Saving Up From a Rainy Day: Rainwater Harvesting with Phyllis Clark-Kirkman

With the rain and snow having returned to our region for their turn in the cycle of our seasons, I thought I would re-run this interview with Phyllis Clark-Kirkman of Gringo Dave’s in Redding on rainwater harvesting and storm water management, from December of 2009.

On December 13th of 2010, from 8 – 9pm I will be hosting a special one-hour call-in I 5-LIVE! on Northstate Public Radio (91.7 KCHO in Chico, 88.9 KFPR in Redding) discussing creative and effective designs for using/re-using and managing water (a lot of it, or not enough of it) in the garden through rainwater harvesting and storage, rain gardens and greywater systems. My guests will include Bernadette Balics of Ecological Landscape Design out of Davis, and Jim Collins, Garden Manager of the Community Teaching Garden on the campus of Shasta College in Redding. Send questions or thoughts in advance to me by email: jennifer@jewellgarden.com, or call in during the program: 1-800-234-5246.

The (blessed) rains (and snows) have come again to the North State and my garden rain gauge has measured 4.2 inches of rain this month. My rain barrels are full to overflowing, and this harvest gives me a small but happy sense of self-sufficiency. We’re only talking three barrels at this point, but still, their harvest provides me with a happiness along the lines of being able to build a campfire, make my own preserves or knit a sweater.

Think rain barrels, rain gardens, catchment ponds and above- or below-ground cisterns for storing storm water run-off and you are on the right track as to where rainwater harvesting starts for the home gardener, “and the past decade or so has seen significantly increased interest in rainwater harvesting for all sorts of reasons: for reusing the water on the garden or greater landscape, in order to accumulate a water reserve for fire suppression, even for reuse for livestock and home use after proper filtration,” Phyllis Clark-Kirkman explains to me. Photo: A rain barrel fashioned from an old wine barrel and fitted with a screened top and a brass water spigot at the bottom.

Phyllis and her husband Dave own and run Gringo Dave’s Landscape and Irrigation in Redding. Designing and implementing rainwater collection systems is one of their signature offerings to clients around the region. They design complex large-scale cistern/filter and pump systems for all sorts of home and agricultural projects as well as smaller-scale home garden systems. Photo: Storing rainwater dates back to antiquity. Ancient Persians and Romans collected rainwater and developed elaborate water ways and fountains as functional irrigation as well as aesthetic water features in their gardens.

“Rainwater harvesting is the penultimate in the reduce, reuse, recycle model. The rain is free and generally plenty when it comes, and to design your house and garden to reuse this precious commodity, rather than designing to have your property get rid of extra water as fast as it can, just makes sense,” says Phyllis. Photo: A small rain bucket.

Not only is rainwater/snow-water collection an efficient reuse of a resource you already have, but it helps to offset environmental problems that have been created as a direct result of the built and overbuilt environment. Namely, excess pollution traveling directly to our creeks, rivers and oceans. Further, as more and more building and impermeable surfaces such as roofs, sidewalks and paved parking lots exist in an area, the more excess water travels into the associated rainwater runoff systems resulting in increased flash flooding.

Urban and suburban areas have been designed in the past 50 odd years to channel and get rid of excess water from storms as quickly as possible, with house gutters running to street gutters, running to storm drains, running directly to the nearest creek or watershed drainage. This rapid runoff from hard surfaces such as streets and roofs in most cases does effectively direct water away from flooding our homes or streets, but it also bypasses what was a natural secondary stage for rainwater: the water being caught and used by trees, plants and soil and then percolated down into the groundwater slowly – a process which watered the plants, refreshed the soil, filtered the water and recharged aquifers along the way to the nearest creek or watershed. Photo: Storm surge in a creek.

Currently, acidic dust, petrochemical residues, and who-knows-what-else-like-fast-food-drink-cups get swept along directly from our vast impermeable-surface roofs, roads, sidewalks and parking lots into our waterways. Photo: A spring creek carrying run-off from a neighborhood directly into Chico Creek.

Currently, the water reserves in lakes and reservoirs from which many of us receive our home water are drastically reduced after years of drought and the use of expensively pre-treated drinking water to quench thirsty home landscapes is only increasing.

Currently, flash flooding and storm water surges overwhelming our water treatment plants is a common occurrence.

