When we qualified to receive our free rainbarrel in a city/state-funded program last fall, we had already been quietly commited to "rainwater harvesting" for a couple of years. It had been a simple matter of placing a heavy-duty plastic barrel under a downspout, uncovering the barrel when rain started, covering it again when rain stopped, and gratefully scooping out the rainwater until all was gone weeks later.
Now we are part of an organized program devoted to saving water and easing the burden on area storm drains. Three families in our immediate neighborhood have signs in the front yard to proclaim: "This home proudly harvests rainwater." Alas, the light-weight cardboard sign is not likely to last through this week's unusually heavy storm.
Where our first rainbarrel harvests water from about 1/10 of our roof space, the government-funded one receives runoff from almost half. It overflows after one night of gentle rain. Elated by this outcome, we placed two more rainbarrels at the corners of the house, and now we are busy directing and redirecting runoff to the herb garden, the calla lilies, the ranunculi, the sweet peas. Anywhere but the curb, where it would be lost.
Participants in the rainwater harvesting program feel righteous and innovative in the context of our urban environment, but saving rainwater is nothing new. My maternal grandparents had a cistern at their hilltop home overlooking the Ohio River. It rained often there, but water for drinking had to be hand-pumped from the well and carried inside until they installed running water -- still from their own well -- sometime during the 1920's. All the house's rain gutters drained into a large underground tank lined with concrete. This held the precious soft water used for laundry, and for rinsing one's hair on special occasions when the well's hard water wasn't good enough. A tap in the basement brought cistern water directly to the washtub and, later, the wringer washer.
In the Ohio Valley, then as now, excess rainwater ran uselessly down the hill and across the road into the river. Ultimately, it went down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Southern California's excess rainwater runs uselessly down city streets, through the overburdened stormdrain system, and into the Pacific Ocean bearing a load of all the filth thrown into storm drains by thoughtless people. Even without the pollution, untold devastation accompanies these waters when runoff is heavy.
Steve's Idaho grandparents and great-grandparents had their epic struggles with water, but at least the rare rainwater soaked into their unpaved world. Another story.
See drops in the bucket, part 2