Monday, March 23, 2015

A Tale of Three Rain Barrels and What They Mean to Us

By Bob Ferris

The simple, no frills barrel.
I finally installed the last of our three rain barrels this past weekend before the recent rains came tumbling down in earnest.  These are three different set-ups from three different sources all with the same purpose of capturing water and putting it in the ground rather than shooting it down some hard-scape during a time when it is needed less.  Three down and a couple of drain pipes left to go.

65-gallon barrel.
Our barrels range from the very simple, no frills, re-purposed 55-gallon plastic drum we got at a discount from the City of Bellingham to the screen topped, flip-lid, 65-gallon Cadillac of water barrels we got for free from that city for volunteering to install a water meter and paying for what we used rather than getting a bill based on some community average that further enables some aquatic “tragedy of the commons.” And the last one we got was a well-plumbed barrel from BRING Recycling here in Eugene. My point is that rain barrels are a little like automobiles in that they come in a variety of models and sizes with as many or as few accessories as wanted.

Well-plumbed barrel from BRING.
At just short of 175 gallons our rain barrel kingdom it is not really very much in terms of standing capacity particularly when you consider that even in the water-conscious West this is generally less than 2 days’ worth of water for a single person (see chart from California below).  Of course use varies with locale (see Portland too) and with season (Carlene and I each use about 33 gallons a day when our garden’s drip irrigation system is not working and 75 for the four months when it is) but my point is these must be looked at as small steps of progress in a much larger effort.

Sink-side water pitchers  

The rain barrels are more than just about storage they are visual string-around-the-finger reminders when it comes to water use and consumption.  When it rains we think of them filling and when it does not we feel them emptying as we tap the sides and track their levels down to the bottom. We feel them and our stewardship of these barrels connects us with our water and makes us more likely to fill our sink-side pitchers as we wait for the water to warm for dish washing, wear “clerty” clothes (i.e., not quite clean and not yet dirty) and be less inclined to flush the mellower yellow parts of our lives.   And we are hell on leaks and have become much more comfortable with dirty cars.

Per capita water use in California.
As we look at our Western water prospects (1,2,3,4) folks who behave like Carlene and I have to move from being considered anomalous outliers to being thought of as not doing enough.  And we have to look at the big picture too because low flow shower heads, waterless urinals and gray water systems can only go so far.

Where the water goes in Portland.
In terms of this big picture we really have to look at our approach to agriculture. What crops are being grown where and at what cost to our overall and diminishing water budget?  We also have to stop doing stupid stuff like being tricked into thinking that “fracking” made any sense when we were pumping ancient water from deeper and deeper(1,2).  How this last idea of dumping “secret” chemicals where  our water lives so that we could burn even more carbon ever gained any traction anywhere is testimony to the ability of the fossil-fuel industry to pee on our heads and tell us it is only raining.

In some sense we are desperately in need of water heroes and teachers to lead us.  The good news is that they already exist and we only need to gain the wisdom to finally listen to them on a broader scale. Three that immediately come to mind are Art Ludwig, Brad Lancaster and fellow UCSC banana slug and biologist Brock Dolman (see above video).  They have all been speaking and writing for decades to get us prepared for our current happenstance and now we are at a point where we have no choice but to heed their advice.

Our choice seems such a simple one but it will take courage and supreme effort to accomplish the needed changes because we have drifted so, so far from a system governed first and foremost by logic and public good.  The first two "taps" we will likely need to address in our quest to fix our water woes are those connected to political contributions and orchestrated misinformation.  And those might be the toughest to turn off.

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