A Race for Saving Water

On Apr 14, 2018,   I participated the Great Race for Saving Water in Palo Alto.  This is the fifth Earth Day celebration hosted by city of Palo Alto.  It is a 5K run/walk and kids 1K fun run to “raise awareness about water resources, conservation and environmental health”.

Great Race for Saving Water

Great Race for Saving Water 2

The race would start at 9am.  From the early morning,  people started streaming into the start venue, Palo Alto Baylands Athletic Center.  Once there, a lot of exciting things were already waiting.

A water truck – H2O On the Go

You have seen food trucks, but have you seen a water truck?  One of the first thing that would catch anyone’s eyes  was a water truck, Santa Clara Water District’s “H2O to Go”.

As Santa Clara Water District describes on the truck’s website, “Standing 11 feet tall, the water dispenser-on-wheels holds approximately 500 gallons of chilled tap water; about enough to fill 8,000 servings in 8-ounce cups. Under a roll-out canopy on each side, residents can fill up at any of the vehicle’s 14 dispensers, seven on each side. The cold, refreshing water is from the district’s water treatment plants, which supply Santa Clara County with clean, safe and high-quality water. Water from our treatment plants consistently meets or exceeds all state and federal regulations, which continually grow more stringent. Drinking tap water also helps to protect the environment. With enough water to replace almost 4,000 water bottles, the water truck can save the earth from 105 pounds of plastic waste”.

water truck

There are so many benefits drinking from tap like these in the truck versus bottle.  A big portion of bottled water actually is just tap water;  while the tap water costs consumer almost nothing ($0.004/gallon), bottled water costs 300 times more, at $1.22/gallon.   Despite all these, the bottled water consumption has increased tremendously in the last several decades.  Per capita consumption increased 3 fold from 9.8 gallons per person annually in 1991 to 30.8 in 2012.

One huge issue stemming from this massive consumption is pollution.  Globally, humans buy 1 million plastic bottles per minute; however, 91% of the plastic is not recycled.  A huge number of plastic bottles end up in landfill, and a big part of them go into ocean.   According to Ocean Conservancy, plastics are believed to threaten at least 600 different wildlife species90% of seabirds are now eating plastics on a regular basis; by 2050, that figure is expected to rise to 100%; At that time, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.   To manage the issue, Europe is planning to ban 10 single use plastic items that make up for 70% of all litter in EU waters and on beaches.  While we all need to drink water, we definitely do not need more plastic bottles.

Everyone would enjoy some cold, refreshing water, especially after running at a race.  Before the water truck,  water supplied to thirsty runners at a race like this would be just boxes after boxes of bottles.  As there are over 30,000 organized races and close to 17 million race finishers in the US a year, suppose one runner at least consumes 1 bottle, the races in US alone will generate 17 million bottles, with a big portion of that ending in landfill and oceans!  The Great Race was estimated to be attended by 1000 people.  By providing a water truck, the race organizer and Santa Clara Water District removed at least 1K bottles from this event.  Kudos to them for quenching the thirst for the runners, and doing a great thing for the environment!

Here, no bottle was found at the bins:

A leaky toilet

At 9am, the race started.  In the race, one could not help but notice something that was rather unusual  – a running “leaky toilet”; to be more concise, someone who was wearing a costume of a toilet.  Why a toilet?  Well, it carried a rather big message about water.

According to Peninsula Press, “Leaky toilets are just one source of common water wastage in home, since one out of five homes may have a toilet in any given year, according to Ora Chaiken from WaterSmart Software. She reprised her role as the “running toilet”, which participants tried to catch during the 5k and 1k fun runs.”

Leaks are a big source of water waste.  Up to 50% of households will experience some kind of water leak in a given year;  according to EPA,  household leaks can waste more than 1 trillion gallons annually nationwide. enough for more than 11 million homes’ annual water use!  As water leaks can waste so much water, we should do everything we can to prevent and fix it immediately when it happens.

We all understand the importance of using high water efficiency products, like the high efficiency toilet shown here, to save water. However,  if leaks happen, any  savings can be wiped out, and more.  It is good that we use these products, like the toilet, or water efficient irrigation such as drip ; equally important though, is that we can prevent, detect and fix any leaks quickly when they happen.

leaky toilet
Photo credit: Great Race for Saving Water
Plant a garden with native plants

There were quite a few partner booths and activities at the festival.  Here, a landscape designer was giving a presentation about landscaping with California native plants.  Compared with a lawn, a garden with drought tolerant and native plants can save water significantly.  In addition, these plants can provide habitat for pollinators like bees, birds and butterflies, providing rich biodiversity and supporting a healthy eco system, which a lawn can not.  A garden can also add so much color and textures to the space, making it attractive and adding the curb appeal for the house.

Outdoor landscaping accounts for half of the urban water use in California, which is a lot.  To save water, replacing a lawn with a water efficient gardens is one of the most effective ways.  Plant some wild flowers, save water and help out the bees and birds.  They will surely be grateful!

wild flower presentation
Photo credit: Great Race for Saving Water
Kids Played a Big Part

When one came to the festival, they would find this sure was an event not just for adults, but also for kids.  There were kids everywhere, from little babies to teenagers; There was an 1K fun run just for kids.  For a kid,  there were so many fun things to look and do.  The smokey bear!  The eagle!

Smokey bear
Photo credit: Great Race for Saving Water
Eagle
Photo credit: Great Race for Saving Water

With global warming, pollution and other environmental issues, our globe is facing some serious challenges, which will just become more serious if not managed well.  This makes it really important for kids to be involved early, to become educated in the topics about earth, environment and sustainability.

When today’s kids grow up, they will inherit the earth with all the issues and challenges; what they learn now can prepare them for the challenges then; furthermore, if they understand the importance today, they can join join adults and do something to prevent, reduce or slow down the impact of these issues.  For example, our water supply from snowpack might decline by 60% in just 20 years.  Facing such a future, kids should learn today how precious our wate is, and what they can do now to conserve water.  By chasing the “leaky toilet”, they will understand the significance of preventing water losses like leaks.  When they grow up, in a world that will have less stable water supply than today, they will fully appreciate the value of water and try to come up with ways to use it well. Out of the many things they will do,  they might design a better toilet that have less leaks, and save more water.

Kids chasing leaky toilet
Photo credit: Great Race for Saving Water
#1 kid
Photo credit: Great Race for Saving Water
Win at the race

Well, beyond all the fun activities, this still was a race.  I was just planning to have a good time and did not prepare anything special for the race.  After the race started, I dashed through the 5K.  When they announced the winner for each age group, to my happy surprise, I won 1st place in my age group.

Luckily, in our long race towards a clean and sustainable earth, not just one person, or a group, a country, or one generation  can be the winner.  All of us can.  If we come together and work together, if we bring our kids along, we will all win in the end.   The sky will still be blue, water still be clean in the next generation, and the next.

The Great Race for Saving Water has been a very fun and educational event, blending in sports, games, plants, animals and many more to give everyone an abundant dose of fun and information.  It is truly a Great Race for Saving Water.

race finish
Photo credit: Great Race for Saving Water

Turn an Empty School Lot Into a Veggie Garden

On a beautiful April morning, on the campus of an elementary school in the Silicon Valley, just after the school start time, while the whole school went from the hustle and buzz accompanying drop off into a total quietness, at this corner, however, happy chatters and bursts of laughs could be heard some distance away.  Getting closer, one could see it was a class of 4th grade kids going to start on a veggie garden.

They were all very excited.  It was not their first time they did something related to a garden though – they did it before, kind of.

