Buckets of rain

For water conservation, it may be best to go with the flow

Kim Swearingen stands beside a rain barrel at the River School, though swales do the unseen heavy lifting there in terms of waterconservation.

Kim Swearingen stands beside a rain barrel at the River School, though swales do the unseen heavy lifting there in terms of waterconservation.

Photo By kat kerlin

For a clear and inspiring visual idea of how swales work, watch the “Greening the Desert” and “Permaculture Water Harvesting” videos on YouTube, which show how swales helped create an oasis of green in an extremely arid desert of Jordan near the Dead Sea. Kim Swearingen’s website, permaearth.org, also links to those videos and more information.

A strange, clear liquid substance called “rain” recently fell for eight consecutive days in Northern Nevada. On day two of the storms, Kimberly Phipps-Nichols, among others, headed to a surplus store for a cheap basin to collect it to water her yard.

If she felt like spending $100-$400, she could also have bought a rain barrel, a garden feature gaining popularity in places like Chicago and Florida, where local governments have programs to encourage their use. Dry Nevada could use all of the water conservation it can get, but do rain barrels make sense in a state with an average annual precipitation of 7.5 inches?

“An average of 7 to 10 inches of rain a year probably doesn’t constitute an investment,” says Phipps-Nichol, a sustainable planner and designer with Blue Water Studios. “But when we get these El Niño or La Niña years, and we say, ‘Hey, we’re having a wet spring,’ it absolutely is worthwhile.”

But Kim Swearingen, general manager at Interpretive Gardens, says there’s an even better way to make the most of rain: Collect it in your soil. That may sound cheeky until Swearingen, who practices permaculture methods at her work and home, starts discussing how rain barrels are a literal drop in the bucket toward water conservation compared to swales. In Gaia’s Garden, a permaculture book by Toby Hemenway, a swale is defined as “a shallow trench laid level along the land’s contours.” It’s basically a ditch dug into the land in such a way that water from the roof or driveway can get to it. The ground soaks it up like a sponge, reducing the need for irrigation.

“It’s not so much that we only get seven inches of rain a year,” she says. “The important consideration is that we get the vast majority of our precipitation in the winter. If you catch it in the winter from snow melting off the roof, and the barrels fill, and they freeze, you have a 55-gallon popsicle, and the rest of the water splashes off it and makes a mess.” She speaks from experience, as the River School, where IG is located, has rain barrels on the premises. Swales, she says, are about “trying to get the water to infiltrate your property, preferably where you’re planting, rather than run off.”

A good way to determine where to place swales is to go outside on a rainy day and watch where the water is flowing.

“You just have to think like water,” says Swearingen.

In the short term, if you decide to use a rain barrel or basin to collect water, be sure to cover it with a screen to avoid creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Some places ban rain barrels, mostly due to the bureaucratic world of water rights.

“Technically, the collection and storing of any runoff water is a taking of surface water, which would require a water right,” replied Bob Sack of the Washoe County Health Department in an email. “The whole issue of water rights gets very complicated. They are looking at the issue right now on a broad scale. I do not think they want to get into regulating every individual homeowner.”

According to Jason Geddes, city environmental services administrator, the city of Reno has no restrictions on their use, and putting a bucket or barrel under a water spout requires no permit.