Got rain? Of course you do. Sometimes in the Northwest it can seem like that’s all we do have. Yet there’s always a period of total drought midsummer when your water bill skyrockets, and forecasters are predicting that situation will only get worse. But so will flooding. Plus, the big problem is that pollutants in stormwater runoff can hurt Puget Sound. Time to get creative with the rain – and a handful of South Sounders are exploring three different ways: above ground, in-ground and below ground.
ABOVE GROUND – BARRELS AND TANKS
Think rain harvesting and most people think of the rain barrel. But while it has advantages – it’s fairly cheap, doesn’t take much installation and easily connects a hose to your garden – it’s not very attractive, and it’s not really a solution to major Northwest rain, where the average 2,000-square-foot home generates 30,000 gallons of runoff per year. No, the secret is multiple barrels, or even a much bigger one.
“I tell people to start small,” says Dan Borba, a Tacoma rain barrel supplier and installer. “Assess how much you use. But just one-third of an inch of rain will fill up a 50-gallon barrel.”
With that in mind John Avery, one of Dan’s Tacoma customers, installed five barrels outside his house two years ago. Three barrels take runoff from the garage roof; they’re connected and feed into each other. Two more collect from the north side of the house roof. The overflow runs out to the driveway or planting areas. Avery uses the water to irrigate nearby border plants and a young apple tree, but there’s another bonus – emergency water in case of a natural disaster, which could even be drunk if it’s filtered.
Still, even five barrels don’t really go far.
“They fill up in a few days with a good rain,” says Avery. “I still need to water the lawn regularly (with the sprinkler). I thought that this would solve some of my watering issues, but it doesn’t, not to the extent that I would have liked.”
Sol Riou had exactly the same problem – and went one big step further. She’d had a rain barrel on the side of her Tacoma house, and it filled up in a day.
“It’s basically a widening in the drain mouth,” Riou says wryly.
So Riou went back to Dan Borba and bought a 1,000-gallon tank, white plastic and about 8 feet high and wide, and installed it on her back deck. Collecting water from half the roof, it irrigates Riou’s permaculture veggie plot and waters her pet turkeys, both downhill from the tank.
“It fills up in about two months and lasts about two months; that’s the length of our summer,” says Riou.
But it’s still not enough in long dry stretches, and she’d like to improve on the system: getting another tank, beautifying the outsides with plants or artwork, feeding the overflow into a water feature or thirsty food crop, and maybe even using it in the house.
“There’s a pressure issue, I’d have to pump it,” she explains.
Meanwhile, she too likes the security of having her own stored water, and so far there hasn’t been much algae build-up or other maintenance. It’s also cheaper, gallon for gallon, than barrels.
Even Borba, who has only one barrel at his rented home, makes good use of the water: washing tools or his car, watering indoor plants, hauling it in a bucket to hand-flush his toilet.
“It’s a step in the direction of sustainability,” Riou says. “To me it makes a lot of sense.”
Installing a rain barrel is fairly easy, says Borba. The best place is next to the house under a downspout. Mount the barrel on a couple of cinder blocks and secure it, then feed the downspout into it. Connect a hose at the bottom for your yard and an overflow hose at the top, both with spigots; feed the overflow into the drain, rain garden or other storage.
Or you can go completely off the water grid. Andrew Lench, whose Seattle-based Global Green Energy Corp. helps build homes with renewable energy, managed a project for a house in north Thurston County that stores up to 20,000 gallons of rainwater – run-off from their entire 6,500-square-foot roof. In an enormous semi-underground room below the house, four black 5,000-gallon tanks stand some 13 feet high, gravity-fed by PVC pipes from the aluminum gutters and nontoxic tile roof. Humming and gurgling constantly, the water passes through screen, micron, carbon and UV filters before being pumped up to supply the entire house with potable clean water.
“The supply water here was full of iron, which stains your dishes, your clothes, everything,” explained Lench. So he factored in the tank system when the eco-friendly house was built in 2006. Since then it’s run perfectly: no maintenance (indoor black tanks don’t attract algae), no water failure, and the overflow runs smoothly into the septic system. There’s also a well-water tank for automatic backup.
Such a system isn’t for everyone, of course. The project cost around $38,000, and obviously required a lot of space. But as an environmentally friendly solution to a water supply problem, it worked well.
IN-GROUND – RAIN GARDENS
There’s a campaign just launched by Washington State University and Stewardship Partners, involving cities, counties and nonprofits around Puget Sound, to encourage residents to plant 12,000 rain gardens by 2016. And there’s a good reason for that.
“Rain gardens improve the water quality in lakes, rivers and streams; they reduce your irrigation requirement; they enhance your landscaping,” summarizes Jessica Knickerbocker, an engineer with the City of Tacoma’s surface water division. “They use less chemicals than lawn. It’s a good way to reuse stormwater.”
Knickerbocker is one of a couple of engineers who have been involved with the City’s EnviroHouse, a demonstration eco-friendly property near the Tacoma landfill. She helped construct the rain garden onsite and gives classes there for those who want to build one themselves.
She also emphasizes that a rain garden is just a part of managing your water onsite.
“On one corner of my house is a rain barrel, another downspout goes onto the grass. Another corner has a rain garden because there’s no place for the stormwater to go.”
