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Save It on a Rainy Day: Rainwater Collection in the Drought Era

Musician Timothy Sellers' rainwater collection containers in his Highland Park home, made from 50-gallon Albanian pickle barrels.
Musician Timothy Sellers' rainwater collection containers in his Highland Park home, made from 50-gallon Albanian pickle barrels. | Photo: Courtesy Timothy Sellers

A segment based on this story was produced for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it here now.

When it rains, it pours -- well, maybe not so much these days. As you may have already heard, from San Diego county to Siskiyou county, the entire state of California is in a drought. This past year's record dearth of rainfall and snowpack has affected everything from agriculture to energy production to recreational fishing to our state's famous wines.

But the most noticeable effect will be on our municipal water supplies, especially now that the California Department of Water Resources has announced that it will not be delivering any water from its reservoirs to local water agencies this spring, the first time it has ever done so in the 54-year history of the State Water Project, the 700-mile water conveyance network that serves much of the Golden State.

As Californians inevitably prepare for increased water conservation, even those of us who are resourceful enough to collect the free water that falls from the sky to use for outdoor landscaping and garden irrigation are especially concerned. With 44 percent of total household water usage in Los Angeles going towards landscaping use, rainwater collection, even in the drought era, is important. Perhaps, more important than ever.

When it rains, it may not exactly pour, but another saying still rings true: Every drop counts.

An example of  Kimberly Colbert's decorative 62-gallon Rain Goddess rainwater capture system.
An example of Kimberly Colbert's decorative 62-gallon Rain Goddess rainwater capture system. | Photo: Courtesy Kimberly Colbert/Rain Goddess

"We need to get past the mindset of, 'It doesn't rain here,'" said Kimberly Colbert, an environmental consultant and founder of Rain Goddess, a Los Angeles-based company that makes rainwater capture systems. "A quarter-inch rainfall, which is less than what we had [during the rains in early February] hitting an 1,800-square foot roof results in 280 gallons of runoff. That's 280 gallons per household that just ends up in the storm drain, picking up pollutants and getting washed out to the ocean, gone to waste. In a drought, we need to capture that runoff. Let's put it this way -- If you're starving, would you throw away food that's offered to you?"

Colbert started her company in 2012 based on her experience consulting municipal governments on stormwater issues, as well as a desire to make a more aesthetically-pleasing product.

"Most rainwater capture systems are unattractive devices no one wants in front of their home. I wanted to design something pleasing," she said. Colbert also added that her 62-gallon rainwater capture system, which can be linked in multiples for additional capacity, is entirely manufactured locally in the Los Angeles area.

Timothy Sellers, a musician who lives in L.A.'s Highland Park neighborhood, also takes rainwater capture seriously. Originally hailing from the water-abundant Catskill mountains in central New York state, and accustomed to growing his own food at home, he soon learned that he had to change the way he gardened and landscaped since moving to Los Angeles in the late 1990s. After he and his wife bought their current home in 2001, they planted several fruit trees on his property's large lot, with just a small patch of grass in the backyard to conserve water.

His rainwater capture system, in operation since last year, consists of 19 fifty-gallon containers purchased online that were originally Albanian pickle barrels, fed by the downspouts from the roof gutters of his house.

"My setup holds 1,000 gallons of rainwater," said Sellers. "It might sound like a lot, but I think we could potentially do much better. We have a medium-sized roof to collect the rainfall. All 19 barrels fill up with just one or two inches of rainfall."

Sellers said that with his arrangement, captured water must be used before more can be collected, which he admits isn't realistic in this drought period. He would like to expand his system with either larger barrels or a gravity-assisted elevated cistern that would allow him to use his saved water year-round.

Is rainwater collection the new normal? In this new reality of climate change and extended drought seasons, it may very well be. Other cities in the country have already taken the initiative.

"Tucson, Arizona has a rainbarrel program, and they have even less rain than we get," said Colbert. "They're in a true desert, not the Mediterranean environment that we have."

She also encourages people to take advantage of rainbarrel rebates given by water agencies, such as the $75 rebate given to Metropolitan Water District customers who purchase rainwater collection systems that meet their criteria.

"I believe we can make a difference, just look at the [City of Los Angeles' recent] plastic bag ban. People had their doubts at first, but now using reusable bags is the fashionable thing to do. It's all about educating public what their responsibilities are, and how they can make a real impact. If everyone saves those 280 gallons that normally gets washed away, then they're definitely going to make a difference," said Colbert.

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