Water, Water Everywhere

Water use is an area that for many people happens without much thought. We turn on the tap and there it is ready for us to use. Unless you have a well and/or a septic tank, where the water comes from and where it goes may not enter your thoughts. Many now are questioning the quality of our water and finding it difficult to understand why we allow so much water to go ìdown the drainî and why clean, potable water is used to flush away waste.

Approximately 40% of water used in summer is outdoors for watering lawns and gardens. Here in the Northeast, many communities now implement water restrictions and even limit the amount of la wn in new construction. Some areas of the U.S. are facing multiple years of drought that has an even greater impact on outdoor water use. For the gardener or lawn enthusiast, these water restrictions can hit at a time that plants and trees need water the most.

Rainwater lands on rooftops, runs into the gutters and downspouts, and then goes away. In many areas the water is going into a storm drain system where it mixes with oil and other toxic residues from the street, parking lots, etc. Countless acres of rainwater are lost when it lands on parking lots and ends up as run off. That water can be collected in a catchment system and then used to feed sprinkler systems.

Rain Water Bounty

A simple step to conserve water is the use of rain barrels for watering the garden. Every home has a handy rainwater collection system built right into it: the roof! According to Gaiaís Garden by Toby Hemenway, the average 2000 square foot, two-story home has over 1,000 square feet of roof; with a garage that area is increased. Using the average rainfall for the U.S. of 40î of rain a year, the roof will collect 25,000 gallons a year. A 25,000-gallon tank is excessive for most peoples needs but a few rain barrels may serve their outdoor watering usage. Placed at the bottom of the drain spout, a rain barrel collects and holds water.

Rain barrels are available commercially or can be home made. Typically a plastic 55-gallon drum is used. A hole is cut on the top and covered with a fine mesh screen. The downspout is cut just above the barrel or a diverter is installed so water flows from the downspout into the barrel. I have also seen large trash barrels with a cover employed to catch water. The key for ease of use is to install a faucet near the bottom of the barrel. Be sure to check for leaks before putting your rain barrel in place. Several rain barrels can be linked together by placing a hose at the top of the barrels so that when the first barrel is full the overage will flow to the next barrel.

Small backyard ponds can also be utilized as a water collection vehicle, while at the same time adding beauty and interest to your yard. The key, again according to Gaiaís Garden, is to build your pond 4í deep instead of the average 2í. A 12 x 12 foot garden pond can store over 4,000 gallons of water that can be utilized during times of drought to water a garden. If you build the pond above the area needing irrigation you can use gravity to move the water. Alternatively, you can install a pumping system or scoop a bucket at a time.

A well-mulched garden creates its own water collection system. Using mulch to a depth of 2-4î reduces water loss through evaporation. The mulch soaks up rain that would have been lost to run off, and as it breaks down it adds humus to the soil, thereby increasing the soilís ability to hold water.

Lowering your utility bills is only one of the many added benefits of collecting rainwater for your garden. Rainwater is not chlorinated or treated with chemicals and can be at a more ambient temperature for plant growth. Cold water from a well or municipal source can shock plants and slow their growth.

Several people I know enjoy carrying the rainwater into their home for bathing and washing their hair. They enjoy the softness of the water and the lack of chemicals. Water collected from asphalt roofs and stored in plastic barrels is not considered safe for drinking water. You may want to consider installing a metal roof on your garage or home that can be implemented for a more complete water collection system. This technique is in use in various dry parts of the world.

Recycling Grey Water

For people looking to make serious reductions in their water use, the re-use of ìgreyî water is ideal. Grey water is slightly used water and includes the discharge from kitchen sinks, bathtubs, showers and laundry, but not from toilets. The use of grey water has the potential to cut home water use in half. The use of valuable drinking water for irrigation can be avoided with a grey water system. Grey water is distinctly different from what is termed ìblackî water, which is wastewater from toilets.

The benefits of grey water recycling are many. It lowers fresh water use, can extend the life of a septic system, and the small amounts of organic matter are beneficial to the soil. The regulations concerning grey water use vary from state to state and even town to town. In the dry southwest and parts of California, grey water systems are being encouraged as a way to ease the strain in areas of limited water supply. Parts of the US that have seen years of drought conditions are being forced into a new way of looking at water use and distribution. Unfortunately, as is often the case with government involvement, the regulations that allow the use of grey water are often overly complicated and may end up in a net loss as the energy requirements to implement it outweigh the benefit of the water re-use system. Arizonaís grey water laws contain three tiers of regulation based on the quantity of water use. Large users are regulated individually and there is no one set of plans that everyone must follow. It is hoped that the Arizona regulations will be adopted by other states.

For many water conservationists, Create an Oasis by Al Ludwig is the bible of grey water use. Al recommends avoiding overly complicated grey water recycling systems, while advocating for a practical approach to the safe use of grey water. While there are no documented cases of illness arising from the use of grey water, that doesnít mean precautions should be eliminated. Proper use of grey water entails filtering the water before it comes into direct contact with vegetation. Grey water must pass slowly through healthy topsoil for natural purification to occur, or a filtration system must be employed. A properly designed grey water system ensures that no contact with the water is made before purification, so going direct to your sprinkler is out of the question.

Grey water should not be applied to already saturated soil. Best practices include applying the grey water intermittently so that it can soak in between waterings. Maintain a minimum distance of 50 feet from a lake, river or spring. You do not need to be concerned about contaminating groundwater, but if you have a well you should not irrigate any closer that what your regulations allow for a septic leach field. Always follow use grey water within 24 hours. If left to stand unfiltered, grey water will transform into black wastewater. You can test this for yourself by leaving a bucket of grey water for a day or two and seeing the effect. After the experiment be sure your black water it is properly disposed of!

Certain additions should not be allowed into your grey water collection system. Cleaners, thinners, solvents and drain openers cannot enter your collection system because of the damage it will cause to your plants. Avoid using cleaning and laundry materials that contain boron. Water softening systems replace calcium and magnesium with sodium. Long-term irrigation with high-sodium water can cause soil problems and should be avoided. Unfortunately, drainage water from swimming pools should not be used for irrigation. It contains large salt concentrations and stabilized chlorine and/or bromine that will cause problems for plants. In areas where water is available at a premium, not available at all or is available intermittently, the value of grey water use is most apparent.

Just because our water supply may be plentiful now, steps should be taken to conserve this precious resource. The adult human body is about 60% water and it is recommended that we drink a minimum of 8 glasses of water a day. While you can live for several weeks with out food, it takes only two to four days with out water for death to occur. Our future depends on the availability of clean water. Next time you allow the water to run down the drain while you wait for it to warm or while you brush your teeth, consider that a more efficient use of that good potable water exists.

Mary Farrell is a writer, environmentalist, student of herbalism and teaches self-empowerment tools. Mary can be reached at farrpmar@hotmail.com.