Start small

2 years ago, when California was still in the historic 5-year drought, in response to the call of conserving water, the school reduced the watering for its garden.   Like so many gardens across the area at that time, a big part of it went barren.  After the drought was over, though it was with a good reason, the garden could be improved.

Finally a proposal was made, “Let’s do something!”  It happened that at the time the kids at 3rd grade were learning about water and water conservation as part of the curriculum.  Why not let the kids be involved in the garden?  After all, after the project was to be finished, they would see it the most; and, this would be great education for gardening, and water it would take.

So the kids had a very different class on an afternoon, a discussion about the garden, and water.  What could we do about the garden?  What requirements must it meet?  Why is water so valuable?  To conserve water, what can we do?   Then came the fun part.  The kids were shown some of the plants, and they got to pick the ones they liked for the garden.  When they saw how the plants were like, they all got psyched up. “I like this one!”  “I like that one, I saw it on my hike!” “This one!” “No, that one!” “This one is like – I will just name it Medusa’s Hair!”

After half hour of shouts, exchanges and laughter, the plants were decided on.  The list was sent to the principle, and the garden was planted.

By next spring, the garden bloomed:

Another year went by, by spring, the garden has completely been filled in.  It was lovely, all plants were blooming in the spring breeze. From time to time, parents and kids could be spotted pausing to take in the view before hurrying away into a busy day.

The 3rd grade kids are now in their 4th grade, and they were assigned another research project for water conservation.   Another class discussion about water was held; at the end, everyone went out to take a look at the garden, something that they discussed and designed a year ago.  Once in in front of the garden, kids all got excited.  They asked about the names of the plants, remembering what they commented back then, shouted, laughing.

When everyone was just looking and chatting, some kids and teacher saw this plot of empty land next by, and wondered: “Can we put some there too?  It will look nicer.”

Definitely.  Actually, it can be a veggie garden!

Benefits of a school veggie garden

Kids can get so much out from building and growing a veggie garden.

Improve understanding of science – The gardening process involves a lot of STEM knowledge.  To plan for a garden, the first step is to find out its size.  To that end, one needs to measure, and calculate – that is math right there.  For plants to grow well, it needs good combination of water, sun and soil.  That is botany.  What is in the soil?  How to make it fertile? Chemistry.  In a garden, these subjects are not just some dry concepts in the book, but something kids need to apply to tackle problems in the real world.

Team work and communication – it is a team effort, from designing, planting to caring for the plants.  In the process, kids need to communicate, coordinate, do their own parts well, and come together to deliver a wonderful garden.  As the process usually takes several weeks to months, it provides ample opportunities for team-building.

Connection to nature, and food  – nowadays a typical day for a kid is filled with books, homework and screen times of mobile phones and computers.  There has been less and less outdoor time.  When they are eating, very few would know how all the food are like when they were grown on a farm.  By growing their own veggies, kids get to see the nature up close, and see how the veggies are before they become their food.   That can be a rich and rewarding experience.

Value the food, eat healthy  According to State of Obesity, “The latest data show that the national childhood obesity rate among 2- to 19-year-olds is 18.5 percent.” In other words, almost one in every 5 children are obese today.  That is an alarmingly high number.  While there are many ways to tackle the problem, one of the ways is to let  kids eat healthier, both quantitatively and qualitatively.  By growing their own veggie, kids will come to value their food much more, eat the healthy portion, and more likely to enjoy their  veggies.

Planting Day

Just like last time, kids played a big role in designing the garden and deciding on the veggies to plant.  Once the design was done, the project went underway.  Veggie beds were built, soil added, seedlings were purchased.  All was ready for the planting day!

After some instructions were given to the kids, the planting started!  Spinach, chard, tomato, strawberry, basil… very soon all the seedlings were planted.

A science teacher brought a box of the worms, kids just scooped them up and put in the soil.  They loved the worms!

Then they helped put some plants in an empty area around the veggie beds, which were all drought tolerant, and would have blossom that attract bees and butterflies.  With these plants, the space will not only look more appealing, but also attract the pollinators that can help the veggies.

All all the seedlings were planted, kids found the plant labels and put them next to each of the plant.  They wanted to learn about the plant names, and wanted the labels there for future reference.

Finally all was done!  Everyone were very happy with the beautiful new garden.  All it takes now is the time for the veggies to grow, and some care and watering.  Now the kids can sit back a little, watch the veggies grow, and wait for the harvest time!

Before

Now

(Below is added  5 weeks after planting)

First Harvest

In the weeks since planting, the veggies have all grown well, and grown up.

Two weeks later:

5 weeks later:

The end of school year was fast approaching.  A party would be held to celebrate.  Any idea for food at the party?

Harvest time!

While the tomatoes have not come yet, the lettuce ad chard were big enough for harvest.  After they tasted it, kids said: “Yum!”

When they were asked to write down the best memories from the last school year, all kids wrote about the garden.  One kid said, ” “It was nice to see our work come to fruition”  Another: “I love seeing the garden every day as I walk and leave school”.  And this one: “”I am so proud of making our school beautiful and leaving a part of me here, forever”.  Veggie garden not only gave kids some salad, but an experience that they cherish and love.

 

 

 

Great Makeover Story: From Barren to Beauty (1)

This story is about an amazing transformation from barren to beauty.

When the owners moved into the house, the first thing they wanted to change was the front and back yards.  It was barren, utterly unattractive.  The main part of the front yard was this hard surface covered with sand.  It had been used as a parking space for years.  The backyard had the similar hard sandy surface as the path, with a big bush of catti plants in the middle.  When it was windy, the sands from the surfaces would be blown up and hit everything around: people, dogs, kids.  It could be messy.

Barren old front yard

Old Back Yard

The owner wanted beautiful landscapes for their yards; meanwhile, they also wanted something that is environmentally friendly, that would not use a lot of water.  To be “good” to the environment was important for them.  They wanted to be efficient for all natural resources, keeping the footprint on environment as small as possible.

Addressing the challenges of building a garden

When one looked at the front yard, the challenges for building a garden was obvious.  A big lot.  Hard surface. No top soil.  And, on a slope.  For plants to grow well, at the minimum, they would need water and soil.  How would these be addressed?

Capture and reuse rain Water

When one checked on the site, they would see two downspouts, one on each side of the house, come right down to the lot.   They pointed to hard surface, which would just let the rainwater runoff.   That is quite a waste.   Rainwater is an excellent resource of water, which can be used to water plants.   To capture and reuse rain water, one can use a rain barrel, or build a rain garden.  As the the front yard is on a slope where rain water would flow down naturally, a rain garden built close to the bottom of the slope could capture the rain water and reuse it well.

Downspout 1
Downspout 1
Downspout 2
Downspout 2

When it doesn’t rain, plants still need water to establish and grow.  For irrigation of a water efficient garden, drip irrigation is the way to go.  It can point to the root area for each plant precisely, so water can get to where it is needed exactly, without mass runoff.  Compared with a sprinkler system, drip can save water by 30-60%.

Select hardy and drought tolerant plants

As the soil under the surface is very hard from years of being used as a parking lot, it was not the best soil for many plants.  Ideally, the soil could be improved with materials such as compost and organic matters over a longer period of time; however, the option was not  available due to the time limit of the project.  This made the selection of plants especially important.

Many native  and other plants are adapted to California’s soil system and can thrive in all kinds of soils.  They can be hardy for tough environments, and need little water once established.  They also have other benefits.  A lot of them produce blossom that are good food for pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds, supporting a vibrant Eco system.

