Saving Rainwater

Storm moving in_XG_20090826_LAH_9762.nef

The storm pounded our garden, flattening flowers and washing away gravel. Even with the damage, I was grateful for the water—we spent over $100 last month just irrigating our xeric landscaping. Water is expensive, but rain is free. If only there was some way to save the downpour flooding our garden. But wait—there is! We could install a rain barrel!

rain barrelUntil this month, rain barrels were illegal in Colorado. That’s because of our complicated set of laws regarding water rights are based on historical precedent. We don’t automatically own the water that falls on our roof, collects in our gutters, and flows down our rain spouts—“our” rain likely belongs to someone else downstream. Collecting and storing that rainwater could even result in a $500 fine. But a new law went into effect yesterday, and now we’re allowed to have rain barrels!

At first I was quite excited about this new law. I’m conservation-minded and I love to garden, so surely I should run out and buy a rain barrel! But then I investigated further, and decided, at least for now, to save my time and money. Here’s why.

According to House Bill 16-1005, which passed and was signed into law this year, Coloradans are now allowed up to two rain barrels, holding a whopping 110 gallons of rainwater. That’s like two medium-large aquariums. Or enough water for two baths, or three loads of laundry. Except that we can’t use the water for fish tanks, baths, or laundry, or to give the dog (or ourselves) a drink. It can only be used outside, and on the same property on which it was collected. So you can wash your car, or water your own lawn or veggie garden (but not your neighbor’s).

So how much difference will this new law make in the amount of city water we use?

Our most recent utility bill (from July) shows that our household used approximately 600 gallons per day—at the hottest time of year, in the midst of the growing season. Comparing this to our bills from last winter, we learn that most of that 600 gallons was used to water our yard—in February our daily consumption was closer to 30 gallons.

According to Denver Water, “Depending on the amount of precipitation in any one year, a household could save between 1,300-2,100 gallons of water per year.” In other more arid parts of the state, that figure is closer to 1,200 gallons. And we know that precipitation varies tremendously from year to year.

Does that save much money? Assuming an average of 1,800 gallons per year, at a cost of $.0349 per cubic foot (Tier 1 pricing) having a rain barrel saves a Colorado Springs homeowner $8.40. (If you calculate the cost of water at the Tier 2 level of $.0654 per cubic foot, you save $15.74.) Rain barrels cost from $70 for a basic model to over $100 for something more likely to be approved by an HOA—plus the cost of the connectors, valves, faucets, etc. that you need to actually hook up and use one. If you’re buying a rain barrel to save money, think again.

Then there’s the logistical puzzle of how to efficiently deliver water from your barrel(s) to your garden. While you can always carry a watering can back and forth, having some sort of drip tubing set-up would make life much easier.

Of course, collecting rainwater to use on one’s garden isn’t just a financial decision. There are plenty of good reasons to do so anyway. Each gallon we collect is one more gallon that doesn’t need to come out of our drinking water supply, with its corresponding costs. Collecting rainwater for later use reduces runoff, easing the load on our storm drains. Plus rainwater isn’t full of dissolved calcium carbonate and other minerals, a bonus when it’s used to wash a car. Then multiply those benefits by the state’s one million single-family homes.Still, 110 gallons is literally just a drop in the bucket.

In my opinion, rain barrels make a lot of sense for those with very small gardens, gardeners who currently water by hand, or those whose well permit doesn’t allow for outdoor irrigation.

However, we have a sprinkler system on an automatic timer. Even though we integrated a moisture sensor, which keeps it from running when the soil is wet (during or after a storm), adding a rain barrel or two would significantly complicate matters. In my opinion, the benefits of such a small system just aren’t worth the hassle.
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Rain barrel photo: sandiegocounty.gov

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