WATER: Another kind of harvest

watertitleWATER: Another kind of harvest

By Jillian Steinberger, M.A., Illustration by Alan Leon

Water is life. That’s true anywhere on the planet, but let’s put our own interests into perspective.

In California, where we get almost no rainfall for six months each year, keeping the agua flowing has long required planning and infrastructure on the state level. In a dry year, like this one is shaping up to be, and with an ever-expanding population demanding ever more water, we can’t afford not to find more and better ways to use water efficiently. As 20 percent of California’s power consumption is used to collect, transport, and treat water, over time, water will become more expensive.

So what can we do? As home gardeners, there’s quite a lot! Planting drought-tolerant plants is one way to lower water use, but if we are growing edible crops in our yard, those will need consistent hydration. There are two excellent approaches we can take toward providing the water our gardens need: rainwater harvesting and graywater recycling.


“Laundry to Landscape” graywater systems are a simple DIY installation for most homeowners, and since 2009, they no longer require permits. “Branched drain” systems can include water from showers and sinks, and require a simple permit (available through building departments). With both, installations that follow a few rules and best practices are harmless—there’s not been a single report of illness or death. One basic rule is that graywater must be hidden from view under natural materials like mulch and gravel. (It should not pond or pool.)

As many homesteaders and urban farmers know, reusing graywater is a popular permaculture strategy. The soil, plants, and mulch filter and clean graywater, receiving nutrients from it in the process—fruit trees thrive on the stuff.

Oakland-based landscape design/build firm WaterSprout has done many backyard projects that irrigate clients’ fruit trees and/or veggies. Co-owner Amy Schoneman describes one of her pet projects: “We created an aquaponics system that used graywater to irrigate a vertical wall of edibles and then continued on into a small pond that could raise farmed fresh fish.”


At right: This constructed wetland  is part of a graywater aquaponics project. The fact that fish can live here is a testament to the effectivness of the system. (Photo courtesy of WaterSprout.)

Skeptics often bring up issues of safety, but as Amy explains, “When using graywater for edibles it’s important to make wise choices as to what products you put down your drain. There are many graywater-compatible soap and detergent products on the market that are nontoxic and have a low salt content, which is vital for plant and soil health.” Laundry soap brands like Oasis, Bio Pac, Biokleen and Vaska Herbatergent are compatible. She further cautions that “When irrigating, you don’t want graywater to come in direct contact with the edible portion of the plant. This means that root vegetables should not be watered with [it]. However, any plants that have their edible portion above ground will be fine with subsurface graywater.”


Rainwater harvesting from rooftops into cisterns dates back at least 4,000 years, according to archaeological records. A beautiful system more than 100 years old can be seen at the Point Reyes Lighthouse. The concept is that water is directed to flow into downspouts and then into large storage tanks. Some people assert that California does not get enough rainwater to make such systems viable, but consider that a 500-square-foot section of rooftop will typically produce 300 gallons of runoff in a one-inch rainstorm. That’s a lot of water.

Rain barrels are another way to reap some benefit from rainwater runoff, and one now being promoted by the City of Oakland with its Stormwater Management Rain Barrel Program. This three-year initiative provides rain barrels at a reduced cost, thanks in part to federal stimulus funds. The goal is to reduce the impacts of stormwater runoff, such as erosion from the hills, says Kristin Hathaway, a watershed program specialist with the city’s Public Works Department. While similar programs exist in Santa Rosa, Monterey, Palo Alto, and other cities, this is the only one of its kind in the East Bay.

Discounted precipitously, tanks and barrels are available through the City of Oakland by going to oaklandcreeks.org. They can also be purchased through the Urban Farmer Store in Richmond
(urbanfarmerstore.com), which is working with the city.

Purchasing is easy. Oakland residents simply come in, show ID, and fill out a participation form. Then they choose their unit from several colors and models. It’s a good idea to bring a photo of your downspout to help pick the best fitting attachment. If you don’t have a truck, Urban Farmer offers low-cost delivery.

Longtime Urban Farmer staffer Jeff Parker advocates for rainwater harvesting, noting that it is better for edibles because there are no chloramines in the water and worms prefer it. He likes the Bushman tanks  (available through the program) because they are produced in California and maintain a high quality of water via their gutter guards, insect filters, and devices that divert the first rains of the season to the drain. Tanks do not allow the growth of algae, and are made of or lined with food-grade polyethylene. Sealed from light, animals, and vegetable matter, the tank water stays clean for months.

WaterSprout recently finished a project at Oakland’s Park Day School in which a 750-gallon tank was installed. The collected rainwater will be used to irrigate fruit trees and landscape plants. Amy Schoneman describes the Permaculture-influenced process: “The garden was co-designed with 4th-graders in a design charrette consisting of scaled drawings and teams creating different solutions and plans. All designs were considered and the group synthesized the strongest design elements from each.” Finally, she says, “The rainwater tank and swales were installed at one work party while the planting was done at another. The coolest part was the multiage community approach applied to this project. Kindergarteners, 4th-graders, parents, teachers, and WaterSprout were all involved.”

See? It takes a village. And hopefully more East Bay “villages” will get involved. For now, Oakland residents can learn more by emailing watersheds@oaklandnet.com. Find more information at oaklandcreeks.org.

Jillian Steinberger owns and operates The Garden Artisan, an ecological landscaping company that designs, builds, and maintains edible and herb gardens that attract humans and pollinators both. She also works with native and Mediterranean plants creating hedgerows and meadows.

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