Dear EarthTalk How can I make good use of the rainwater that runs down my
roof and into my gutters? -- Brian Smith, Nashua, NH
For 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.
If 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 overturned.
According 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 stricken areas.
Plants 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.
Beyond 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.
Many 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 months.
Handy 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.
Dear 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 Canaan, CT
As wildfires 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.
“Goats 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 state.
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 cover.
“The goat 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.
Other earth-minded 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.
Grazing goats 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 emissions.
CONTACTS: Ewe4ic Ecological Services, www.goatseatweeds.com; Office of Emergency Preparedness at UC Berkeley, oep.berkeley.edu.