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Turning on to rain, and turning off the tap, 55 gallons at a time

If L.A.'s rainwater harvesting program could put a barrel at each of the city's 800,000 residential parcels, demand for tap water could drop by about 800 million gallons a year.

December 17, 2009|By Molly Selvin

Ijoined the city's rainwater harvesting program in October, when fierce Santa Ana winds made the notion of any rain, not to mention enough to "harvest," seem fanciful to say the least.

But last week's glorious pelting rains filled my new storage barrel to the brim, along with those of several of my Mar Vista neighbors.

My rain barrel, which looks like a plastic beer keg, sits under our kitchen window, so as my morning coffee dripped last Monday, I watched runoff trickle in. Still in my pajamas, I padded outside to test the spigot at the bottom of the barrel; sure enough, out spurted a jet of water.

The next morning, I filled a watering can and gave my houseplants a drink of rainwater. This is truly the stuff of suburban drama.

My 55-gallon barrel won't change the world, or even affect our household water consumption all that much, assuming we use the Metropolitan Water District average of 171 gallons a day to shower, wash clothes and dishes, and water our lawns.

But in California, where there's little doubt we're in a years-long drought, even small steps make a difference. After Los Angeles residents obediently turned off sprinklers except on Mondays and Thursdays, water use plunged to an 18-year low, according to Department of Water and Power officials.

Our little rain barrel, of course, is a bit player in the municipal water production.

The harvesting project is funded by a bond that state voters passed in 2000 to curb storm runoff. Locally, the Bureau of Sanitation has a pilot effort in Mar Vista and other Westside communities that feed into the Ballona Creek watershed.

I received an invitation by mail to get one of the initial 600 barrels last summer. The eight-page application form included waivers to sign absolving the city of liability and questions about my home's gutters (you need them to participate).

Bond funds paid for the recycled barrels -- they once stored pickles, olives or syrup -- and for the private contractor who repositioned the downspout outside our kitchen and set the keg underneath. My total cost was $14 -- for the two cinder blocks on which the barrel sits.

"We're off the grid," I tell my husband every summer when our backyard tomatoes ripen or I'm able to cobble together a fruit salad from our spindly peach and plum trees. The line has become a standing joke between us because, of course, we're still very much on the grid.

Yet while the bitterness, distrust and one-upmanship in Washington make it easy to believe we are incapable of significant, positive change, even in the face of looming climate catastrophe, our little bit does make a difference.

I'll plant sweet peas along the fence near the kitchen again this spring -- and water them by attaching a hose to the spigot on my barrel.

I can't control what happens at this week's meeting in Copenhagen, where world leaders, activists and politicians are debating steps to slow climate change. And at home, a new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press charts a sharp decline in the number of Americans who believe that human activity has caused global temperatures to rise -- and even that the Earth is warming. In Congress, serious discussion of emissions caps, fewer coal-fired plants and more power from solar and wind -- among the obvious policy steps -- is stalled amid screeching over "socialized" medicine, illegal immigrants and whether the president should have bowed to another head of state.

But to me, the small things I can do matter.

Add my 55 gallons, refilled a few times each winter, to what my neighbors are collecting and it starts to add up. The city estimates that the first 600 barrels could save 600,000 gallons of water annually. Put a barrel at each of the city's 800,000 residential parcels and demand for tap water could drop by about 800 million gallons.

Think curbside recycling -- or reusable grocery bags. In retrospect, it didn't take much -- a nickel-a-bag rebate and a prick to our conscience -- to prod many of us to ditch plastic for canvas.

Before the big storms hit, my husband and I cleaned out gutters plugged with muddy leaves from our trees. The leaves went into the plastic backyard composter the city distributed some years back, also for free.

Now, between the rainwater harvesting and the composting, the lettuce growing in our raised beds and orange and lemon trees laden with fruit, I can almost channel Michael Pollan.

Or maybe it's Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert on "Green Acres" -- he, pitchfork in hand, she in a strapless with mink -- fussing over Arnold the pig or that brood of 1,000 baby chicks.

We start building our chicken coop in January.

Molly Selvin is a professor at Southwestern Law School.

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