Down The Drain
By installing simple water storage systems, rainwater could provide a rainbow of benefits.
Thursday, September 21, 2000
The argument about the county''s so-called "water shortage" has raged for the better part of three decades, with millions of dollars and many angry words being spent trying to solve the problem. Scratch below the surface of the argument, however, and you''ll find a fairly widespread level of agreement: The real problem isn''t a water shortage, it''s water storage.
It''s not as if we''re living in the middle of a desert. Although California is subject to periods of relative drought, even our dry winters provide a substantial amount of rain, most of which flows untapped off roofs, down the street, into storm drains and into the ocean. Millions of gallons of usable water are essentially wasted as we sit in our living rooms, watching raindrops slither down our windows.
The only real solution put forth to solve this slippery problem has been the proposal of a bigger dam on the Carmel River. It''s a big-fix solution that''s fraught with so many ecological, aesthetic and moral questions that its implementation has been stymied at almost every turn. Curiously, however, those who oppose the dam seem to spend less energy thinking about the storage issue than they do about ways to decrease water usage and increase the volume of water coming into the region.
This approach baffles people like William "Woody" Woodworth, who''s been promoting the use of cisterns, both on a personal and civic level for more than 30 years.
Woodworth, now approaching 83, is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge concerning the use of cisterns--he could be the poster-boy for personal efforts in the water-storage campaign. Woodworth has 10 water tanks around his Pacific Grove home and estimates that on an annual basis he can collect up to about 5,000 gallons of rainwater and recycled water from his washing machine.
Using gravity-flow systems, Woodworth then recycles the water, primarily using gravity to get the water from one place to another. Woodworth principally uses the water on his garden and to flush his toilet, but if there were a severe drought or other emergency that cut off the supply water, it could also be boiled and used for drinking or cooking.
"We''re throwing away good water," fumes Woodworth. "We''re flushing toilets with drinking water and it just doesn''t make any sense. We could be using cisterns as neighborhoods or as individuals."
Woodworth has scrapbooks and folders dating back to the late ''70s that are filled with the letters and proposals he''s drafted and sent to various state and local agencies encouraging governmental support for more aggressive rainfall storage. In the introduction to one such letter in December 1978, in which he estimated that the Peninsula (not including Fort Ord) lost about 22,000 acre feet of potable water through the storm drains, Woodworth wrote: "Countless gallons of precious fresh water are cascading down Peninsula streets and sewers into the Pacific Ocean... The irretrievable loss of each acre foot, each gallon, each cupful will not be felt this month or this season. But the recent experience of an extended drought should have alerted Monterey Peninsulans... to the fragile balance between our rainfall and our water demands."
Nearly 22 years later, Woodworth''s letter sounds prophetic.
To what extent an aggressive policy encouraging small-scale water storage systems would have ameliorated the current crisis is an open question. But the county''s lack of interest in the concept is puzzling to Mark Talbrook, who has a master''s degree in architecture and who worked on various gray-water recycling programs in Oregon.
"I''m saddened the county hasn''t taken a more active approach instead of resisting it," says Talbrook. "In Lane County, Oregon, the county actually worked with me to create these kinds of gray water systems." Noting that there''s even less need for gray-water recycling in rain-soaked Oregon than there is in California, Talbrook adds: "It''s remarkable how much difference in attitude there can be amongst counties."
In Oregon, Talbrook says he worked on a sustainable aquaculture pond project, in which water hyacinths were used to filter gray water, providing water that was clean enough in which to raise tilapia, an edible fish in the carp family.
He also was involved in a private home project that went a couple steps beyond simple gray-water recycling.
Noting that toilets are among the biggest water wasters in most households, Talbrook says the project incorporated a toilet of Swedish design that made it possible to recycle human waste. Instead of flushing the feces down the drain--along with several gallons of water--the waste drops into a special container that''s lined with hay or straw, and which is vented through the roof.
"With a little starter material, all the pathogens are killed with the heat," says Talbrook, who notes that feces have a high water content. "Once the water goes away, you''re left with a very small amount of material."
For most people, though, there are easier and less scatologically challenging ways to increase the amount of H2O. Talbrook suggests starting with rainwater catchment systems for watering gardens and lawns. If you''re strictly using rainwater, there''s no need for filtration systems; you can simply tap into the water tank and go from there.
The first thing to do, he says, is decide what it is you want to use the water for, and how much you''re going to need. This will help in determining how many gallons of water storage you want to plan for. Talbrook recommends using plastic water storage tanks.
"I''m not that keen on plastics," he admits, "but they''re lightweight, they don''t rust, and they''re relatively inexpensive. And if it''s buried in the ground it''s not subject to degradation."
A price list from Kennedy Bros. in Salinas, shows prices for plastic tanks begin at $110 for a 50-gallon tank. Depending on the dimensions desired, tanks in the 1,000-1,550 gallon range go from $550 to $750.
Although it''s possible to store all your water in one barrel, Woodworth says he prefers the ease and flexibility provided by several smaller tanks. With multiple tanks, it''s easier to locate a tank near a logical downspout location, and it also provides more flexibility in deciding where to hook up your garden hose.
From simple rainfall harvesting, Talbrook says there''s a logical progression in the way a person might want to increase their recycling efforts.
"The next level would be using your shower or bath water with maybe a couple feet of sand filter. After that is your kitchen sink. but that gets more complicated; because of the fats, you have to have more filtration."
If the whole things sounds like too much hassle, or the ecological benefits of water harvesting aren''t enough incentive to motivate you, here''s another consideration that might.
"There are a lot of septic systems in Carmel Valley," says Woodworth. "And where do you think we get most of our water?