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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Energy Policy Act of 2005 – Fracking and Drinking Water

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 puts the drinking water of millions of Americans at risk by exempting fracking fluids from part of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Fracking Well and Wastewater Pits among Rural Homes - Photo: Kim Sorvig
Fracking Well and Wastewater Pits among Rural Homes – Photo: Kim Sorvig

The culprit is a tiny passage entitled Section 322 Hydraulic Fracturing on page 102 of the 551-page Energy Policy Act of 2005 (Public Law 109-58) signed by President George W. Bush on August 8, 2005:

In short, Section 322 exempts fracking fluids and underground storage of natural gas from complying with the underground injection well regulations established by the U.S. EPA to protect our underground drinking water sources, meaning our aquifers.

This post explores events and influences that led to the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and attempts to explain what Section 322 means in terms of the safety of our drinking water.

Fracking Fluids Endanger Drinking Water

There are over 1 million oil and gas wells spread across the United States. Thousands of more wells will join them as the oil and gas industry attempts to cash in on the current domestic oil and natural gas boom.

Fracking operators choose from hundreds of different chemicals to blend their proprietary (secret) fracking fluids, which may contain substances that are known carcinogens or that pose other significant dangers to human health. Just like any other structure, wells are subject to leaking or failure, fluid spills occur, and accidents happen. This can lead to contaminating the aquifers that millions of people rely on for their drinking water.

Oil and gas industry representatives claim there are no cases of water contamination caused by fracking, but this is a ridiculous statement. There are too many reports of polluted wells and contaminated public water systems near oil and gas fracking operations for it to be coincidental.

Marcellus Shale Fracking Site in Pennsylvania - Photo: Professor Robert Jackson
Marcellus Shale Fracking Site in Pennsylvania – Photo: Professor Robert Jackson

Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974

Let’s review the Safe Drinking Water Act and the section affected by the Energy Policy Act, the Underground Injection Control Program.

During the 1970’s, Americans fed up with pollution demanded the U.S. Congress take action to protect their health and wellbeing. Congress responded by passing several major pieces of environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.

These laws were necessary because businesses and industries of all types had demonstrated that they were either unwilling or incapable of operating in a manner that protected the public’s health and the environment. The federal government stepped in with laws and regulations.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) gives the EPA authority to set effluent and wastewater standards and makes it unlawful to discharge any pollutant into U.S. waterways and water bodies unless a permit is obtained.

Building on the CWA, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA) authorizes the EPA to establish and enforce national drinking water standards and to establish and enforce regulations to protect underground drinking water sources.

Fracking at Beaver Run Reservoir in Westmoreland County, PA - Photo: Marcellus Protest
Fracking at Beaver Run Reservoir in Westmoreland County, PA – Photo: Marcellus Protest

Underground Injection Control Program

The intent of the Underground Injection Control Program is to prevent underground drinking water sources from being contaminated by fluids injected into underground wells.

The SDWA authorizes the EPA to establish regulations for underground injection wells and gives the states responsibility for issuing or denying injection well permits and enforcing regulations.

Injection wells are used to place fluids underground. These fluids include water, wastewater, non-hazardous liquids, hazardous wastes, brine (salt water), and water mixed with chemicals including those associated with mining, and oil and gas production. Well requirements vary depending on the fluid or fluids being injected.

The Underground Injection Control Program defines an injection well as:

  • A bored, drilled, or driven shaft, or a dug hole that is deeper than it is wide,
  • An improved sinkhole, or
  • A subsurface fluid distribution system.

Next, we will take a look at the task force that eventually led to the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

National Energy Policy Development Group

In January 2001, just days after being sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush appointed his new Vice President Dick Cheney to lead the National Energy Policy Development Group. The president charged the task force with developing a national energy policy.

At the time, California was in the midst of an energy crisis with rolling blackouts affecting hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of businesses across the state. Governor Gray Davis had declared a state of emergency. President Bush referred to the crisis numerous times in his public remarks as he reinforced the need for a national energy policy.

The task force presented its 170-page National Energy Policy Report to the president in May 2001. President Bush forwarded the report to Congress on June 28, 2001 and requested Congress address the items requiring legislative action. Several years later, a national energy policy emerged in the form of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Fracking Well and Wastewater Pit in Cotulla, TX - Photo: Al Braden
Fracking Well and Wastewater Pit in Cotulla, TX – Photo: Al Braden

Energy Policy Act of 2005

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 is a far-reaching law intended “To ensure jobs for our future with secure, affordable, and reliable energy.” It addresses a wide range of topics including energy efficiency, renewable energy, coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, vehicle fuels, hydrogen, tax incentives, federal land access, and research studies.

We will concern ourselves with Section 322 Hydraulic Fracturing that endangers our drinking water by amending Paragraph (1) of section 1421(d) of the Safe Drinking Water Act (42 U.S.C. 300h (d)) .

This is how it appears in the current United State Code (the red text shows the words that were added by the Energy Policy Act).

Title 42 – The Public Health and Welfare

Chapter 6A – Public Health Service

Subchapter XII – Safety of Public Water Systems

Part C – Protection of Underground Sources of Drinking Water

Section 300h – Regulations for State Programs

(d) “Underground injection” defined; underground injection endangerment of drinking water sources

For purposes of this part:

(1) Underground injection.— The term “underground injection”—

(A) means the subsurface emplacement of fluids by well injection; and

(B) excludes—

(i) the underground injection of natural gas for purposes of storage; and

(ii) the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.

The Halliburton Loophole

From the beginning, there were questions about the suitability of having Dick Cheney head up the National Energy Policy Development Group and possible conflicts of interest due to his relationship with the oil and gas industry.

From 1995 to 2000, just prior to becoming the 46th Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney was the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest service providers to the oil and gas industry and currently ranking 103 on the Fortune 500 list with revenue of over $29.4 billion.

Fast forward to 2005, Cheney’s involvement in creating the national energy policy resulted in Section 322 of the Energy Policy Act being dubbed the ‘Halliburton loophole.’

People Carrying "We Cant' Drink Money" Banner during Protest March in Pittsburgh, PA - Photo: Marcellus Protest
People Carrying Banner during Protest March in Pittsburgh, PA – Photo: Marcellus Protest

There is no plausible explanation for exempting fracking fluids from regulation, except that this is what the oil and gas industry wanted. In this instance, apparently the President, Vice President, and Congress forgot whom they are supposed to serve.

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