Rainwater Collection Saves Water Treatment Costs

rain barrelsThe first time I heard the term “rainwater harvesting,” I thought, “What on earth is that?”

That was in 2002, when I was a recent graduate searching for a job relevant to my bachelor’s degree in resource management. Lo and behold, I got an internship with the City of Bellingham to develop and implement a rain barrel pilot project. I was enthusiastic to learn about rainwater harvesting, but still not convinced it was worth the effort. I didn’t realize then what a big impact a little rain barrel can have, not only in our own community, but in other countries as well.

Rainwater harvesting is the process of collecting water from an impervious surface, such as a roof, or from a pervious surface, such as soil, and routing it to a location where it is used beneficially. This can be done passively through storage of water directly in the ground (e.g., rain gardens) or actively through storage of water in water tanks for later use (e.g., rain barrels, rainwater tanks or larger rainwater catchment systems). Active storage systems can range in capacity from 55 gallons to more than 10,000 gallons.

Developing countries have been harvesting rainwater for centuries, and over the years it’s become an increasingly popular topic nationally and internationally. The American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (arcsa.org) has grown from 80 to more than 800 members in just a few years, and it’s still growing. Developed countries, such as Australia, have incorporated rainwater harvesting into municipal water supply management.

Why the increased interest in rainwater harvesting?

Rainwater harvesting accomplishes both water conservation and stormwater management. Active rainwater harvesting conserves treated drinking water supplies (called potable water) by pairing the appropriate water quality with the appropriate end use. End uses that don’t require potable water include watering landscapes, flushing toilets, washing clothes and washing cars. As one of my mentors, Mark Buehrer at 2020 Engineering, succinctly put it, “Why are we peeing in our drinking water?”

Passive rainwater harvesting addresses stormwater management by retaining rainwater on-site and by reducing runoff that would otherwise contribute to stormwater pollution, flooding and erosion. Both active and passive water harvesting combine to manage runoff in the built environment.

You may wonder, “We don’t have a water shortage. Why should we collect rainwater?”

By conserving water, we can reduce costs. Typically, Bellingham residents collectively use about 10 million gallons of potable water per day. In the summer, potable water demand can increase to 20 million gallons per day. Chemicals and energy are required to treat and deliver this water. As a community, reducing demand for potable water can help lower energy consumption and costs at the Water Treatment Plant. For individuals, water harvested on-site for appropriate end uses is, basically, free water.

The national average water consumption is 101 gallons per person per day! If high-efficiency water fixtures were installed everywhere, and rainwater was used instead of drinking water for non-potable uses, the drinking water demand could be reduced to 27 gallons per person per day. Bellingham’s average annual rainfall is approximately 35 inches. In just a one-inch rain event, a 1,000-square-foot surface can collect up to 623 gallons of water. A 2,000-square-foot home with an active rainwater harvesting system could collect up to 43,750 gallons of water per year, enough to meet the annual average water demand for one person.

Rain barrels have been called a lot of names: the gateway drug to larger harvesting systems, ugly and a waste of time and money. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

My opinion is that when you spend a little time learning about the deeper concepts of rainwater harvesting, you start to think, “Why aren’t there rainwater harvesting systems at all homes, office buildings, hotels, and golf courses?”

Source: The Bellingham Herald (by ANITRA ACCETTURO)

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