So what exactly is a rain garden? It’s an area of yard that’s dug into a slight depression, lined with gravel and backfilled with well-draining soil. Planted with natives that can cope with both soaking and drought, it takes in runoff via pipes from a downspout, the plants and soil filtering the water so that it either drains down or passes into stormwater pipes much cleaner than before. This in turn protects fish and Sound water from pollutants such as chemicals from cars, and it can even save you money on your water bill (see resources).
Mae Harris is the block leader on her part of South L Street on Tacoma’s Hilltop, and when the city offered to help build rain gardens in her neighborhood, she put up her hand. Her small front yard is now a swath of pretty grasses, sedges, perennials and natives, collecting all the runoff from her porch roof. An explanatory notice tells passers-by about the project and its companions up and down the street.
“It’s really pretty in summertime,” says Harris, “and it drains really well. The neighbors all liked it when it was done.”
Weeding, though, is an issue, and the plants do have to be watered until they’re established.
Not all rain gardens are that easy to install. For Jerry Parker it took three years to even get a permit to build the rain garden that now slopes like a miniature forest stream alongside his West Olympia house, diverting and cleaning gutter water. After dealing with the city’s regulation that all new houses must be built with sidewalks (he offered to build one across the street instead), complying with their rule to dig a deep dry-well filled with rocks to cope with potential property run-off, and negotiating with Puget Sound Energy about gas pipe access, Parker finally got his rain garden finished last August.
“I’m concerned that stormwater issues are only being addressed at the end of the pipe,” says Parker about why he wanted a parking strip rain garden. “They’re talking about constructing a giant storm/sewage plant down at the port to handle storm rain. If you compare that to the cost of keeping water out of drains in the first place...”
The yard slopes down to the steep side-street from the house, dipping down into a rocky stream bed and up again over a gravel sidewalk path. It’s planted with the usual rain garden grasses, sedums, perennials and natives, as well as a couple of cute little blue shag pines. In summer, the bed’s dry, soaking up every inch of water, but after the recent snow it’s gushing like a stream over the miniature waterfall and on into the storm drain, much cleaner.
Neighbors love it, says Parker, although a few think it’s just ornamental and one well-meaning person removed the sand-sock dam Parker had laid to divert the rush of snow melt into the rain garden. Above all, it’s extremely beautiful, a slice of nature on a busy thoroughfare.
But it wasn’t cheap. Designed by Olympia’s Linda Andrews, the whole thing cost around $14,000, although that includes other landscaping, including new front steps and lots of regrading. Other smaller projects, with fewer permitting issues and less digging, would cost less. If you want to build your own, the Washington State University extension has published a comprehensive handbook (see resource list). Other solutions, like permeable pavers, are more expensive but useful for driveways and other locations unsuitable for rain gardens.
“If everybody had rain gardens, there wouldn’t be such a flow through (of stormwater),” says Parker.
BELOW GROUND – DRAINAGE PIPES
It might not look it from the street, but the commercial/residential property at 301-311 Puyallup Avenue in Tacoma is entirely disconnected from the city stormwater grid. Owners Rick Semple and Jori Adkins came up with the plan in 2007 when they were faced with a problem – their parking lot runoff was draining into the basement apartments – and an unexpected solution – the City of Tacoma was offering them $160,000 compensation for cutting off some of their access to build the D Street overpass.
They could have spent the money on vacations. Instead, Semple and Adkins took a holistic approach, using it to tear up the entire 300-by-55-foot parking lot and regrade it with three enormous half-pipes laid underneath on a bed of gravel, feeding into a long swale and thus treating all their stormwater onsite instead of down the drain into the Thea Foss waterway.
“We could have run it through an ugly oil separation tank, but this was the ecologically better way to do it,” explains Semple.
It wasn’t easy. Simply getting the architectural and engineering plans approved took eight months – “We were the city’s guinea pig on this one,” says Adkins – and once the work began, the November rain did too. Still, the project took only two months: digging a giant trench, removing toxic soil, laying weed mat and gravel, putting down the inverted half-circle pipes of heavy yellow plastic (each 55 feet long and six feet high), digging a catch basin for overflow, feeding in the downspouts, backfilling, regrading and asphalting, then planting the narrow swale rain garden that stands downhill from the pipes.
The reward? Better drainage, a new lot, a stretch of beautiful garden and a savings of 10 per cent off their water bills.
“In future, we’d go further and maybe build a cistern, use the stored water for gray water and irrigation,” says Semple. “The benefits are certainly not economic. Most people aren’t going to be able to do this. But if it’s new construction, why not?”
“We did it for our buildings, and to help the Foss,” explains Adkins. “It’s like solar – you’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
Dan Borba, supply and installation; 253-272-8173, naturalrainwater.com
Rain garden design
Linda Andrews, landscape designer; 360-943-1141 patternsinnature.net
Rain garden classes
Erica Guttman, with the Native Plant Salvage Society; 360-867-2164, nativeplantsalvage.org
OTHER Rain garden classes
• City of Tacoma EnviroHouse, 10:30 a.m. April 28 (more coming up). Free. Registration required at 253-573-2426 or cityoftacoma.org/envirohouse
• Rain garden on view permanently at EnviroHouse. Permeable pavers coming soon. Open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
• For technical help and to see if your rain garden qualifies you for a stormwater bill reduction, contact the City of Tacoma Permit Intake Center, 253-591-5218 or cityoftacoma.org/stormwater
Online rain garden/barrel resources
How to: http://co.pierce.wa.us/lid