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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Greening the U.S. Federal Government – Executive Order 13514

Starting with George Washington, U.S. Presidents have issued over 15,000 executive orders to date. Do U.S. federal agencies actually fulfill these directives?

I pondered this question while writing the previous post, Green Legislation – Obama Administration, which included a summary of Executive Order 13514 – Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance.

President Obama Participating in Signing Executive Order 13514 on October 5, 2009 - Photo: Peta Souza, White House
President Obama Participating in Signing Executive Order 13514 on October 5, 2009 – Photo: Peta Souza, White House

Some readers may be able to relate to CEOs, executives, and managers handing down the private sector version of executive orders in the form of company-wide or department-wide edicts, directives, or mandates. In my experience, sometimes we followed directives to the letter, other times half-heartedly, and sometimes not at all.

Does the President garner more cooperation than a corporate CEO does? The answer is probably “It depends,” but the President as the Chief Executive of the United States does have the backing of the U.S. Constitution.

I thought it would be fun and informative to find out what actions federal agencies have taken to comply with the directives of EO 13514. Below is a summary of what I learned during a brief investigation.

Executive Order 13514 – Overview

The U.S. federal government occupies over half a million buildings, operates more than 600,000 vehicles, and purchases over $500 billion in goods and services each year 1, which enables federal agencies to make enormous reductions in carbon emissions, water use, and fossil fuel consumption, while using their considerable buying power to influence greening the government supply chain.

President Obama issued Executive Order 13514 – Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance on October 5, 2009, directing federal agencies to lead the country towards a clean energy economy and reduce greenhouse gases by greening their own operations.

The actions and targets outlined in EO 13514 cover a wide range of measures including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing energy efficiency, using renewable energy, conserving water, diverting waste from landfills, improving building performance, and buying environmentally preferable goods and services.

Graywater System at U.S. Airforce Hurlburt Field, FL - Photo: U.S. Air Force
Graywater System at U.S. Airforce Hurlburt Field, FL – Photo: U.S. Air Force

Federal departments and agencies affected by EO 13514 include the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, the Social Security Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and others.

Note: EO 13514 uses the federal government’s fiscal year (FY) calendar, which begins on October 1 of one year and ends on September 30 of the next.

Executive Order 13514 – Oversight and Information

The Council on Environmental Quality and Office of Management and Budget jointly oversee EO 13514 implementation and compliance.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security January 2014 Sustainability / Energy ScorecardThe Federal Facilities Environmental Stewardship and Compliance Assistance Center is a one-stop-shopping website providing information, tools, data, status reports, and guidance to assist federal agencies in addressing and fulfilling EO 13514 requirements.

Individual agency scorecards and strategic sustainability performance plans were relatively easy to locate, but I could not find a dashboard or report summarizing progress made to date on a federal government-wide basis, except for energy-related goals.

Executive Order 13514 – Interagency Collaboration

EO 13514 designated various agencies to work together to develop tools and guidelines to assist all agencies. A few examples are below.

  • The DOE led the development of a GHG emission accounting tool and procedure for measuring and reporting progress.
  • The GSA and DOE prepared guidelines to aid agencies in improving fleet energy performance.
  • The EPA led the effort to create guidelines for working with vendors on greening the supply chain.

Executive Order 13514 – Strategic Sustainability Performance Plans

Each agency created a sustainability plan outlining the actions it is taking and intends to take to achieve its goals and comply with EO 13514. Agencies publish scorecards and updated sustainability plans annually.

Progress on Energy Goals

The federal government is the largest energy consumer in the U.S, therefore, reducing fossil fuel use, increasing energy efficiency, and increasing renewable energy use will not only reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions it will save taxpayers billions of dollars.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Goals

EO 13514 requires each federal agency to establish a GHG emission reduction goal based on 2008 estimated emissions and achieve the goal by 2020.

The GHG emissions reduction goal consists of three categories:

  • Scope 1 – direct GHG emissions from federally owned or controlled sources, including fuels, burned on site and vehicle emissions.
  • Scope 2 – indirect GHG emissions from the offsite generation of electricity, heat, or steam purchased by federal agencies.
  • Scope 3 – indirect GHG emissions related to agency activities including vendor supply chains, delivery services, and employee travel.

Federal agencies established their 2020 targets in early January 2010.

On January 29, 2010, President Obama announced the aggregated federal agency goals are to reduce direct GHG emissions by 28% and indirect GHG emissions by 13% by 2020.

As of September 30, 2013, the federal government had reduced direct GHG emissions by 17.2% seemingly on track to meet the 28% goal by 2020 and had exceeded the 13% goal for indirect GHG emissions with a 19.8% reduction.

U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory South Table Mountain Campus, Golden, CO - Photo: Dennis Schroeder / NREL
U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory South Table Mountain Campus, Golden, CO – Photo: Dennis Schroeder / NREL
Petroleum Product Use Reduction Goal

Agencies operating a fleet of least 20 motor vehicles are required to reduce consumption of petroleum products by 2% annually through 2020. I could not locate a government-wide progress report on petroleum use.

Renewable Energy Goal

President Obama raised the bar on renewable energy on December 5, 2013, by issuing his Memorandum on Federal Leadership on Energy Management, which requires each agency to obtain 20% of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020, beginning with 10% in 2015.

Federal agency renewal energy use was at 9.2% of total energy use in September 2013.

My research indicates that at least in the case of EO 13514 federal agencies do take presidential executive orders seriously.

Greening the U.S. federal government is good for the planet, people, and taxpayer wallets.

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References

  1. Congressional Research Service – Executive Order 13514: Sustainability and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction, by Richard J. Campbell and Anthony Andrews, December 3, 2009

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