Photo Credit: Eleassar

Photo Credit: Eleassar

One Homeowner’s Experience:  A Gutter Break Results in a Sustainable Solution

For approximately $6,000 – including gravel, pipes, tanks and installation costs – I am able to capture somewhere between 11,000 and 15,000 gallons of water per year in my suburban home where the annual precipitation is 18” per year and my catchment area (roof in this case) is 2700 sq. ft. I can only store half of what is available off my roof in a typical year. Using a conservative 12,000 gallon/year figure for captured and stored water annually, my investment was $.50/gallon. The storage tanks I use (your basic durable plastic rural tanks) are said to have a 40-year life. Spreading this investment over their life, the $6,000 cost is a minimal $150/year. Compare this to the operating cost of a smartphone. The scale of this system is not necessarily for everyone, but some capture and reuse of water should be on everyone’s agenda.

If we were to calculate the square footage of all existing structures in California using the same formula, the water capture would be astounding! For every 3000 sq. ft. of water catchment area one could capture 30,000 gallons/year for 40 years for a cost of $6,000 in reasonably dry, non-desert parts of California.

A Bit of History….

California’s climate history, with allowances for climate change, must be the starting point for a sound water policy. That we live in an arid state is a truth derived not only from written records on climate and weather patterns in the state. Now, long-term nature-based sources of information in the form of tree rings and sediment cores confirm it (The West without Water, Ingram et al). The evidence from nature points to a California model consisting of lengthy periods of drought (yes, longer than 4 years) that are punctuated by periods of flooding. An intimate knowledge of place and how nature functions are keys to meaningful long-range planning for water. With this in mind, wisdom would dictate policy devoted to capturing as much water as possible when it is available and storing it for use when water is in short supply. From such a policy would emanate legislation that acknowledges a future with long periods of water scarcity.

Governor Brown declared a drought state of emergency in January and the State Water Resources Control Board ordered new restrictions on water use. Then in April the Governor mandated 25 percent water reductions in cities and towns. We are now in the fourth year of drought and there seems to be no end in sight to our state’s water shortfall. We are experiencing the worst dry period in 1,200 years. Applying the term “emergency” somehow makes the problem real. The state’s reservoirs are a fraction of their usual size  due to the diminishing snowpack in the Sierras.

The entire issue is complicated by the lack of a central body responsible for decision-making on water matters in our state and outdated water rights laws that permit property rights to trump the public good. In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “Slaking California’s Thirst – if Politics Allows,” a CEO explained why it took 10 years to build a single desalination plant near San Diego. The author makes a good case for how this state’s politics is a roadblock to good planning for water.

Crisis Management

The governor’s crisis plan calls for a substantial cutback in water use statewide. This is reminiscent of Washington’s attempt to pass a budget that makes cuts across the board regardless of specific need. The immediate focus of the emergency plan will be reducing landscape and extravagant uses of water. The response thus far has been narrow and negative in focus. It uses punishing fines for excesses in water use and even “ratting” on neighbors. Yes, water will have to be more expensive since supplies are more limited now. Higher costs will serve as a deterrent to waste as well, but the fees fall unevenly on different segments of the population.

My approach is to give all citizens a stake in capturing the water they need. Those who govern us and manage the state’s natural resources on our behalf must provide the tools and mechanisms to make water conservation happen in a meaningful way. It is time to reconvene diverse stakeholders as was done at Monterey, locate, resurrect and update AB 1150 passed after the last drought and signed by the Governor. This law made possible significantly less water wastage by providing tax incentives for low-tech water conservation actions. It also addressed the educational message for consumers that water is precious and should not be wasted.

Photo Credit: Davide Restivo

Photo Credit: Davide Restivo


The ways to make massive amounts of water that would otherwise escape the system available to us quickly, relatively inexpensively and relying on existing resources and technologies are:

1) low-tech water capture and storage installations for new and old structures of all types (e.g. rainwater harvesting and graywater systems to gather water for irrigation purposes)

2) the addition to existing smart water saving landscape practices as lawn removal, drip irrigation and the use of native plants: fall tree planting, mulching, building ponds on farms and ranches to capture and store rainwater and using permaculture techniques on landscapes of all types. Such best landscape management practices not only help retain moisture in the ground and improve soils, but they reduce carbon in the atmosphere! This is a win-win in an era of climate change and extreme weather events (including our drought).

These ideas reflect an understanding of how nature works and a desire to work with nature on the part of humans. They also show an appreciation of our place on earth physically and spiritually.

This is the second part in a four-part series. To read the other installments, click below:

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