at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, said people are fascinated with rainwater harvesting methods, but he advises them to do everything they can to conserve water before spending thousands of dollars and significant time putting in big holding tanks, gutters and spigots.

“They may say, ‘I have a huge tank and I’m green.’ But why not cut demand for water??” he said.

Dolman views storage tanks as giant piggy banks containing rainwater to be used as part of an overall water conservation “budget.”

“It’s like the money market. You want to diversify your portfolio. You invest in the winter and get liquid assets you can use later,” he said.

“We don’t live in a water scarce area. We live in a storage scarce area,” Dolman said, noting that Occidental may receive as much as 60 inches of rain annually.

Other parts of the North Bay receive far less rainfall, however, and many rural homeowners in the west county have serious problems getting enough water from their wells and must regularly pay for trucked-in water.

Harvesting rainwater is gaining popularity in the southwestern United States and Latin America, and cities like San Francisco and Santa Rosa have initiated programs to give homeowners incentives to store and reuse water.

In Santa Rosa, the city will pay 25 cents for each gallon of rainwater storage a customer installs. A tank capable of holding at least 100 gallons is required for the city rebate.

While the Sonoma County Water Agency and other Sonoma County cities strongly recommend water conservation to their customers, they haven’t begun offering financial incentives for rainfall storage.

Kevin Falkerson is a Sonoma County architect, designer, builder and owner of Symbios, specializing in what he calls ?eco-tecture.?

In the last few years, demand has increased for rainwater storage systems to be planned as part of the original design for a new house.

“When you’re thinking of a new project, it’s a lot easier to incorporate a system into the design,” he said.

He’s installed underground storage tanks for homeowners and linked a series of tanks hidden out of view underneath a deck.

He agrees with Dolman that a key issue is planning for adequate storage capacity since there are often seven or eight months with no rain.

“In the West, we’ve got to start making a dent in our water needs because we get all of our rain in the winter,” he said.

Erik Ohlsen, owner of Permaculture Earth Artisans of Sebastopol, helps homeowners strategize how to save and reuse water on their property.

He installs tanks and other man-made collection systems. And he also looks at options for holding water in re-contoured ground by designing and creating swales, seasonal ponds, terraces and other natural water containment features.

“We call the roof of a building an above-ground well. It’s pretty amazing how much can be collected from a roof even in drought years. You can probably collect more than you can store,” Ohlsen said.

The equation commonly used for estimating volume of usable water on a roof is that one-inch of water pelting a 1,000-square-foot roof will yield approximately 600 gallons of water.

But it is difficult to store that water year-round, and the supply is unlikely to match the water demand for major landscaping.

“A typical garden or landscape would use more water in a year than a typical person could store,” Ohlsen.

He said most people want to drain storm water off their property as quickly as possible, and the more water that can be held on the site the better.

When he gets an inquiry from a potential client, he looks at options for holding water in the ground and also assesses manmade storage possibilities.

It’s important to place a tank high on the property so gravity will create water flow to a garden or landscape without using a pump. There also needs to be a plan for overflow once the tank is full.

Ohlsen recommends clients purchase the largest tank they can afford.

Handy do-it-yourselfers could install an entire system, but others might need a plumber, sheet metal worker or contractor.

Homeowners Alistair Bleifuss and Ann Cassidy had an unreliable water supply on their 10-acre Bodega property and wanted to become more independent from their local water supplier.

They had a 27,000-gallon gravity fed storage tank installed seven years ago.

“We’re really happy with it. It supplies our drinking water and we use it for our sheep and horses and around our property,” Bleifuss said. “In a typical winter we get more water than we can use and the overflow is spread out onto the land.”

Janet Parmer is a Bay Area feature writer. She can be reached at .

(Excerpted from the Press Democrat)

Leave a Comment