What Good is a Rain Barrel during a Drought?

A rain barrel is useless when there is no rain—or is it? With a little ingenuity, you can keep your rain barrel full without rain. Your plants will thank you.

climbing-rosebush-watered-via-bucket-during-drought
This climbing rosebush planted over 25 years ago by the original homeowners is still going strong after 4 years of being watered via bucket.

I believe people have a natural affinity for living green things. We need trees, plants, and flowers physically for oxygen and food and spiritually for beauty and connectedness to the rest of nature.

In our sparsely forested and wild yard, we have a small collection of potted plants, a few drought-resistant bushes, and a decades-old climbing rosebush. To me this is beautiful.

When drought and water restrictions hit our town, we either had to let everything growing in our yard survive on what little rain fell or supplement it with water that did not come from an outdoor hose. We turned to untapped (pun intended) sources of water inside our house. Hint, the solution involves buckets.

The Bucket Brigade

As an environmentalist and resident of a drought-stricken town, I am willing to do things to save water but jumping into a freezing cold shower is not one of them. Now, I keep a plastic bucket in my shower and collect the first 30-seconds or so of water while it warms up. I put the bucket on the floor outside the shower and get in. On especially cold days, a smaller vessel is handy for collecting water while waiting to wash my hands or face.

I am amazed at the amount of water we used to let run down our drains before implementing the bucket brigade. It is also surprising what you can keep alive with a few buckets of water.

I used to carry my shower bucket downstairs, out the door, and dump it on one of our outdoor plants in an informal rotation. Then I bought a rain barrel.

Our House Gets a Rain Barrel

It seemed silly to get a rain barrel when we hardly ever have rain. Then it struck me that we could fill up a rain barrel with the bucket brigade during the dry months and then with rain if it ever rains. Now we can collect water daily and disburse it periodically.

Shopping for a Rain Barrel

Usually, I do a fair amount of research before embarking on a new project or buying equipment. The day I bought the rain barrel, my son and I drove into the “big city” and I walked into a home improvement store with no idea what was available or what I wanted. I figured there would be a wide selection for thrifty water collectors in our dehydrated region. Shockingly, there was only one model. It was an ugly Grecian urn-looking thing made out of black plastic. I measured it and fortunately, it was too wide to fit in the space by our garage so rejecting it was easy.

With little hope of success, we drove over to the only other home improvement store in the area. This store had an expansive selection, which included two models. The rain barrels were stuck way in the back of the garden section behind a bunch of stuff and covered in dust and a few cobwebs. One of the units was a 50-gallon plastic wood barrel lookalike with a flat back (to fit against a wall). I liked it and after measuring it determined it would fit in the allotted space.

I paid for the rain barrel while a store clerk manhandled it out of the corner. My son loaded it in the car and we headed home.

Installing a Rain Barrel

Installing a rain barrel is relatively easy if you have a hacksaw and a handy person like my spouse to do it. You saw off a portion of the rain gutter drainpipe, put the barrel in place, refit the curvy bit of drainpipe on the end, screw in the spigot, attach a hose if you want, and put the debris screen on the top. Our driveway is a little uneven, so we put a few pieces of metal under part of the bottom edge as a shim.

Some people choose to buy a water barrel stand or put it on top of a couple of concrete blocks to make accessing the spigot or filling up a bucket easier. I did not think of this until we got home. See if I had done my homework ahead of time, I would have thought about the possibility of needing a stand. Fortunately, we have a little pump I can use if I need it.

Filling a Rain Barrel

The first time I carried a bucket of shower water down the stairs and dumped it in the rain barrel, about half of it sloshed out over the barrel. After another couple of tries, I now have the hang of how to pour so the water actually goes in the barrel. Besides saving water, daily trips from the shower to the rain barrel allow me to get in an extra four flights of stairs a day. It is good exercise.

We are keeping our yard alive with a few buckets, a barrel, and a little creative thinking. Whenever I look outside and see our little bit of greenery, I feel pleasure and a sense of accomplishment.

I can hear the rosebush singing.

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California Drought – You Cannot Drink Denial

Shasta Lake, CA on February 25, 2016 - Photo Florence Low, CA DWR
Shasta Lake, CA after El Niño Rains on February 25, 2016 – Photo Florence Low, CA Department of Water Resources

If you live in a parched place like California, conserving water should be routine by now. If it is not, stop living in denial and start saving water today.

California is in its 5th year of drought. Watching the news, reading the paper, or surfing the web you cannot help but learn about drastically low reservoir levels, the worst snowpack in history, and wells running dry at an alarming rate.

Sure, overall, California households have reduced water use in the last several years, but as soon as we get a little rain, water use goes up even though a severe drought still exists.

California Household Average Water Use Per Person Per Day

  • July 2016 – 113.5 gallons
  • July 2015 – 98.1 gallons
  • July 2014 – 132.9 gallons
  • July 2013 – 142 gallons

Green lawns abound and water continues to flow freely from faucets. It is as if some people believe politicians and government agencies are going to fix it somehow—so they do not need to change their behavior.

My Webster’s Dictionary defines denial as, “an unconscious thought process whereby one allays anxiety by refusing to acknowledge the existence of certain unpleasant aspects of external reality.”

When you turn on the tap and nothing comes out, it will be too late to start conserving water. Protect the place you live and your family by facing the drought head on and starting to reduce your water use today. Begin with the low-hanging fruit, like installing low-flow showerheads and then move on to the difficult stuff like ripping out your thirsty turf grass lawn.

Make Conserving Water at Home a Habit

Our small town on the California Central Coast is entering year 4 of stage 3 (the highest) mandatory water conservation measures. At one point a couple of years ago, the water district feared our wells might run dry. Fortunately, that has not occurred…so far. This is due mostly to residents and businesses making a huge effort to conserve water. For instance, our town’s overall water usage in July 2016 was down 41% from July 2013.

