by Emily Cates
Thank heaven for the rain! As I awoke this morning to the thunderous sound of raindrops pounding the ground, I thought what a relief it was to have a day where I would not feel so bad for staying inside. While the freshly-planted trees and shrubs from last week’s Fedco tree sale (also May 5 and 6) get a hearty dose of water from the sky, I sit here at my computer, typing, and listening to the downpour. Officially, the drought here in Central Maine has ended, though a conservative approach to using water is always the course of wisdom. In this article we will look at the pros and cons and a handful of ideas – some old, some new – on how to harvest the benefits of rainwater.
There are a myriad of benefits and a few risks to using rainwater in our area. Let’s start with the benefits: It’s free, simple, pre-“softened,” and (so far) legal. What more could a gardener want? With an inch of rain, you can capture .62 gallons per sq. ft. of each non-permeable surface area. When you apply this formula to the buildings on your property, the amount of potential harvestable water can be substantial. Consider this disquieting fact: according to the EPA’s website, the average American household uses more than 300 gallons of potable water each day, 70 percent of which is used indoors. What about the other 30 percent used outdoors, an average 90 gallons (Wow! Seriously?) a day? Depending on a few factors, such as time of year and amount of rainfall – rainwater collection, along with mindful usage – might be sensible drops in the bucket to help alleviate our thirst for water.
Unfortunately, there are risks to using rainwater: As much as we would wish otherwise, the upsetting fact is that rainwater is not always as pure as nature intended. You see, mankind has got into the habit of polluting the earth, and what goes up into the air comes down with the rain. Substances such as heavy metals, pesticides, industrial emissions, radioactive particles, and other harmful toxins are potentially lurking in rainwater. Also, in our neck of the woods we have acid rain as a result of being downwind of substantial fossil-fuel burning areas of the northeast. Do the benefits of using rainwater outweigh the risks? That’s a decision you’ll have to make. It can be filtered, but at what cost? “Well, it’s going to rain on the garden,” we could reason. “Why not use water that would just run off anyways?” Something else worth noting is that several states have laws that ban or restrict the collecting of rainwater. As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s true – but at least we do not, as far as I know, have such restrictions here in Maine. So why hold back? Nature sure doesn’t when it rains like it did last night. Let’s see if this is a project worth exploring.
The simplest, old-fashioned way to collect rainwater is by using a barrel. Divert the waters on your roof onto a downspout that flows into a rain barrel, and now you’re talking! Elevate this barrel to a level that is higher than your garden and you’ll have a gravity fed system of irrigation. Use drip irrigation tubing plugged into the barrel’s spout on one end, with the other ends strategically-placed in the garden and orchard, and the efficiency of this system will be greatly enhanced. Here’s a nifty link to an article on making a rain barrel out of a recycled food barrel.
Okay, okay, so putting a rain barrel in the middle of the garden could possibly present an aesthetic challenge. I’ll admit it. But your garden will thank you for it with lush growth. Also, never underestimate the power of making a statement with a rain barrel! Soon, hopefully, everyone will be in on the merits of them and they’ll be a mainstay in every garden. Now if Martha would do a show about that….. Hey wait, check this out, and this.
You can also divert water into a cistern, which is a below-ground collection reservoir. One drawback with cisterns is that a pump or similar system is probably needed to draw the water up. Other problems with cisterns are that they can be the cause of unwanted moisture if situated in a basement, can be a danger if improperly constructed where people or animals could fall in them, and the water has the potential to become stagnant. Be sure that the cistern is made from ingredients that do not leach harmful substances into the water. With these considerations in mind, a cistern could be another helpful tool in the water conservationist’s toolbox. Here’s a link for cisterns.
With these ideas in mind, the value of conserving water is priceless. In our area with China Lake, rivers, streams, ponds, waterfalls, and swamps within sight, we may tend to take water for granted. I recall growing up in a time when few of those around me gave much thought to the significance of having a dependable water supply; it was just assumed it had always been there and always would be. Thankfully, attitudes have changed since then and I see a much greater appreciation for this most precious resource. Water-saving appliances and devices are the norm, and it is not as much en vogue to have a lawn showered with sprinklers in the heat of summertime. Since there is no good reason to waste what we do not need to use, let’s always have a mindful approach to how we use water.
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