California Native Plant

Repurpose of the existing plants

For the design of the back yard, it was decided that the bush of cactus plants would go; the space would be emptied for other uses.  The catti plants thrived well in the micro system around the house, making them a a good bet for the soil conditions in the front yard.  Instead of discarding them, the catti would be reused for front yard.

Catti Bush

Building the garden

After the design of the garden was finished, the project entered installment.

Installing a rain garden

There are several parts to this.  First, proper discharge of rain water from the down spout.  Instead of letting the rainwater just go down to the ground and run off, the water would be drained into the garden.  Ditches were dug, pipes were connected.   Two  channels were also dug from the end of the pipes to the rain garden.  When it rains, rain water would be discharged out of the pipes, into the channel, then flow into the rain garden.

Pipe 1

Pipe 2

Stream 1

Stream 2

Then an area was dug for the rain garden.   The shape of the rain garden usually is round or curvy, to reduce the force of runoff and effect of erosion.

After that, plants were put into the rain garden.  There are some special requirements for such plants.  Specifically, they should be able to stand both wet and dry conditions well.  Better yet, they can add color and texture to the garden, making the garden look even more attractive.

Lastly, the whole area of the channels and rain garden were filled with pebble stones.  Once the stones were added, two “streams” and a “pond” came into life.  When it rains, all the roof’s rain water would flow into the stream,  out to the pond, seep through the pebbles, water the plants, then percolate deep down and recharge ground water, an act badly needed for our environment.

Rain Garden 1

Rain Garden 2

In big cities where surfaces like concrete is prevalent, only 5% of rain water can infiltrate deep into the soil, depriving groundwater the opportunity of being recharged.  Areas like rain garden can change that and let as much as 25% of rain water go deep under.  Recharging groundwater  is very important for keeping a healthy water system and providing backup when drought hits.

Impervious Cover

A lovely catti Area

Catti plants are favorites for many people!  They come in all kinds of shapes, colors and forms, some of them sporting splendid and beautiful flowers.  They are very drought tolerant, needing only very little water once they are established.  Catti plants can fill out a full garden, or can be integrated as part of a bigger garden, just like what was being done here.  Here they fill out the long stripe along the driveway, offering something wonderful to see and enjoy when one comes home.

Catti Plant 1

Catti Plant 2

A magnet for bees  and birds

Plants with splendid blossom provide the food that bees, birds and other pollinators depend on.  As bees’ population has been on a decline,  it is even more important that we provide places where these small creatures can feed on and take a good break.  Compared with a lawn which does not provide any food or shelter, gardens with drought tolerant and native plants can become a paradise for bees and birds.

Here, this plant was planted in a row along the pathway.  When it blooms, it has this bright beautiful blossom that is hard to miss.  It is not just us who love them,  bees and birds crave them too!

Plant for Bee

Bee

Parking Strip not to be ignored

Compared with the main garden, quite often, parking strips are “after thoughts” since they are a bit small.  However, in quite some cases they still have sizable spaces, and are an important part of the front space.  They can also be filled with the drought tolerant plants and native plants, adding to the curb appeal, and food for bees and birds.

Parking Strip 1

Adding Mulch

After the garden is finished, an important step is to cover the whole surface with mulch.  There are several benefits of this.  First, they can significantly slow down water evaporation, keep soil moist longer so reduce water required for the plants.  They can also suppress the growth of weeds, further reducing water usage.  Third, organic mulch like this made from bark can disintegrate into the soil over time, adding to the organic matters in the soil, improving soil quality and water retention capability.  Aesthetically, they provide this backdrop for all the foliage and blossom, making the space look even more appealing.

A brand new garden

Tieing all the elements together…the new garden was born!  The space has dramatically changed.  Here was how it was like:

Old Yard

And the new garden:

A rain garden doing well in rain

Shortly after the garden was finished, several storms hit the area.  How did the garden do in the rain?

All came out to be good!  Water flew into the stream and pond as designed; plants enjoyed the rain and grew well.

Off the garden, water that came down from impervious surfaces like driveway pooled into runoff, which would flow out to a sewer and empty into the streams and rivers.  There were lots of pollutants in the runoff which would hurt the animals living in the waters, and pollute the broader water system.  That is why we should limit the areas with impervious cover and try to build more rain gardens, like the one shown here.

With a design of native and drought tolerant plants, the front space of this residence has been completely transformed.  Not only has it gone from utterly unattractive to beautiful, but also become  a wonderful place for bees, birds and butterflies.   As the plants are drought tolerant, only a little water will be needed after the plants are established.  Low water use, beautiful, great for the bees – water efficient gardens can add so much charm for your space!

Bees love them, they are planted heavily around the Apple campus

Last year, 5 years after Apple’s legendary co-founder Steve Jobs unveiled the “spaceship” design for the new Apple campus, the project finally finished and the new campus started its use.  While the huge spaceship is undoubtedly the most striking element of the campus, there is another equally important yet less known feature.

It is this massive amount of plants planted on the campus, which fills out the 3 acre space – 9000 trees, and countless California native and other drought tolerant plants.

It is not something that just happened that way – it is by design.  When Steve Jobs was planning the campus, from the very beginning he was very adamant that it should just be like what Silicon Valley was  before the digital transformation.  As Steven Levy of Backchannel said,  Jobs “wanted to create a microcosm of Silicon Valley, a landscape reenactment of the days when the cradle of digital disruption had more fruit trees than engineers. In one sense, the building would be an ecological preservation project; in another sense, it’d be a roman a clef written in soil, bark, and blossom.”  Today the campus fulfills that vision.  Inside and outside, the space is fully filled with trees and shrubs, many of them California natives.

A plant that grow in abundance on the campus is California Lilac.  On an early morning in March, a stroll along the campus could find that some of the lilacs grew to be big bushes already in less than one year’s time.   They are blooming, with massive bright blue blossom.

Native plants around Apple campus

Native plants around Apple campus 2

Close up, you will see some small creatures busy at work.

A bee on a lilac

A bee on a lilac 2

Bees at work

The bees were busy collecting pollens, which is their food.  Look at the two small yellow balls – they sure have collected quite a bit of pollen!

When the bees flying from flowers to flowers collecting their pollens, they rub pollens from a flower onto another, pollinating the flowers, which enables fertilization and turns the flowers into fruits. As most flowers need pollination to grow into fruits, without these small creatures, we can’t enjoy a lot of the fruits we are so accustomed to having every day.

Look around us – from the apple we ate in the morning, to the jeans we wear (cotton), and blueberries we snacked on in the afternoon, they all have bees to thank for.  Bees pollinate 75% of world’s main crops.  According to USDA, bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion or more of American crops per year. It is hard to imagine a world without the bees pollinating all those crops!

A bee on a lilac 3

Bees on a decline

Unfortunately, in the last several decades, bees have been on a decline. According to a study by Center for Biological Diversity (author Kelsey Kopec, a pollinator researcher):

  • “Among native bee species with sufficient data to assess (1,437), more than half (749) are declining.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 (347 native bee species) is imperiled and at increasing risk of extinction.”

For one of the wild bees, the rusty patched bumble bee, its population has declined by so much (almost 90%) since 1990s that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as an endangered species in early 2017.  The bee became first wild bee in the continental United States to be listed as endangered species.

Why such decline?  In the same study, the author indicated that “A primary driver of these declines is agricultural intensification, which includes habitat destruction and pesticide use. Other major threats are climate change and urbanization.”

