Keeping the water on your property lessens pollution and flooding, and helps reduce the burden on municipal utilities. And there will still be plenty of water to use next spring and summer.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, we built a little outdoor shelter in the heart of our new backyard. With the optimism of newbies, and visions of free water, we installed a series of three connected rain barrels beneath a downspout to collect water off the small roof. And then it rained.
A single November storm — if I recall, it was a doozy — easily maxed out our holding capacity and proceeded to flood the new shelter. It takes only an inch of rain falling on a 10-by-10-foot roof, like the one on our shelter, to collect enough water to fill a 55-gallon rain barrel.
The Puget Sound region averages about 3 feet of rain per year; about two-thirds of that falls between November and March. When you really do the math, capturing rain with a barrel feels like standing beneath Snoqualmie Falls with a teaspoon.
With several more months of the rainy season ahead, clearly I needed to rethink my strategy. That’s when I learned about catch-and-release rainwater harvesting. These days, my goals have shifted away from saving water for the next growing season to collecting and managing rainfall to recharge soil moisture and protect my community.
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Why bother? Like most environmental questions, the answer is bigger than my garden. During a major “storm event,” rainwater sluicing over paved areas in our urban environment picks up contaminants. This toxic soup then empties into the nearest storm drain or, worse, fouls local waterways. Anything I can do to keep water on my property lessens pollution and flooding, and helps reduce the burden on municipal utilities.
So what does catch-and-release rainwater harvesting look like? Before the rainy season arrives, connect a hose to the overflow spigot at the base of the barrel. Now grab your slicker; you might get wet. After each storm, or as your rain barrels fill, open the overflow value, and drain the barrel(s), directing the water to where it can gently infiltrate the soil in the garden; trees and hedging especially appreciate the deep watering. Note: Select an overflow discharge point at least 8 feet away from the foundation of your house, to keep the basement dry. (I learned that the hard way.)
Gravity is your friend. Life will be so much easier if you can site your rain barrel(s) uphill from your overflow discharge point. If your lot is level, elevating your rain barrel by a couple of feet will ensure enough pressure to move water through the hose. It’s important to provide a sturdy footing and strap your elevated rain barrel securely in place.
Later, in early spring, stop releasing captured rainwater to build up stores that you can use to water the summer garden when things get dry again.
For more valuable tips on rainwater harvesting, including information about purchasing rain barrels from the Seattle Conservation Corps, a Parks and Recreation Department program, visit the City of Seattle’s website.