In our household, we have not always been water wise, but we have been taking the drought seriously for several years. Since moving here 9 years ago, we have reduced our overall water use by 65%. We currently use about 25 gallons of water per person per day.

Conserving water is a habit, part of our daily routine. For instance, for me, catching the first 30 seconds of cold shower water in a bucket for later reuse is automatic, like brushing my teeth twice a day.

I am not saying we are paragons of water conservation, but we do know a thing or two about it. Perhaps one or more of our water savings solutions will work for your household.

Fully Loaded

Standard kitchen faucets pump out 2 gallons of water or more per minute so if you think hand washing dishes saves water, think again. Fully load your dishwasher and then run it.

One habit I had to break was sorting laundry into numerous piles and then washing them. Most fabrics today do not require special handling so now I load up the washer for each cycle.

Shower Savings

A standard showerhead flows at 2.5 gallons per minute or more. If you take a 10-minute shower with the water running, you can easily use 25 gallons of water. Filling up a standard bathtub uses a whopping 35-50 gallons of water.

We equipped our showers with low flow showerheads with trickle or turn off valves. I am not even remotely handy, yet I installed one of the showerheads myself so you probably can, too.

To Flush or Not to Flush

Toilets are the number one water hogs in the house, consuming about 27% of indoor household water. Older toilets use 3-5 gallons per flush and newer models still use 1.6 gallons. Millions of old toilets have slow leaks.

When water wells in our town were dangerously low, we implemented the “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” method. That was effective, but we decided to replace our old toilets with dual flush high-efficiency toilets that use 0.9 or 1.2 gallons of water per flush. We saw a huge drop in our water usage.

Drought Resistant Yard

Lawns and landscaping can suck up anywhere from 30-70% of your household water usage. Lawns cause pollution, too, from fertilizer, weed killer, and pesticide runoff.

Fortunately, our yard is mostly wild with no turf grass (we did have front and back lawns in Southern California). Plants in our yard must be able to survive on a tiny amount of rainfall or an occasional drink from the various buckets we keep in our sinks and showers.

I acknowledge that removing a lawn is a difficult and expensive endeavor, especially if you include the cost of what you put in instead of grass. If you are not ready to tackle your lawn, implementing one or more of the suggestions above will at least set you on the path to reducing your water footprint.

Share your water saving story with other readers.

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Diary of an Eco-Outlaw – Book Review

Diary of an Eco Outlaw Book CoverIn a way, Diary of an Eco-Outlaw: An Unreasonable Woman Breaks the Law for Mother Earth by Diane Wilson could be any woman’s story. A newspaper article and a telephone call changed the course of her life.

Diary of an Eco-Outlaw is one of the two books I chose to read this March in honor of Women’s History Month. After reading Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in March 2013, I decided to make it an annual tradition to read at least one book by or about a woman environmentalist every March.

Book Review

Readers you are about to become Diane Wilson’s time- traveling companion as you go back in time and accompany her to places near and far while carrying on a conversation that lasts for 243 pages.

Diary of an Eco-Outlaw recounts several interwoven stories involving Union Carbide, former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson, Texas jails, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and Formosa Plastics.

The book opens with Wilson describing her upbringing and life in Seadrift, TX, a small town on a bay in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Wilson her transformation from shrimp boat captain to environmental activist began with a newspaper article claiming Calhoun County (where she lives) was number one in the country for toxic waste disposal and contained half the hazardous waste generated in Texas.

After an explosion at a Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) plant in Seadrift, Wilson received a phone call. Two weeks later she flew thousands of miles to witness a tribunal in Bhopal, India the site of a 1984 Union Carbide pesticide plant gas leak that exposed over 500,000 people to deadly methyl isocyanate gas instantly killing over 2,200 people and resulting in over 20,000 deaths since then.

Years later an email and a photograph from Bhopal landed in Wilson’s inbox and without a moment’s hesitation she embarked upon a month-long hunger strike and an act of civil disobedience at the Seadrift Union Carbide plant that landed her in jail.

Wilson’s tale of her efforts to bring Warren Anderson to justice is humorous and inspiring. Her story about protesting at a fundraiser attended by Dick Cheney and ending up in jail shows her ingenuity and fearlessness and gives a harrowing account of what it is really like to be in jail for several months.

Through Diary of an Eco-Outlaw, Wilson relays the stories of a seemingly unending stream of current and former chemical industry workers who make their way to her door armed with piles of documentation and real-life experience dealing with hazardous working conditions, knowledge of illegal company actions, and suffering from a myriad of illnesses and fear.

The book wraps up with Wilson’s trip to Taiwan to deliver Ethecon Foundation’s Black Planet Award to the Wang family during the 2009 Formosa Plastics annual shareholders meeting.

The Bottom Line

Diane Wilson is the author of An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas and was featured in the award-winning documentary, Texas Gold. She is a co-founder of the women’s antiwar activist group CODEPINK and founder of the Texas Jail Project an advocacy group for Texas jail inmate rights.

Diane Wilson strikes me as a courageous fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kind of gal with a seemingly limitless pool of compassion, creative civil disobedience ideas, and willingness to put herself on the front line of the fight for human rights and environmental justice.

One might expect a non-fiction book filled with tales of injustice, environmental degradation, corporate malfeasance, government indifference, and personal sacrifice to deliver a compelling, distressing, and sometimes shocking narrative. Diary of an Eco-Outlaw does that, yet readers will also find themselves smiling and sometimes laughing out loud.

Diane Wilson is a master storyteller.

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