Loss of habitat is one of the top reasons for loss of bees, which makes total sense.  The bees have been feeding on the plants in their native land for hundreds of thousands of years; when the habitats are lost to farming or industrialization, the plants are gone, so are the bees.

Native plants for bees

Bees need flowers’ nectar and pollen for their food; they especially like those from native plants, which is something that they have been feeding on for hundreds of thousands of years.  The California Lilac seen here at the Apple campus, is a big California native, and a favorite for bees with its dense blue blossom.  Lilac can bloom from late spring to summer, providing a good 4-5 months of food to the bees.

Another big native plant, the state flower, California Golden Poppy, also attract bees when they bloom.

Golden poppy on a field

Golden Poppy

Seaside Daisy, and Yarrow, heavily planted around the Apple campus, are two other natives that bees love.

Seaside Daisy

Apple Park 3

Plant more natives, restore the habitat

As bees play such a critical role for the ecosystem we live in, and for our food and agriculture business, we should do everything we can to provide them a good environment, putting them back onto a path for healthy growth. One critical step to achieve this is plant more native and other pollinator friendly plants.

Apple has done this by planting massive amounts of native plants on its campus; Many city parks and nature reserves also use their vast spaces for the purpose.  Here you can see California Lilac in a city park and a nature reserve in the San Francisco Bay area.  These are all great examples, but we can do more.

Lilac in a park
California Lilac in a city park
California Lilac in a nature reserve. See the bees on the blue blossom

In the last several decades, lawns have become the dominate landscapes for most single family residences in the country. People now realize, lawns not only consume a lot of water – over half of the water is used for outdoor watering in California, but also contribute to the loss of habitats for bees and other pollinators.  The stretch after stretch of green provides hardly any food or shelter for the bees.

By replacing lawns with native and other bee friendly plants, we can gradually put back the habitats that were lost, piece by piece.  We can help restore the habitats, starting from our own house.

The owner of this place wanted to replace their back yard with something much more attractive.  They decided to put in drought tolerant landscapes, and applied for Santa Clara Water District’s Landscape Conversion Rebate Program.  During the project, when they saw a lilac, they wanted it for their garden right away.  The project was finished quickly and they received the rebate promptly.  Now, they can enjoy the lovely garden, and the striking beauty the lilac provides.  Bees surely will love the new lilac too!

This garden is filled with California natives.  It was installed in fall, by next spring the bloom was already full on, with bees busy feasting on the Golden Poppy, Buckwheat and Matilijia Poppy. On a day in summer, while the poppy was already near its end of the bloom, a bee could still be seen working on it.

A garden with native plants

By putting in a garden with lots of California natives and other drought tolerant plants, not only can you save a lot of water, but provide a habitat for the bees and other pollinators, which in turn can help build a more sustainable environment.   Spring is a great time for planting.  Start today, and see native plants’ bloom and bees tomorrow!

Capture Every Raindrop In Your Garden

After a long dry winter rains finally came!  For three days the rains just came down heavily.  This garden was completed right before the rains. During the rain, raindrops can be seen coming down from the two down spouts, going right into the the soil of the garden.  The plants waved gently in the rain, as if saying: “Thank you!”

Water Efficient Garden in rain

downspout in rain

Before – brown lawns

The owner has been at this place for some time.  Ever since he moved here, he had not done anything to the front and back yards.  The lawns went brown during the drought, looking quite barren.   Even after the very wet year of 2017, they did not come back.  Finally, when the owner heard about the Santa Clara Landscape Rebate Program in his city, he decided it was the time to start doing something.

He wanted to build a garden that will meet all the requirements of the rebate program.  After he did some searches online, he found the website of Water Efficient Garden, where he got exactly the information he needed.

Brown Lawn

In the backyard  there is an olive tree.  It is a large tree with lots of black olives lying on the ground.

Olive tree

Designing the Garden

The owner wanted to have a simple and easy conversion which would meet all the requirements of the Rebate Program.  Luckily, there are  a large number of attractive drought tolerant plants to choose from.  When selected carefully, even just with a few, the plants can make an elegant and water efficient garden.

In Mediterranean areas like Spain where the olive trees originate from, the tree can be seen everywhere: in the open fields, at the hill tops, etc.  There, lavender, rosemary, and other Mediterranean natives also grow in abundance.  They are well adapted to the climate there, very drought tolerant, yet with attractive flowers and aroma.

California shares the same Mediterranean climate, so these plants also do well here.  For the backyard design, it was decided some of these plants will be used, keeping the Mediterranean vibe alive.

Olive tree in Spain
An olive tree on top of a hill at Barcelona
Capture every drop in the garden

The front yard sits next to the side of the house, with thick bushes almost completely blocking out the wall.  When the project started, the grasses were removed, the bushes cut, exposing the wall.   On it there are two down spouts, pointing to the yard below (only one is shown in this photo).  So, when it rains, all the rainwater from the roof will go into the yard, not driveway or other impervious surfaces, which is excellent.

After the historical drought that ended just last year,  people all realize now how valuable water really is.  With population increase and climate change, our demand for water will only increase.  On the other hand, as the Sierra Nevada snowpack will “very likely” shrink  by 30% in the next 20 years, the supply will decrease.  How can we have enough water to meet our demand?

A big chunk of water do come to us every year, but in the past we send a large part of it away right away – the rain water.  Rainwater is not a waste, but a very valuable resource of water.   Steven Moore, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, said, “Stormwater could be a significant addition to California’s water supply. Los Angeles estimates that rainfall could provide nearly half a million acre-feet (620 million cubic meters) per year. Stormwater could make a difference, it could see us through seven years of drought instead of five.”

If the rain water is directed to impervious surfaces like driveway, the water will just become runoff and be sent right away, which is a waste for this valuable water resource.   In places with natural ground cover, 50% of the rain water can go back in the soil.  In urban areas where a big chunk of surfaces are impervious,  only about 15% of water goes back.  Specifically, only 5% of the water infiltrates deep down, versus 25% with natural ground cover, which seriously deprives the ground from water recharging that is badly needed.

So, when it rains, we should direct as much water as possible to our garden, let it water the plants, soak into the soil, and recharge the ground water.   By capturing every drop, we can make the best use of the water that fall on our roof every year.

After – drought tolerant landscape

The garden projects are done!  This is how the front yard looks now:

To further absorb the rainwater, a small ditch was made in the middle of the garden.  Filled with pebble stones, the “river” can take all the rain water coming down the two down sprouts when it rains.  In addition to capturing the rain water,  it adds a vivid element to the landscape, making it look more lively and appealing.   The rocks scattering across the garden add yet more textures and balance out the “river” in the middle.

All the plants are drought tolerant. They sport pink, purple, yellow and white blossoms, making the garden not just water efficient, but also cheerful.

For the backyard, in front of the Olive tree, another Mediterranean native  – the lavenders, add color and aroma.

a water efficient garden

Close to the patio, a native plant from California flank the pathway with their tiny blue blossom and dark green leaves.

California native plant

Irrigation controller and drip irrigation was done for all the plants.  In addition, a rain sensor was also installed, which is connected to the irrigation controller.  When it rains, the rain sensor will send signal to the controller, which will delay the irrigation scheduled until the rain stops.  A simple device can save even more water for the garden.

How does it do in the rain?

Right after the garden was installed, a much-waited-for rain came.  For 3 days rain kept pouring down.  How did the garden do?

Very well.  While the rain that fell on the driveway inevitably runs off,  every drop of the rain that fell on the roof all went into the garden from the two down spouts.  Plants love the rain water, which is not  treated with chemicals, as is the case for in-house water.  Plants grown up with rain water usually grow faster, stronger, and have better and larger blossom.

