by: Shane Brown

From the soothing tap on the forest floor, to the slow thunder of shifting boulders, carving canyons and rumbling cascades, this Water has a long journey to arrive at our door – many miles, many canyons, many pipes and ducts, many days! 

Do you know where it comes from – have you been to the source? Don’t you want to know the whole story, to taste it fresh and cold and feel its force? “Come water friend” we will sing to welcome it into our body and home. “Tell us the stories of your time. Stay awhile – we’ll not waste a drop, and make sure you get clean as you sink back through the loam.” 

Water, the forgotten source of life, the flow of rivers, roots, and veins, the carrier of nutrients, the washing away of the soil, our fears and our pains, the builder and destroyer without which we have nothing, falls like a gift from the sky, and it’s our choice to flush it away or use it as much as we can for something.

To dam the river and drain the swamp, to shed the rain off the slope, just to pipe in chlorinated water as if that’s what plants want, to till the soil and kill the roots, can only take care of things superficially, but in the end, of course, brings sickness and worse to people, fish, and trees.

So what can we do in this land of contradictions, concrete, and disease, in these times of absurdities, trash heaps, and conspiracies? Take a look around at what is happening, listen to the ground and think of your family. Think like the water, flowing and changing easily, and develop Water Vision, to see it everywhere. Learn how to store it, to catch it and sink it, and yes when you receive that gift from the sky you can drink it!

Creek at Big Oak Canyon, Photo by Eric Stoner

You might take water for granted if you can just get it from the tap with ease and haven’t realized your own power to influence the story of water and use it to its full potential. Here in Southern California mostly people don’t have to think of water, and it just comes easily. The underground pipes beneath the houses and roads, with abundant water pumped from the faraway lands of the Colorado and San Joaquin Rivers, are easy to forget or to not even know about. It is a brittle system, having few sources of water that has to travel hundreds of miles to get to us, not to mention the environmental destruction caused by taking so much water out of those river ecosystems. Then the ease with which the water leaves the homes and goes down the drain to a treatment plant or the ocean, is equally easy to not think about when it is all so hidden. But, when you develop Water Vision and learn the story of water, you can see that the story needs changing. In order to increase local resilience and sustainability for future generations in our dry climate, the story of waste, overuse, pollution, and unnecessary drainage and land disturbance needs to change.

1000 gallon rainwater tank installed in a backyard, Photo by Shane Brown

This is what I, along with 8 other students were learning how to do, on a small scale, in a recent certification course led by Brook Sarson of San Diego Sustainability Institute. We learned how to start changing people’s relationship with water in their backyards by installing roof rainwater collection systems, greywater systems, and infiltration basins. These kinds of systems can dramatically reduce a family’s use and reliance on imported water sources. Rainwater tanks, which are made up to a 5,000 gallon size for a backyard, can be hooked up to irrigate gardens, or can be used with a filter as a drinking water supply. With over 600 gallons of potential for each inch of rain on a 1,000 square foot roof, you can catch quite a lot of water! Greywater systems alter the drainage path of water from sinks, laundry and showers, so that you have the option of using the dirty water (extra nutrients!) for watering trees and shrubs with no extra effort. With the 18 gallons from a typical 10-minute shower, or 10 to 20 gallons from a typical laundry load, that’s a lot of water that gets used again and actually gets cleaned by the microbes in the soil rather than being sent to a water treatment plant. Infiltration basins are used to sink rainwater flowing off of hardscapes (concrete or roofs) into the ground so it stays wetter for longer, reducing the need for irrigation. The soil is actually the best place to store water. Healthy living soil with lots of beneficial fungi, humic acid, and worms, lets the water sink in deeply and holds onto water for a very long time, allowing plants to access it and remain healthy for longer periods of time without irrigation. Infrastructure designed to drain water without catching and sinking as much as it can first, actually contributes to degeneration of the soil, lessening its ability to hold water, and increasing the amount of irrigation needed for plants. Sinking water into the ground also replenishes ground water, which keeps creeks and rivers flowing stronger and longer, reduces flooding potential, and benefits everything downstream.

Distribution box to divert graywater from showers and sinks to different trees, Photo by Shane Brown

To think like water is to know how it moves through the watershed. On a house, the top of the watershed is the roof ridge or just the flat top of the building.  When rain falls there where does it go – does it drain off different sides of the roof in different directions? When there’s a storm, where does the rain water collect, and how much is coming off each side of the roof? How big of a basin do you have to dig, or how big of a tank do you have to install to catch all the rain from a 2-inch rainfall? Is there more water coming from the neighbor’s land, and where can you sink the water in to take advantage of the flow while avoiding damage to your foundation? This is how you have to think if you’re doing this kind of work. 

Contour swale (infiltration basin) to catch rainwater from a roof and store it in the, Photo by Shane Brown

We learned all these calculations, how to think like this, the ins and outs of plumbing and earthworks, and more, in the course. Over 3 weeks, we installed rain tanks totaling 18,000 gallons and saved 430,000 gallons of water through graywater systems per year.  And had opportunities outside of class to help Brook with installations at other clients’ houses. It was all, in reality, just a drop in the bucket in the bigger picture, but that’s where it all starts. The course was so hands-on and thorough that I walked away feeling confident enough to install these systems on my own, and since then I’ve installed a rain tank at our director Jodi’s house (now full) and helped improve my own family’s rain catchment system. Little by little we are together changing our local story of water and realizing our own power and potential in shaping the world for the better.

If you’d like to learn more about rainwater harvesting and graywater, check out the San Diego Sustainable Living Institute and Brook’s company Catching H2O.  If you’re interested in having one of these systems installed you can reach out to Brook or to Shane.