Owen Dell, landscape architect in Santa Barbara and author of Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies, recently wrote a blog post he refers to as an exposé of rain barrels. Basically, his conclusion is that the current popular status rain barrels have attained is misplaced, and rain barrels don't make sense.
I currently have eleven 55-gallon rain barrels around my Los Angeles property, and probably will acquire more. At first I bought a few of these for my then-preteen-age-son, who had outgrown Legos and needed a larger scale project. But soon after I got them, I began to glimpse the wide range of functionality.
[note: This post is written from the viewpoint of the arid Southwest]
Dell criticizes rain barrels primarily with the idea that barrels might assuage the conscience of the consumerist gardener and enable that gardener to continue to pursue a climate-inappropriate garden. Yes, that is a possibility. Yet within the circles where I teach organic gardening classes in Los Angeles, I offer a very different outlook.
1. Rain barrels raise awareness. When we use hose water, we think nothing of the waste. We think nothing of dropping the hose to run and get the phone, or hosing off that patio chair, whatever. When we haul water we begin to think differently. We start to notice where every single drop goes, because we had to save it and haul it in order to use it. Rain barrels are a terrific low-tech simple tool to get people thinking about water in a radical, root level, different way. I've had rain barrel newbies come to me and exclaim how quickly the barrel fills in a single storm (i.e. within minutes). Then they return and express their amazement and dismay at how far the water didn't go as they used it, thus how they began using it so much more carefully. Rain barrels are an excellent way to "dip your toe in the water" of beginning water awareness.
2. Rain barrels capture rain. Have you ever noticed how much better your plants grow after a rain -- far better than with hose water? Here in Los Angeles, much of our irrigation water is alkaline. Rain water isn't salty and isn't alkaline. I heard somewhere that rain captures nitrogen from the atmosphere. By saving rain for later use, you've extended the "rainy season" so that your plants get just a bit more of the really good stuff. Ever notice that white crusty junk around the edges of the soil of your potted plants? That's accumulated salts, and rainwater won't do that. I use saved rainwater primarily to give a great growth boost to my seedling starts and container plants. Your plants will reward you for it.
3. Rain awareness. Our encultured habit is to look out the window on a winter's day and whine "awww, it's raining." When you have rain barrels you to shift to an excited "YEAH! It's raining!" (followed by a sprint outdoors to watch the water pour into your tanks). Rain barrels are yet another way to connect us to the seasons of life, the great outdoors, the natural world around us, in ways that -- cooped up in climate-controlled buildings -- we've forgotten how. Rain barrels aren't meant to replace 100% of your water meter use. The wise way to use rain barrels is to use up the contents between the storms, so that the same container storage capacity is available again for the next storm. Thus you begin watching the weather, and racing the rain. It's a new, future-oriented kind of game.
4. Food first. Mr. Dell recommends California natives and xeriscaping, but from my point of view those purely ornamental landscapes are "so 80's," very much a part of a terribly outdated paradigm. Our society is entering into a new age, which demands not just water wisdom, but local food, in ways we have never seen it in the lifetimes of people alive today. Thus as you change your plant palette and transform your garden, include food. Learn about drought-tolerant food plants, herbs, and functional plants. Learn water-wise food growing techniques. Invest once in the garden makeover, and go straight to food.
5. Emergency preparedness, short and long term. Here in earthquake country, rain barrels can be another part of the panorama of backup water storage. Recent photos from Japan remind us that even in a highly sophisticated country, after an emergency people desperately need water. Yes, there is the toilet tank and the hot water tank and the drinking water you stored if you followed the fire department recommendations. No, you cannot drink rain barrel water without specialized filtration, but you and your neighbors will need water for fires and washing and other uses too. Rain barrels are part of the water portfolio for the Long Emergency, too -- for a post-petroleum future which probably won't have all the reliable city services to which we have become so accustomed in recent decades. By the way, the barrels in Dell's photo by Eric Schmuttenmaer are precariously balanced; to survive even a mild quake he needs to turn those cinderblocks onto their broad, flat side.
6. Reduce first, then go green. Get wise first: unhook from the opulent consumption lifestyle (which our planet can no longer afford anyhow). I tell people this with respect to solar panels and it applies to rain barrels too. With respect to solar panels, powerdown your habits and your lifestyle first, then only buy solar for the remainder. You'll save a lot of money! With respect to rain barrels, change to water efficient habits, hydrozones, swales/berms, deep mulch, climate-appropriate food plants, first. Then add barrels (mine are made from repurposed food container barrels) for those special remaining needs. I'm not just spouting theory: My 9,000 sq ft Los Angeles city lot and active family of four (includes teenagers) used only 52.6% of our tier 1 water ration last June/July and 29.6% of our tier 1 water ration last December/January. It can be done.
7. Use a combination of approaches. I say it in my organic gardening classes with respect to pest control, and it also applies to water wisdom: A single-pronged approach won't do it; you need to attack the problem from all sides. Reduce your consumption. Increase your awareness. Use berms/swales/mulch. Use infiltration as well as storage techniques. Build healthy soil. Change your plant palette. Bucket in the shower. Greywater-plumb your laundry (and consider guerilla greywater too). Use found materials as shade devices. And use rain barrels. Do all of the above in combination, and move into the gardens of the future.
Joanne Poyourow is a blogger at Transition United States. She is part of the core team of the Transition Los Angeles city hub, guiding local communities from oil dependency toward local resilience. Joanne's resource list on Water Wisdom and Greywater (including greywater soaps and shampoos) is online here.