Rainwater harvesting talk makes splash in Ojai with supply, price issues simmering
By Linda Harmon
While 38 million Americans were glued to their TV sets Thursday night watching Barack Obama accept the Democratic presidential nomination, more than 200 people gathered at Chaparral Auditorium to hear how to conserve water at the Ojai Valley Green Coalition’s monthly presentation. They came to listen to Jim MacDonald, director of building and safety for Ventura County, and Brad Lancaster, author of several books on rainwater harvesting, outline ways to stretch our annual rainfall.
“I’m here to find out about gray water systems,” said local plumber Alex Doran. He didn’t have long to wait as MacDonald outlined not only the new gray water code but also the history of building codes, and how they are implemented and can be amended by city and county governments.
“I’m not an expert,” said MacDonald. “No one has applied to my office for a gray water permit since it took effect but I am looking forward to working on one and learning more firsthand. Everything is available online that I will go over tonight and is on our web site.” Ending his presentation on a positive note he said the codes in general are moving to more environmentally favorable solutions.
Lancaster, an Arizona State University professor, began by stating he hoped California would “follow in the footsteps of his native Arizona and New Mexico and allow gray water to be captured without a holding tank.”
Ventura County code now requires a tank for using gray water, recycled water coming from your laundry, kitchen and bathroom sinks, and shower drain.
According to Lancaster, gray water can be safely reclaimed for irrigation purposes and storing it is more problematic than diverting it for immediate use. He prefers systems which do not include storage tanks or pumps, as they add maintenance and cost.
Lancaster said 30 to 50 percent of water used by the average homeowner is used for landscaping and 95 percent of that can be supplied by rainwater and gray water harvesting.
Lancaster then outlined his eight basic steps to water abundance. He advised his audience to be observant and start slow, but start.
“Growing up in Tucson, I watched the down-drafting of our aquifers and our environment steadily degrade over time,” said Lancaster, showing slides of his area taken in 1940 and 1980, illustrating the disappearance of two rivers and the native trees that had lined their banks. “Our water table dropped at a rate of 4 feet per year.”
After the awed noises from the crowd subsided, Lancaster gave more statistics.
“More rain falls in Tucson than it consumes in one year,” said Lancaster, showing slides that included average rainfall in Tucson, 3.94 billion gallons.
Lancaster said he saw that as a gift and a challenge.
According to Lancaster, earthworks can capture the rain and store it in our biggest “tank,” the Earth. Earthworks are a system of small berms and basins, made simply with materials like dirt, rocks and homemade mulch. They use the force of gravity and plants, “our living pumps,” to move water through an entire ecosystem, eliminating the cost of mechanical irrigation systems and their maintenance.
Lancaster next showed slides of landscape projects that featured these and other harvesting techniques, emphasizing the need to abandon the predominant strategy of draining sites via storm drains. He urged rainwater harvesting instead of sending it to the ocean. He said earthworks and their planting systems can slow and capture the water by increasing soil penetration and using trees and plants to pump the water into the soil and refurbish the underground water table.
Lancaster actually showed before and after slides of sites with these rainwater harvesting techniques applied. The before slide illustrated the “heat island” effect, exposed pavement alongside dry compacted earth with no trees. In the after slide featuring earthworks, trees and plantings flourishing, shading the roadway and pedestrians, surviving only on the harvested water and providing a “cool island” effect.
“By achieving 75 percent shade over roadways you can lower the temperature by 10 degrees and the trees will also help with flood control by absorbing and cleaning runoff,” said Lancaster. “We can create a dynamic living sponge to retain our water.”
“In Tucson, 12 inches of rain falls in an average year, with an average residential street draining 1,000,000 gallons of water per mile per year,” said Lancaster. “The water from that mile can sustain over 400 native trees per mile, or a tree every 25 feet on both sides of the street.”
Lancaster, who has presented nationwide, impressed audience member, Ojai Planning Commissioner John Mirk.
“It’s exciting to see things that are actually being done and we actually get twice as much rain here,” said Mirk after the presentation. “I loved the street treatments, the whole idea of a meandering street. I think there are definitely a lot of these things that we can do here.”
“It was a tad disappointing not to have more city and county officials present,” said Ojai Valley Green Coalition Director Deborah Pendrey, who was nonetheless pleased with the turnout. The OVGC purchased a set of Lancaster’s books to donate to the library. “It is important for us to move the concepts presented forward so the Ojai Valley doesn’t come to look like a few of the ‘before’ shots Mr. Lancaster shared.”
Mirk, Ojai City Councilwoman Carol Smith, and council candidate Betsy Clapp, were the only officials Pendrey saw in attendance.
“We can either take the path to scarcity or the path to abundance,” said Lancaster in closing. “If you think what you do is a drop in the bucket, great! We can fill a bucket with a lot of little drops.”
For more information go to rainharvesting.com or e-mail Jim.MacDonald@Ventura.org.