Before we dive right into all the options for rain barrels and their alternatives, it’s worth asking a couple questions, like
Whether you know for sure climate change is a thing or not, extreme weather patterns seem to be getting more severe. Even if that isn’t happening, more human development means more stormwater runoff (Just ask our friends who live downhill from that new development) and that means bad news for groundwater.
Massively engineered infrastructure projects may handle it, but in a concentration that cannot really filter all that runoff fast enough or well enough to get it back into the ground safely, where it needs to go if you want to keep water coming out of your faucet.
The Best Filter
The best natural water filter is the ground, specifically the “living layer” of bacteria and microorganisms found in the top 12” or so. (source: some scientific study by that guy from university of somewhere – look it up, I swear) and the best man-made filters use this and mimic nature. (Same study)
Therefore, logic would dictate the best way to filter and recharge the most possible rainwater is to catch and slow down as much as possible, letting it soak in over the largest coverage area of land we can find.
Where is the largest total “green space” in or around any city?
Our collective backyards.
Here’s an idea: Let’s stop funneling all that nice clean rain off from our roofs and driveways — and even lawns (which are not so permeable, either)— out to the street and storm sewer, picking up pollutants and crapping up our streams, lakes, and oceans. Yeah. Let’s knock that right off.
Instead, how ’bout you and me help it all sink into the ground. 3 guesses where it would all end up…
… In our basements? If we punch it down right next to our foundations; ok let’s not do that.
… In the ground? Yes!! It would end up as groundwater again! Brilliant! You got it on the second guess! Go, You!
and the Aquifers, of course. (part of groundwater, I’ll give you that) In the process, what is all this slow release rain-infiltration doing for our landscapes?
Reducing the need to use drinking (tap) water to water plants. Beautiful!
Your plants will be your biggest fans. No, Really Big.
Plants thrive with rainwater (all kindsa science of that in the ‘Low Maintenance Landscape’ post), and “edible landscaping” is such a great idea, (we love win/wins!) –it’s time to mix some veggies, greens and other edibles like nuts and fruits, into your landscape.
Double whammy, in the nicest way possible.
Doing the above (slow release and edible landscaping), we potentially just reduced our growing demand for massive commercialized agriculture, and irrigation, and gmo’s (look out, they’ll be after me for that one! 😉 so you can focus on the quality of what you are eating —
and so the next generation can see that food is grown and harvested from the ground, not from boxes on store shelves.
Maybe we’ll all even gain a little patience, delayed gratification and an appreciation for hard work and nature in the process. That can’t hurt.
Just a thought.
Where the rain barrel meets the road
On a smaller and simpler scale (you gotta start somewhere), rain barrels scratch the surface of accomplishing those goals, but when you see them blasting full after about 1/10th of an inch of rain, you find out you need about 50 more rain barrels to keep up, or one massive tank. That’s where most people hit the brakes.
They run the other direction, or drastically reduce water use in other ways. Which is, I think, the main benefit of rain barrels: to enlighten us about how much water we are currently using, and how much less we really need.
We could change the ways our homes are built, like making separate greywater lines or drinking water systems, flushing toilets with greywater, etc. One such water system is that designed and used by Michael Reynolds at Earthship Biotecture. He is way ahead of his time.
But old habits die hard. Clear steps or incentives for changing architecture and design of new homes to handle this are not quite there yet, or if they are, builders seem to have no financial motivation to use them.
Water is cheap. At least for now.
Even when new home design adapts, that won’t help all of the existing homes.