And all of these issues can – at least in part – begin to be offset by even small rain watering harvesting projects – even on small scales in home gardens. Even with just three measly rain barrels.

Using a simple formula cited by many rainwater harvesting resources, if one-inch of water falls on a 1,000 square foot roof, you can harvest approximately 600 gallons of water in cisterns, barrels, or catchment ponds. I had 4.2 inches of water fall on my garden this past month – I think I need some more rain barrels. Photo: A plastic rain barrel with water spigot.

Many communities across the country are waking up to the need to pay more attention to the water we do receive and to the natural waterways that handle it for us. Many varied cities and communities have rainwater harvesting programs and tax incentives for such programs. Seattle, Washington and Charlottesville, Virginia have both implemented rain garden programs for public areas, Santa Rosa, California has implemented a rainwater harvesting conservation rebate program. Photo: A natural depression in the land where water accumulates and plants that don’t mind having their roots wet for periods of time thrive is a perfect model for a home rain garden.

In many states you will commonly see road signs noting when you cross from one county to another, but in Texas you also see signs letting you know as you cross from one watershed to another. In our own Redding, California, citizen Randy Smith has successfully gotten identification signs placed at each creek and drainage in his area so that people know what creek they are driving over. He also annually organizes creek clean ups. These are all signs of hope for how our water – and our water sheds – are thought about, treated and valued – not by a federal sanitation system but by us.

Where to start:

You can set up a consultation on the best collection system for your needs and intended uses, you can attend one or more of Phyllis Clark-Kirkman’s full-day workshops on home rainwater harvesting (see below for upcoming dates), and “you can also get started with just a couple of small changes or additions to your landscape,” Phyllis Clark-Kirkman tells me during the course of our interview about rainwater harvesting: Photo: A bird bath collecting water in a winter rain.

1. Identify lower lying areas in your garden or landscape where water naturally tends to run or accumulate. Areas beneath roof lines without gutters are one example. Areas downhill from a gutter downspout are others, as are existing depressions in the topography. Areas like these make natural choices for rain gardens you can create yourself just by creating slightly larger and deeper depressions in which to hold the water while it sinks into the ground. Just the depression will work, but you can improve the catchment and the effective drainage of the site by adding rocks to the bottom of the depression and planting water-happy plants around the perimeter. Photo: A house and garden designed by Jim Birdsall of The Birdsall Group in Berthoud, Colorado incorporates a swale beneath much of the house eaves. The swale has a gravel bed and is punctuated by carefully chosen native stones running the sides of the swale. The length of the swale is inter-planted with native blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’)

2. Set up a few rain barrels at the downspouts from your gutters, making sure to think about where overflow will go if and when the barrels fill up. If these are fitted with spigots, you can run a hose from these barrels to water areas of your garden during periods of low rainwater, or you can simply dip a watering can into the top of the barrels and fill for watering potted plants or areas not hit by rain. If you are going to leave water in your barrels for any length of time, you will need to keep as much leaf litter out of the barrel as you can to keep the water clear, and you will need to add some kind of mosquito control or dunk to the barrel to keep mosquitos from breeding in the barrels. Also, in mediterranean climates such as ours with no rain for months at a time in summer, a good bit of acidic dust and grime builds up on roofs and in gutters. When the first rains arrive all of this residue is “flushed” off the surfaces and can be quite concentrated. If you are able, it is best to direct this first runoff into a rain garden to percolate and filter slowly into the ground rather than collecting it in your rain barrels or cisterns. A variety of different rain barrels are available from many garden retailers, including Northern Star Mills [(530) 342-7661] in Chico, as well as from many on-line retailers. Photo: A small rock-lined swale running along a garden pathway, taking and slowing rain run-off toward the plantings.

For more information, Gringo Dave’s can be reached at 530-244-7130 or www.gringodave.com. 5601 Cedars Road, Redding CA 96001.

For further reading on harvesting rain or snow water, here are some interesting books (available at or by order from Lyon Books in Chico) and websites that cover the topic:

Rain Gardens – Managing Water Sustainably in the Garden and Designed Landscape, by Nigel Dunnett and Andy Clayden, 2007.

Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies, by Owen E. Dell, Wiley Publishing 2009





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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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