After the project was finished,  information such as garden photos were submitted to the Rebate Program, which issued a rebate promptly.

By converting a brown lawn into a water efficient garden, the space looks much more appealing.  In a dry place like California, it can save 30-60%  of water comparing with a lawn, saving cost and maintenance work.  On top of it, when it rains, it can absorb every drop of the rain water, feeding the plants, and saving even more water.  For all these these great benefits, you can receive a rebate of $1-$2 per square foot.

The owner was happy with the project.  “It looks very good.  We are really happy with the design. ”

We are not receiving the average level of rain this year;  it looks we are going to have another dry year.   We’ve got to be prepared for the dry time now.  Why wait?  Start today!

lawn to water efficient garden conversion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting Sierra Nevada in Fall (1): Source of Our Water

On an October morning, we went to the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.  It was a very clear and nice fall morning.  On high way 99, you could see the irrigation ditch running parallel to the free way.  Though tiny from afar, the blue color of the water contrasted briskly with the yellow banks along it and mountains behind it.  Sierra Nevada and its snowpack, is the source for the water, which we will see very soon.

irrigation

South Fork, Kings River

After we watched in awe the giant Sequioas the first day, we went to the Kings Canyon National Park the next day.  When driving on the road into the park, one could see water running in the canyon to the right of the road, in the yellow and golden fall foliage.  The views were spectacular.

This is the South Fork of the Kings River, one of the three forks that form the river (the other two are Middle and North Fork).

We stopped at Ceder Grove Visitor Center, which  just closed for the winter season.  A short distance away is the river bank of the King river.  The water was so clear, like liquid crystal, moved slowly from east to west.

Kings River 4

Where does all this water come from?  Snowpack in Sierra Nevada, a mountain of which can be seen in the picture above at the back.  However, there was no snow patch visible now.

Every year, during the cold winter season, snows falls on the Sierra Nevada, which means “snowy range” in Spanish.  The whole mountain range captures and stores the vast amount of snow, then at spring time, the snowpack begins to melt and fills rivers with water, like the South Fork of Kings river here.  The snowmelt peaks late spring around March to April, then declines through summer and fall, until it reaches the bottom around September.  So we were at about what was supposed to be the very low point of snowmelt.  The water level should be about the lowest now; usually we might not see all these rocks at the riverbed.

Kings River 5

From here, the water in South Fork flows down Kings Canyon, then join other forks at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to become the one big Kings River.  Later the Kings River divides into three distributaries, with North Fork Distributary connecting to the Fresno Slough that drains into the San Joaquin River.  San Joaquin River merges with the Sacramento River in Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta), from which the State Water Project and Central Valley Project deliver the water to many parts of the state, including the Bay area, Central Valley, Los Angles and Los Angeles Basin.  So, when we turn on the tap back in the bay area, the water that comes out may be from the water we see here!

San Joaquin River
By Shannon1 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Water Fountain
Water fountain in the Bay area

We continued on.  When we passed the bridge for Roaring River, we decided to go take a small hike.  Roaring river is a tributary for the South Fork;  At the end of the trail, you could see a water fall, tumbling down one after another (the upper one could not be seen in the photo unfortunately).  The water is jade green at the bottom of the fall.  More than 100 years ago, when John Muir saw this water fall, he marveled: “There is one thundering plunge into a dark pool beneath a glorious mass of rainbow spray…”

Roaring River

After the double falls,  the water tumbles down yet another step, then flows to this little pool surrounded by mountains and fall foliage, a stunning beauty in green tranquility.  From here, it merges into the South Fork.

Roaring River

Roaring River 3

We came back to the main road along the South Fork, and went upstream.  Along the way, every view with the river was captivating.

Kings River

Sierra Nevada Snowpack: Critical Source of the Water

All this water comes from snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada, which is so critical for California’s water supply.  As Sierra Nevada Conservancy indicates,  “The Sierra Nevada Region plays a critical role in California’s water supply and hydrological system. More than 60 percent of California’s developed water supply originates in the Sierra Nevada serving end users throughout the State.  Snowpack in the Sierra region provides a natural form of water storage, and Sierra forests and meadows play a role in ensuring water quality and reliability.”

Sierra Nevada Smowpack

By storing the water as snow in winter, and gradually releasing it in warmer seasons, the snowpack in Serra Nevada acts as a gigantic natural reservoir for the state.  According to The Southwest Climate Science Center,  “In California, the spring snowpack on average stores about 70% as much as the water stored in the State’s reservoirs.”

That’s amazing.  The water that flows by in front of us is not just this incredible natural beauty; along with the surrounding mountains, the snowpack there invisible to our eyes, they are part of this huge water storage and delivery system, supporting “more than 25 million Californians and three million acres of agricultural land.”, as indicated by Sierra Nevada Conservancy.  People like us who live in the cities, big and small, depend on it; the state’s agriculture business, at 45 billion in 2016, depend on it.

Challenges for the Snowpack

Such a critical resource, unfortunately, is under some very serious challenges.

The impact from climate change is significant.  According to a study by UCLA Center for Climate Science:

  • “By 2081–2100, if nothing is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions, average temperatures in the Sierra Nevada are projected to increase by about 7–10 degrees F, depending on the month in question, compared with 1981–2000.
  • Warming will be associated with decreases in snow cover in the Sierra Nevada by 2081–2100. For the typical month of April, the land area covered by snow shrinks by 48%, compared with the typical April in 1981–2000. “

In another study published in the peer-review journal Nature in 2017, “Westen U.S. Snowpack could decline 60% by 2040“, with a decline of 30% “very likely”.

  • Reduced snowmelt runoff.  Smaller snowpack means less snowmelt.  This is already happening.  Water Education Foundation indicates that “In the past 100 years, annual runoff that occurs during April to July has decreased by 23 percent for the Sacramento basin and 19 percent for the San Joaquin basin, according to state climate statistics.”  As more than 60 percent of the state’s water supply comes from Sierra Nevada, the reduced runoff is a very serious challenge.
  • Snowline is moving uphill.   Scientists at the Desert Research Institute in a study published in journal Water reported that warmer temperatures have pushed the snow line in the northern Sierra Nevada uphill by 1,200 to 1,500 feet.
  • There will be less snow and more rain.  As the snowline moves up, in the big areas that used to receive snow, now will only receive rainfall.  Snowpack is like a reservoir that releases water gradually throughout the whole year; Rain, on the other hand, will just flow away instantly as runoff.  If we can’t capture and store all the runoff, we will lose a big chunk of water we have today.
  • Runoff timing moves earlier.  For the Sacramento River, compared to 50 years ago, the peak snowmelt time has moved earlier by a whole month, from early April to early March.  Here is the chart showing the changes in peak snowmelt runoff.  When snowmelt peaks early, reservoirs are forced to release water earlier too, which means less water for later when water is needed the most – summer and fall.   If the snow is gone before the reservoirs can recharge, then communities that depend on that stored water will face very tough situations.

Snowmelt Peak

Credit: California Department of Water Resources

  • More wild fires.  Higher temperatures bring more wild fires. The loss of such a big number of trees deteriorates the eco system, reduces the nature’s capacity to store water, further worsening the water supply situation.  As there will be no trees to slow down the runoff, the possibility and hazard of flooding will also greatly increase.
Value Every Drop

On our way home, we crossed the bridge of Kings River.  Looking out of the window, one can see fields after fields of corps, all the way to the horizon.  When one took a glimpse at the water in an irrigation ditch, it was clear, blue, and calm as a mirror, a contrast to the water we just saw in the Kings Canyon.

