A Gift from the Sky

Rainwater harvesting

Homeowner and rainwater harvester Jim Bowen raises a glass of crystal-clear water poured from the tap on his storage tanks.

Photograph by Lane Johnson

Jim and Carolyn Bowen’s Santa Cruz Mountains property is healthy and green year-round, yet the couple uses no purchased water or private well water for irrigation during the summer months. Rainwater, collected and stored during the winter, makes the Bowens’ plants thrive.

“I planted a park, not a garden,” Bowen says. With a view of Monterey Bay, the two-acre property includes Japanese gardens, a large pond, and several pear trees. Rain runoff from the roof of the Bowens’ house is stored in seven 5,000-gallon tanks, then distributed through their irrigation system.

The Bay Area’s Mediterranean climate, with drought-like summers that typically provide less than one inch of rain from May to October, force us to rely heavily on stored water purchased from our public utilities. Yet water literally falls from the sky onto our homes and yards every winter. Seeking independence from rising water costs and the ever-present threat of shortages, some Bay Area homeowners are choosing to install rainwater storage systems.

Rainwater collection, also known as rainwater harvesting or catchment, collects the water that runs off our roofs or down the sidewalk and diverts it into collection barrels. Harvesting systems range from a simple barrel left open to catch whatever falls from the sky to the huge tank systems that landscape architect Bobby Markowitz installs for clients like the Bowens.

Markowitz envisioned the Bowens’ water-catchment setup when a series of underground wells on their property failed to yield enough water for their needs.

“I told Jim we need to look up instead of down for water,” Markowitz says. “Rainwater has no bacteria, no chlorine, no fluoride. It’s better for plants.”

Carolyn Bowen agrees. “We had our rainwater tested. It was so pure that the testers asked us where we got it.”

In Saratoga, Brad Daniels owns and operates Rainsavers, Inc., a company that sells rain catchment barrels, water tanks, and other accessories for storing rainwater. The barrels, which attach to a house’s downspouts, run the gamut from utilitarian models to highly decorative units designed to look like large terra-cotta flower pots.

Daniels says that people who have rainwater catchment systems enjoy the security of knowing “that they have extra water stored up for an emergency, for irrigation, for car washing, and more,” and that they are doing something good for the environment.

Storing water from the sky is a practice that has been in place for centuries, and today it’s just as viable in cities as it is in suburban or rural areas.

“Rainwater catchment reduces the runoff from our homes to the bay, which slows pollution of the bay. It preserves water at the place where it falls, allowing it to percolate into the soil and replenish the aquifer,” Daniels says.

“The state of California spends 20 percent of its energy budget on transporting water. Capturing water at the source will help reduce that number, saving money and the environment,” he adds.

The practice of paying for a public or private utility to deliver water to our homes started fairly recently, in the late 1800s, due to advances in sanitary and civil engineering. However, storing water from the sky is a practice that has been in place for centuries, and today it’s just as viable in cities as it is in suburban or rural areas.

“San Francisco has a big problem with runoff because there is so little soil to absorb the rain. As the water pours down the streets, it gains speed, and causes flooding and other problems,” Daniels says.

Our reliance on water being delivered to our taps may have to change in the next decade, Daniels says. “Most people don’t know this, but California is mandating a 20 percent reduction in water deliveries by 2020. In 10 years, water deliveries will be 20 percent less. Yet our population is expected to grow, not shrink.”

The amount of rainwater a typical system can capture varies widely. When Markowitz visits a homeowner’s property, he analyzes the size of the landscaped area, where the system could be placed, how much rainwater the client needs, and the aesthetics of their property. The Bowens’ seven large green tanks are hidden behind a hedge, with the pipes buried a foot deep in the ground.

The cost for a complete rainwater catchment system can range from $2,500 to $50,000, depending on how extensive it is, but a simple barrel that attaches to your downspouts can cost as little
as $100.

“These systems are easy to install, maintain, and expand,” states Markowitz. “They help control storm runoff, and slow soil erosion.”

Jim Bowen has another description for his rainwater harvesting setup. “I call it God’s water,” he says, glancing up at the sky.

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