Have you ever thought about installing rain barrels to help you through the inevitable drought? That’s what Don Donoughe did. Here’s how he did it.

By Don Donoughe

The recent storms have made us very happy that we installed rain barrels to capture all that rain. We’ve already captured enough water to sustain our landscaping for the next four to five months.

We had been thinking of adding a rain catchment system to our house at 100 Arundel Road  in Burlingame for some time. Six years ago, we added solar to our roof, thanks to Steve Pariani of SolarPro Energy Systems in Burlingame. We’re really happy with our decision and are close to being energy independent.

After that, we began looking into rain catchment and storage. It was difficult keeping our highly visible front yard looking nice during drought years. We enjoy keeping the yard, plants and trees in great condition, but it’s been a struggle to keep the yard looking healthy and minimizing water use at the same time.

In May 2021, while reading the Burlingame city newsletter, I saw an article called “Rainwater Harvesting 101 Webinar: A (Rain) Barrel of Fun and Learning!” offered by the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA).

I signed up and spent a Saturday morning learning about how to capture and harvest rainwater from our roof. The webinar was very well done and included the benefits of owning and installing a rain barrel. It became clear to us that one rain barrel would not suffice because we were ready to replace the lawn with native, drought-tolerant plants and upgrade our landscaping, which was over 25 years old.

One of the last slides of the webinar contained a list of contractors that specialized in rain catchment systems as well as native landscaping and gray water projects. I contacted a couple of these contractors and was immediately interested in working with Alan Hackler of Bay Maples Wild California Gardens. Alan seemed to grasp our intentions quickly, so we requested a design from him which outlined his plan for the complete project.

Bay Maples installed five large water storage tanks and a completely new look for the front yard. He removed most of our old plants and grass, and kept our large palm and avocado tree and some of the large grasses in our garden. The sprinklers were replaced with drip irrigation to reduce the water needed for the plants and trees.

The most exciting feature was the installation of a swale to capture the overflow from the tanks and one of the downspouts. It is not only attractive but beneficial, as the water percolates into the aquifer instead of flowing to the bay. We decided to add boulders around the native plants and additional lighting.

The five tanks collect water from four downspouts. Each tank collects 530 gallons, so we can collect up to 2,650 gallons of water. Once the tanks are full, the overflow goes directly into the swale, creating a small creek. The water slowly drains into the ground over time. We are collecting all of the water that falls off our roof with the exception of two downspouts – about 80 percent. We decided to add a pump to automatically water the new plants. It’s connected to the tanks and is controlled via our existing irrigation system.

The project took two to three weeks. It included the water tanks, the rock-lined swale, a water pump, new plants, an updated irrigation system, mulch and extra top soil to increase the drama of the landscape.

Our primary goal was to keep the water from flowing to the bay and to update our landscape with native plants that are drought resistant. Since the plants are now more mature, we are seeing a steady decrease in our water usage.

The surprising outcome has been the response from neighbors. We are constantly showing off the tanks and talking about the project with people. I get the feeling that more and more homeowners will be replacing lawns with drought-tolerant plants and hopefully install rain capture as well.

NOTE: On its website at https://bawsca.org, the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency offers information about water-efficiency rebates for installing rain barrels, rain gardens and replacing your lawn. Beginning each spring, it lists free water-efficiency classes on its website. You can view videos of past classes, including one on rainwater harvesting, on this link.