Kings River

Irrigation Ditch

After it flows out of Kings Canyon, the Kings River comes here and irrigates this vast expanse of land, and beyond.  It has been like that for many years, and it’s natural to think it will continue for many more years.  However, as the Sierra Nevada snowpack will “very likely” reduce by 30% in the next 20 years, the water we see today might not be there tomorrow.

A city completely without water is not just a remote possibility any more, it is happening.  Cape Town, the second largest city in South Africa,  is projected to run into “Day Zero“, when running water will be completely cuts off from the city, in May.

As the natural water supply will only decrease, every drop of the water should be valued.  By improving water use efficiency, Pacific Institute’s indicated in a report that we can save 1 million acre water a year.  Out of all the methods to come up with more water, “improving the efficiency of our water use is the cheapest, easiest, fastest, and least destructive way to meet California’s current and future water supply needs.”

In California, outdoor landscaping watering accounts for half of total urban water use .  To replace water-thirsty lawns with water efficient gardens is one of the most effective ways we can save water.  Building such a garden will not only conserve water, but also beautify our space, provide food to the pollinator, and nurture a healthy eco system.

By putting every drop into the best use,  not only will we have the water we need, we can also best show our gratitude to the nature, and its generous gifts for us for so many years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fallen Leaves – A Nuisance or Treasure?

Fall is here – look at that beautiful foliage!

 

Leaves 2

While we love to appreciate the wonderful colors of the fall foliage, the one thing that often accompany it – the fallen leaves, is another story. “What a nuisance!” – we might think.  With the thought we might just pick up the rake and bloom, sweep them together, pile them up, then dump them away as garbage. We have been doing this for so long we never thought second time about it.

But is this right?

Actually, the best place for those leaves to go is not garbage, but where they fall on – the earth, or soil, to be more precise.  This is what nature has been doing for millions of years.  It is the nature’s way of keeping everything alive and well.

Learn from nature

If we go to a forest, when we set our sight on its floor, we might see a thick layer of leaves, accumulated over many years.  Nobody cleans them away; the leaves just keep falling and sitting on the older leaves, year after year.  Over the time, those leaves at the bottom will be absorbed into the soil.

Fallen leaves are an excellent source of organic matter for the soil.  With the help of all the living things in the soil, including macro (worms etc.) and micro organisms (bacteria, etc.) in the soil, they will be broken down and transformed into nutrients for the plants.  The soil with the abundance of such nutrients is called black gold.  These kind of soil is:

  • very fertile and great for plants growth.  They are full of the nutrients, moisture, minerals and other matters that plants need for their growth; plants grow faster, taller and healthier with such soil;
  • holds more water.  this kind of soil is a great environment for all kinds of macro and micro organisms.  They improve the soil structure and make the soil like a sponge with many tiny holes.  This kind of soil can retain a large amount of water, making it more drought resistant.  If we have such soil in our garden, watering can be reduced by quite a bit.

In California, where drought is a constant threat, while all kinds of solutions are being explored, healthy soil, with its water holding capacity and implication for water usage reduction, can be an important part of the overall solutions.

  • can absorb more carbon.  In addition to water, soil also holds air, with a big part of that is carbon.  Plants take in carbon dioxide and water, and transform into sugars and oxygen in the photosynthesis function.

Healthy soil can also hold more carbon.  As we are facing the  climate change, which the carbon dioxide is the culprit, it turns out, soil can also play an important role for fighting climate change.   According to Nature Conservancy, “Healthy soils can help reduce the impact of climate change by storing (or sequestering) up to 10 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. But, if soils are managed poorly or cultivated through unsustainable agricultural practices, soil carbon can be released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, which can contribute to climate change.”

From the above, we can see how important healthy soil is for us, and fallen leaves can be one of the keys to achieving it!  Fallen leaves is something that healthy soil needs and badly craves.  In stead of dumping the leaves away, we can try following.

Use fallen leaves the right way

These are the great ways to use the fallen leaves in your home:

  • Mulch your yard with leaves.  This can provide two benefits at the same time: give soil the organic matter, and suppress the growth of weeds.  No need to shred the leaves – they can be worked into the soil fine.  If you prefer, you can shred them before mulching.

fallen leaves

  • Compost.  Leaves are an excellent source of compost materials.  Put them into a compost bin, add food scraps and others (water, etc) with the right ratio, and let the compost process begin.  After about two months, you can get good compost soil that you can apply to the plants.
  • Put them in a yard waste bin.  If your city has a yard waste collection program, put them in the specific bin.  The leaves in the bin will be sent to a compost facility instead of  a landfill.  This way you can help avoid the pollution in a landfill, and turned them into compost – something good for us.
  • Avoid using the leaf blower.  They make noise and carbon dioxide, something we don’t need more of!  If the leaves can’t be left on where they are (remember they make excellent mulch and contribute to great soil) and must be collected, just use a rake or bloom.  Enjoy the foliage while you rake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Run for Water – My Journey to the New York Marathon

The New York Marathon finished last Sunday on Nov 5, 2017.  While several days have passed, the excitement of seeing so many runners, the cheering crowd, and crossing the finish line in one of the most iconic races in the world is still so fresh on the mind.  It has been such an extraordinary experience.

marathon

Determined to Run

Though I have run marathons a couple times before, I have never run a New York Marathon. In the last 2 years, I registered for the lottery, but never won.  This year, with the high hope that “3 is the charm”, I was very sure that I would be able to make it. But the email came yet again telling me otherwise.

Hugely disappointed, I started to consider the only option, which I never looked at before – fundraising for charity. When I scrolled down the long list of organizations, came upon “Water for People”, and read through its description, right then I knew – this is it, I will fundraise to run my New York Marathon, and I will fundraise for Water for People.

Water is something that I have been working on for the last 2 years.  Run for water – there is nothing more fitting to describe my mission for this marathon.

The Drought, and WaterEfficientGarden.com

From 2011-2016, California experienced an epic drought.  At its worst, the water content in California’s snowpack was only 5% the normal level.  Suddenly, everyone realized how valuable the water resource is, and how we must do everything possible to conserve water.

From “STATE WATER RESOURCES CONTROL BOARD RESOLUTION NO. 2015-0032”:

“Achieving a 25 percent reduction in use will require even greater conservation efforts across the state. In particular, many communities must dramatically reduce their outdoor water use;

“In many areas, 50 percent or more of daily water use is for lawns and outdoor landscaping. Outdoor water use is generally discretionary, and many irrigated landscapes will survive while receiving a decreased amount of water;”

To convert a lawn to a water efficient garden is the most effective way to conserve water.   For a lawn of 500 square feet, it can take as much as 4000 gallons of water in a month; if it is replaced with a water efficient garden, 30% to 80% of water can be conserved.  Suppose the original household water usage is 8000 gallons a month, and the garden saves 50% of water, the total water usage will reduce to 6000 gallons, a 25% saving versus the original.

It was during the drought, WaterEfficientGarden.com was created to help more people build water efficient gardens, conserving more water.

