Harvest the Northwest's winter rain for summer use

Harvest the Northwest's winter rain for summer use

by Lorene Edwards Forkner

Harvesting water with a rain barrel and transporting it with a watering can can save homeowners money throughout the year. It also provides an ample resource for wildlife.

Save money on next year's water bill by harvesting the rain this winter. Here in the Pacific Northwest, when it rains it pours — sometimes for months on end. But it's another story come summer when, on average, our region receives less rainfall than southern Arizona!

Capturing and storing the rain is an old-fashioned practice, gaining renewed popularity as homeowners look to save money and reduce their impact on overburdened municipal waste management systems.

Approximately 40 percent of household water use goes to irrigating the garden and other outdoor uses. Northwest reservoirs are at their lowest just as demand peaks during our growing season. Anyone not on a well — which is most of us in western Washington and Oregon — is not only purchasing that water, but also paying for its post-use treatment as well, whether it's going down a drain or soaking into the ground.

Portland residents pay approximately $60 per month for combined water and sewage. With a tiered system designed to reward conservation and peak season surcharges, Seattleites pay almost double that. Over the course of a summer, watering the garden, washing the car, even just filling the birdbath, can get expensive.

A rain barrel is designed to capture and store rainfall by connecting to your home's gutter system. Approximately 600 gallons of free water can be harvested from an inch of rain falling on 1,000 square feet of roof. Most rain barrels hold between 55 to 80 gallons of water and are easily filled in a brief cloudburst. Maximize your harvest by positioning a rain barrel on each downspout or connect several barrels to increase your storage capacity. Free water is good, but reducing treatment costs is where you'll really save money.

To take it to the next level, consider a cistern. Traditionally, a cistern is made of concrete and discreetly buried in the ground. New models on the market today are manufactured of ceramic, fiberglass or flexible membrane materials supported by a wooden frame, and are designed for use above ground. These units, while not unsightly, easily tuck out of the way beneath a deck or behind a screening fence or trellis alongside the house.

Like an artificial well, completely enclosed cisterns eliminate external contamination and evaporation problems, issues that can compromise rain barrel efficiency. With storage capacities that range in the hundreds of gallons, proper installation of a cistern requires careful foundation work and knowledgeable engineering to ensure that pipes, pumps and hoses deliver water where it's needed.

In light of these facts, our wet winter weather doesn't look so bad now, does it? Install a rain barrel, cistern or other well-planned water catchment system and you'll literally be banking water for the next sunny day.

Lorene Edwards Forkner is a Northwest-based freelance writer, food enthusiast and garden designer. Visit plantedathome.com to read about her thoughts on life, work, home and garden.

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