All of our water comes from the sky. When we have low rainfall in the winter, there is the cyclical panic of not enough water to go around.
The simple truth is that our water system is overpromised. As our population expands, it will exacerbate the problem.
Farmers who grow our food are usually the first to lose when they divvy up water; so are the fish that are integral to our ecosystem. But as residents, we are allowed to flush and irrigate our lawns with no restrictions — until 2020, when we will be required to reduce our water use by 20 percent.
Conservation is the fastest way to reduce our water load, but we are still relying on the same system of others to find and process our water and on our neighbors not to waste it. What we need is a more attainable, personal-responsibility solution.
We need to capture our rainfall in tanks, called rainwater harvesting. And summer is the perfect time to install them.
Rain falls on our roofs and is channeled into gutters, down streets and out to retention ponds where it remains until it evaporates. Rainfall harvesting means capturing rainfall on our roofs instead and diverting it to tanks or cisterns for holding. These can be above ground or underground and can be interconnected for thousands of gallons of storage. It is a simple technology and has been around since ancient times.
In Australia, the driest inhabited continent, every new home is required to have a water tank tied to at least one toilet in the house.
At my mother-in-law’s house, the rainwater tank was a corrugated iron cylinder 5 feet wide by 5 feet high with a conical hat on a raised brick pedestal. It provided water for the garden and was plumbed directly to the washing machine. My husband even drank from it, commenting that it tasted better than municipal water.
To plan for rainwater collection, pick a corner of your house that has a downspout nearby with a large roof area. Because water is heavy, the tank needs to sit on level ground, usually on a bed of sand or small pea gravel.
The downspout from the roof gutter is replaced with a pipe that has a diverter on the top, sending the first flush of rain away from the tank to avoid contamination by debris on the roof. From the diverter, the water is piped to the tanks. You pull the water from the tank through a spigot using simple gravity pressure or by adding a small pump.
According to recent conversations with my brother-in-law, Aussies are coming off a 10-year drought so bad that the nation has invested in six desalination plants. For comparison, Australia is the size of the U.S., but with only 60 percent the population of California. Its nationwide investment pales in comparison to the plan for the Delta tunnels.
The latest plant was completed at a staggering cost of $1.8 billion. The plant provides 50 percent of the municipal water, and residents pay more than $3.45 for each 234-gallon unit, whereas in Tracy we are charged a maximum of $1.80 for a unit, which is 748 gallons. The Australian consumers are hit twice: The high cost of power to provide fresh water also raises energy prices.
In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency reports that an average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water a day. But for every 1,000 square feet of roof, you can capture about 600 gallons for every 1 inch of rainfall.
The city of Tracy reported that residents and businesses used 5.5 billion gallons of water in 2011. As Tracy has an average of 10 inches of rainfall a year and 80,000-plus residents, we could go a long way toward taking care of our own water supply with a simple water catchment system.
- For a change: Use your water bill to calculate how much water you use. Numbers are in units. Each unit is 100 cubic feet, which is 748 gallons of water.
- To make a difference: Convert your landscape irrigation system to drip. As we use 50 to 65 percent of our water on landscaping in the summer months, you will save a considerable amount of the water lost through evaporation and overwatering.
- To make a stand: Get a rainwater tank. Capture your own water. Look into these websites:
- Christina D.B. Frankel has lived in Tracy for more than 20 years and is an architect and mother of three. Her column, Living Green, runs every so often in the Tracy Press. She can be reached at email@example.com.