Water for People

According to its website, “Water For People is an international nonprofit humanitarian organization dedicated to creating reliable, safe drinking water resources, improved sanitation facilities, and hygiene education programs in the developing world; it currently operates in 10 countries: Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, India, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia & Peru. ”

“The organization’s unique business-oriented approach works to establish partnerships between local and national government institutions, nongovernment organizations, private enterprise, and entrepreneurs to enable local communities, districts, and municipalities to plan, build, finance, maintain, and operate their own safe water and sanitation services. Water For People puts long-lasting solutions and 100% coverage of a region with safe water access for everyone at the forefront of its strategy. It fosters innovative solutions to water and sanitation problems that are adaptable worldwide, and through monitoring and evaluation of its program impact for at least 10 years post-implementation, Water For People ensures that its work is sustained by local partners.”

Water for People is rated 4 star  by Charity Navigator, the highest of the ratings.

While the angles to work on the water issue are very different, we both try to address the same root – water.  At Water for People, it aims to create more clean water resources for people; at WaterEfficientGarden.com, we want to help people conserve more water with water efficient landscaping.

Water for People

It is Global

At the New York Marathon opening ceremony, runners from every country walked in a parade, a scene that strongly reminds you of the opening ceremony of Olympics.  Yes, running is truly global today.  In the more than 50000 finishers of the New York Marathon this year, 139 countries were represented.

Brazil

Water is a critical resource for all human.  The water crisis we may be facing tomorrow is equally global.    United Nations predicts that in 2050, the number of urban dwellers living with seasonal water shortages will reach 1.9 billion, or more than a quarter of the world’s population.  A global issue takes a global effort.  We will need efforts like those of Water for People, and the energy behind the global running phenomenon to tackle the challenges together.

At WaterEfficientGarden.com, we aim to make it easier for people to build water efficient gardens, so more water can be conserved.  As STATE WATER RESOURCES CONTROL BOARD RESOLUTION NO. 2015-0032 indicated: “Water conservation is the easiest, most efficient and most cost-effective way to quickly reduce water demand and extend supplies into the next year, providing flexibility for all California communities. ”  One of the easiest and effective ways is to replace a lawn with water efficient garden.  Not only will it conserve water, but it can provide a beautiful view for the house, and give food to pollinators.

Water Efficient Garden

To solve the water issue globally is not unlike a marathon – it takes effort from everyone, and over a long period of time.  Just like that in a marathon though, when everyone puts their mind, sweat and work into it, the finish line can be reached ultimately.  Run for water – and we will win at the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rain Garden – Turn Rain Into Beauty In Your Garden

When it rains, we enjoy hearing the sound of raindrops on our roof.  After a drought of so long in California, those drops sound more like music to our ears. While enjoying the music, have you thought about where the stormwater goes to?  Well, most of it just goes down the sewer, into the creeks and rivers, and eventually out to the ocean.  What if that water is not sent away, but reused, such as, turned into beauty in your garden?

  beauty in garden
Storm water: waste or asset

In the past, stormwater has been treated as something akin to waste in cities, something that is collected and sent out to waterways in nature as soon possible.   As people realize now, there are several issues of this.

First, a big chunk of water is lost.  Rainwater is freshwater that is basically clean in most circumstances. It falls right on our roof so no transportation is required to receive that water.  However, in the current infrastructure, that much freshwater is sent right away.

“Stormwater could be a significant addition to California’s water supply. Los Angeles estimates that rainfall could provide nearly half a million acre-feet (620 million cubic meters) per year. Steven Moore, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, said, ‘Stormwater could make a difference, it could see us through seven years of drought instead of five.’”

Another issue is pollution.  As it flows through the surface of the city, stormwater runoff collects all kinds of pollutants such as motor oil, gas, chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.  As the stormwater is discharged into the waterways untreated, the toxic substances can pollute the water and harm birds, fishes and other aquatic life that live there.

One more issue is the loss of deep water infiltration.  As the water that falls on impervious surfaces such as roof and concrete is sent right away,  water that would otherwise have gone into soil, percolated and recharged the ground water is lost.  As you can see, in cities where impervious cover is common, runoff can be as high as 55%, versus 10% with natural ground cover.

Rainwater Runoff

It has become clear that rainwater is not a waste, but an asset, a valuable resource of water supply, something that we should capture and reuse.  While a common way to do so is using a rain barrel, there is another more direct way – build a rain garden.

What is a rain garden?

According to Wikipedia, “a rain garden is a planted depression or a hole that allows rainwater runoff from impervious urban areas, like roofs, driveways, walkways, parking lots, and compacted lawn areas, the opportunity to be absorbed. This reduces rain runoff by allowing stormwater to soak into the ground (as opposed to flowing into storm drains and surface waters which causes erosion, water pollution, flooding, and diminished groundwater).”

“The purpose of a rain garden is to improve water quality in nearby bodies of water and to ensure that rainwater becomes available for plants as groundwater rather than being sent through stormwater drains straight out to sea. Rain gardens can cut down on the amount of pollution reaching creeks and streams by up to 30%.”

So exactly what is a rain garden? To understand, we just need to turn our eyes to nature.

Imitate the nature

In spring time, when we go to a nature reserve or park, chances are we can see fields and fields of wild flowers.  No one ever installs an irrigation system or waters these plants; they just live and keep turning out splendid blossom, year after year.  How do they do it?

The answer is, after tens of thousands years, the native plants have adapted to the environment.  In California where it rains in winter and gets dry in summer, another area in the world that has Mediterranean climate, plants take in all the water they can get in winter, grow rapidly, and bloom in spring.  When summer comes and it becomes dry, they slow their growth or simply go dormant.  They stay this way until winter, when the rains come again.  As the raindrops come down, they “wake up” from the dormancy, drink up all that water and start to grow and bloom again.

They don’t need any additional watering; they just take all the water there is and live throughout a year.  This is what plants in a rain garden will do.

At a rain garden, the depression or ditch will collect the rainwater runoff from a roof.  When it rains, water will be collected there.  The plants in the garden will absorb the rain water, and grow; When the rain season ends, they can just live on their own.  Very little or no additional watering is needed for these plants in most cases.  Just like their brothers and sisters in the nature, they can live with just the rainwater.

Compared with water supplied to each household, which is treated with chemicals to comply with the sanitary standards, guess which water the plants like better?  Plants watered with rain water can usually grow faster, bigger, and have brighter blossom.

Designing a rain garden

Like so many lawns in California, Larry’s (not his real name) lawn turned brown during the historic drought. Though the drought ended and last winter was one of the wettest on record, the lawn did not come back . The brown lawn had been bothering Larry for a long time, but he was not sure what to do about it, until he heard that his lawn can be built into a beautiful garden; not just any new garden, but a rain garden!

One of the downspouts (the one on the left) is right next to the front yard. When it rains, the rainwater will just flow into the garden. The lawn is on a very slight slope from the house to the sidewalk, so the runoff will go outwards naturally. If a shallow basin is built close to the side of sidewalk, the rainwater can reach there and be stored in it.

That is exactly the design proposed to Larry. A small winding ditch will take the rainwater from downspout, and send it to this shallow basin. Some plants will be planted.  After they absorb the rainwater in winter, they may only need a little watering in the remainder of the year, saving a remarkable amount of water.

In addition, since the garden would meet all the requirements of Santa Clara Water District’s Landscape Conversion Rebates program, the garden can apply for the rebate.

Larry liked the proposal. It was a “Go” for the rain garden!

Installing a rain garden
  • First, the shape of the garden needs to be defined.

For the safety of the foundation, the rain garden should be some distance away. Usually it is advised that at least 10 feet of space should be left between the basin and the house.

Distance

  • Next, the shape of the rain garden is outlined.

How big should the garden be?  It depends on how much runoff the roof can produce, and design an area that can take much of that runoff.

