EarthTalk: How can I make good use of the rainwater
that runs down my roof and into my gutters?
Brian Smith, Nashua, NH
rain water from your gutters' downspouts is a no-brainer
and is not expensive to do. It can then be used to
water the lawn and garden, and even be used for laundry,
dishes and other interior needs with the addition
of a water purification system.
most of us, the rain that falls on our roof runs off into
the ground or the sewer system. But if you’re motivated
to save a little water and re-distribute it on your lawns
or plants—or even use it for laundry, dishes or other
interior needs—collecting rainwater from your gutters’
downspouts is a no-brainer.
it’s allowed in your state, that is. Utah and parts
of Washington State have antiquated but nonetheless tough
laws banning anyone but owners of water rights from collecting
rainwater flowing off privately owned rooftops. Such laws
are rarely enforced, however, and one in Colorado was recently
to John C. Davis, writing in E – The Environmental
Magazine, just about any homeowner can collect rainwater,
given that the roof and gutters do most of the work. And
since an inch of rain falling on a 2,000-square-foot roof
produces some 1,200 gallons of runoff, one can harvest enough
to supply all the water needs of a family of four for about
two weeks. Of course, most of us would only use rainwater
to irrigate our lawn or garden, and there should be plenty
to go around for doing that in all but the most drought
and grass actually do better when fed rainwater instead
of tap water, which is usually treated with softeners that
actually inhibit plant growth. And, reports Davis, the lack
of minerals in rainwater actually makes it more effective
than tap water for shampooing or doing dishes. Using rainwater
for plumbing uses can also extend the life of pipes and
water heaters, since the salts added to tap water facilitate
corrosion. Homeowners should set up a water purification
system if they do plan to use rainwater for interior needs.
the benefits to individual homeowners, rainwater harvesting
can also be good for the local community, as it reduces
the erosion, flooding and pollution runoff associated with
heavy rainfall, and lessens reliance on public water supplies,
alleviating some of the burden on utilities. Given these
benefits, some states, including even drought-prone Texas,
subsidize residential rainwater collection systems.
varieties of rain barrel systems, starting at just $100,
are available for home installation. A typical set-up is
simply a rain barrel positioned under a gutter’s downspout.
“The barrel is typically fitted with a spigot at its
base to fill a watering can or attach a soaker hose (which
bleeds out water all along its length, providing effortless
drip irrigation), and a filter or screen at its top to prevent
a buildup of leaves and other debris,” writes Davis.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a
single 100 gallon rain barrel can save up to 1,300 gallons
of utility-provided water during the high demand summer
homeowners can make their own water harvesting systems,
but buying one pre-made is a lot easier. Most nurseries
and garden centers offer a range of choices (as well as
advice), but websites such as Aquabarrel, Clean Air Gardening
and Rainxchange make it easy to order a system online.
Air Gardening; Rainxchange.
EarthTalk: I heard that goats are being used
to prevent some of those catastrophic fires that seem to
happen increasingly. What’s the story with that?
-- Ali B., New
goats like this one are increasingly being used to
keep the forest underbrush clear of the tinder-like
grasses, bushes and small trees that allow wildfires
to burn out of control.
© Ingrid Taylar, courtesy Flickr
consume parts of California larger than some smaller states,
everyone is talking about how we can prevent such disasters
from getting going in the first place. One novel approach
is to enlist goats. Not as firefighters—although their
surefootedness and determination would probably serve them
well in such situations—but as grazers to keep the
forest underbrush clear of the tinder-like grasses, bushes
and small trees that allow flames to jump to the higher
forest canopy and get further spread by the wind.
help prevent forest fires…by eating the dry stuff
before the fire season strikes,” says Lani Malmberg,
owner of Colorado-based Ewe4ic (pronounced “u-for-ik”)
Ecological Services, which uses goats to gradually and naturally
remove weeds and return lands to a healthier more natural
Goats have been
called in for fire mitigation purposes across parts of California,
Arizona and other drought-prone parts of the western U.S.
In the Oakland and Berkeley hills regions of California’s
Bay Area, where the combined effects of drought and a bark
beetle infestation have killed thousands of acres of trees,
public agencies and residents have enlisted the help of
goat herds to suppress weeds and keep down the fire risk
in the process for what remains of the area’s forest
clearance scheme is one of the key reasons the Bay Area
hasn’t had a recurrence of a catastrophic fire in
decades,” says Tom Klatt, former manager of the Office
of Emergency Preparedness at UC Berkeley and the author
of UC Berkeley's 2007 Fire Mitigation Program Annual Report.
land managers are going goat as well. The Nature Conservancy
recently hired goats to keep dry grasses and other tinder-like
plant matter down at its Hassayampa River Preserve in Arizona,
where the constant threat of summer fires haunts nearby
homeowners while endangering the integrity of the area’s
unique and fragile riparian ecosystem.
Using goats to
control forest brush may seem like a novel idea, but it’s
really been around as long as grazing animals have roamed
the planet looking for nourishment. But with ever-increasing
human development, wild grazers are fewer and farther between.
The problem is exacerbated by our building our homes so
close to (and sometimes within) forested areas that naturally
burn occasionally. Efforts to then suppress all forest fires—even
naturally occurring undergrowth burns—to protect these
homes have led to “tinderbox” conditions ripe
for those large destructive fires that spread for hundreds
of miles, blown by the wind from treetop to treetop.
are also used in other endeavors. “Goats can be utilized
as an effective bio-control agent to reduce weed populations
to economically acceptable levels,” says Malmberg,
adding that weeding with goats requires no pesticides or
herbicides and generates zero greenhouse gas or other harmful
Ecological Services; Office
of Emergency Preparedness at UC Berkeley