Suppose the area of the roof is 1000 square feet, with one inch of rain, it can produce about 600 gallons of runoff.  If the rain garden is 1 foot deep, to absorb this much water, it needs an area of about 80 square feet.  If the roof area is bigger, the rain garden should be larger too.

What shape can a rain garden be?  It can be of anything  – a circle, a bean, or a peanut.  The smooth, curvy lines of these shape not only look appealing, but also reduce the force of runoff and effect of erosion.

  • Soil preparation

The bottom of a rain garden needs to be covered with a special type of soil, to help with water infiltration. It is a mixture of organic materials and coarse sand.  The bottom of the whole area that water flows by and stays should be covered with the mix.

  • Plant selection

Plants in a rain garden should be able to stand both conditions well: wet and dry. Their roots should be able to take moisture for a long time, yet also survive in hot dry summer.

One plant that fits this very well is the Douglas Iris.  A tough California native, it can be found close to beaches along the west coast.  Hardy, drought tolerant, yet tolerant of wet soil,  this is great choice for a rain garden.

The beauty of a rain garden

The garden is done!  This is before

and after

The rain garden

Rain Garden

When it rains, with a garden like this, the rainwater will be captured, and reused.  Something that was sent away before can be turned into so much beauty in our own garden!

Rethink stormwater – waste or asset?

When it rains and all the raindrops fall on our roofs, have you thought about where the stormwater go to?  Well, most of it just goes down the sewer, into the creeks and rivers, and eventually out to the ocean.

stormwater

Stormwater – a waste?

Stormwater has been treated as something akin to waste in cities, something that is collected and sent out as soon as possible.  A complete infrastructure is in place to get this done: gutters and downspouts to collect rains that fall on the rooftops, drains and catchbasins to gather runoffs from downspouts, streets and parking lots, underground storm sewers will then convey all the runoffs and discharge them to a natural water system such as a creek, river and ocean.

There are a couple issues with this.  First, a big chunk of rainwater is lost to runoff.  Rainwater is freshwater that is basically clean in most circumstances, which can be used directly for outdoor purposes, as well as indoor with proper filtering and cleaning.  It falls right on our roof so no transportation is required to receive that water.  However, in the current infrastructure, that much freshwater is sent right away, requiring another huge set of infrastructure to deliver the water we need.

stormwater runoff

Another issue is pollution.  As it flows through the surface of the city, stormwater runoff collects all kinds of pollutants such as motor oil, gas, chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.  As the stormwater is discharged into nature untreated, it pollutes the water system discharged into. Toxic substances from cars and pesticides can harm birds, fishes and other aquatic life.  Nutrients from the fertilizers can cause the overgrowth of algae, depleting oxygen in waterways and aquatic habitats.

The third issue is insufficient water infiltration for the soil under the impervious cover and in general.  As we can see in the illustration below, in a natural environment (left), 25% of water is infiltrated in shallow surface, and another 25% will percolate deep into the soil.  In a city environment (right), those figures drop down to 10% and 5% respectively, so the water that goes into soil reduces from 50% of total to a mere 15%, a 70% reduction.  The lack of deep infiltration is a big problem.  Without proper recharge, the groundwater is seriously depleted in many places.  As we rely on ground water as part of our water supply, this has a big impact for our water safety.

stormwater comparison

Lastly, waterway erosion and threat of flood.  As a huge amount of water is gathered and discharged into waterway, the volume and speed it packs can erode the banks of the stream or river; when the volume is too heavy, it can flood surrounding areas.

stormwater

Benefits of capturing and reusing rainwater

People’s thinking about rainwater has completely changed.  Now, rain water is no longer thought as waste; instead, it is viewed as an asset, something we need to capture and reuse.

  • A source of water supply

From 2013-2017, California experienced a historic drought.   At its worst point, the water content in the snowpack was only 5% of normal.  The drought was so severe, it was one of the worst in the state’s history.

California drought

After the drought, everyone realized we could no longer take the water supply as we knew it for granted. With climate change, drought might become more frequent and serious; on another hand, with economic expansion and population growth, our demand for water will just grow.  How can we build the reliable water supply that can meet our needs?

“Stormwater could be a significant addition to California’s water supply. While the potential is still unknown in the Bay Area, Los Angeles estimates that rainfall could provide nearly half a million acre-feet (620 million cubic meters) per year, said Steven Moore, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board. This may sound trivial compared to the 33 million acre-feet people use statewide each year, but it’s not. “Stormwater could make a difference,” Moore said. “It could see us through seven years of drought instead of five.”

From a cost perspective, local stormwater capture is one of the cheapest methods for water supply.  It is only more costly than urban water conservation, but much cheaper than others like recycling and ocean water desalination.

  • Reducing pollution and recharging groundwater

As the importance of rainwater is more thoroughly understood, people have been taking all kinds of steps to keep rainwater instead of letting it flow away.  In the cities, permeable surfaces are replacing the impervious ones, and more and more rain gardens have been built, in the streets, around offices and in our gardens.

When it rains, the rainwater can infiltrate the soil from the permeable surfaces and rain gardens.  In the process, harmful pollutants in the water can be filtered out; the cleaned water can percolate deep in the soil, replenishing groundwater.

Here is a storm drain at a street corner.  The catch basin around it was built into a rain garden, allowing the rain water to sink into the soil.

a rain garden at a street corner
a storm drain at a street corner
  • Reducing the threat of erosion and flood

Since water is directed away from the runoff, the total runoff volume will reduce, and the speed and energy that it packs up will lessen.  As a result, the force to erode will be smaller, and threat of flood lower.

Building a rain garden

So if you want to build a rain garden now, where can you start? Check out this post “Turn Rain Into Beauty In Your Garden” for some information.

SB231

On Oct 6 2017, SB231 was signed into law in California, making it much easier to fund and build rainwater capture projects. The key is the clarification about whether stormwater projects are subject to the exemption of prop 218:

Excerpts from SB231:

The Legislature finds and declares all of the following:

(a) The ongoing, historic drought has made clear that California must invest in a 21st century water management system capable of effectively meeting the economic, social, and environmental needs of the state.

(b) Sufficient and reliable funding to pay for local water projects is necessary to improve the state’s water infrastructure.

(c) Proposition 218 was approved by the voters at the November 5, 1996, statewide general election. Some court interpretations of the law have constrained important tools that local governments need to manage storm water and drainage runoff.

(d) Storm waters are carried off in storm sewers, and careful management is necessary to ensure adequate state water supplies, especially during drought, and to reduce pollution. But a court decision has found storm water subject to the voter-approval provisions of Proposition 218 that apply to property-related fees, preventing many important projects from being built.

….

(h) Proposition 218 exempts sewer and water services from the voter-approval requirement. Sewer and water services are commonly considered to have a broad reach, encompassing the provision of clean water and then addressing the conveyance and treatment of dirty water, whether that water is rendered unclean by coming into contact with sewage or by flowing over the built-out human environment and becoming urban runoff.

(l) The Legislature reaffirms and reiterates that the definition found in Section 230.5 of the Public Utilities Code is the definition of “sewer” or “sewer service” that should be used in the Proposition 218 Omnibus Implementation Act.

With SB231, it is clear that rainwater capture projects do qualify for the Prop 218 exempts, making them much easier to fund and build.

To summarize, facing the ever increasing demand for water and a future with possibly longer and more frequent drought, we now look at stormwater with a completely new perspective.  Gone are the days when we think of it as a waste; instead we know it is a great asset, and will try to capture and reuse it in a way that will benefit us, and the environment the best.