This year has seen its share of floods, beginning with the historic level of flooding in North Dakota and Georgia, to mention a few. Each year the headlines pop up, especially in the spring and early summer, about various communities experiencing huge amounts of rainfall with water rising up to the rooftops, running across roads and generally creating havoc. All of this feeds the widespread perception of runoff water as a nuisance, a headache, a problem – as anything but a resource.
The fact of the matter is that runoff is a resource. One recent study shows that if rainwater runoff were saved and managed it could cut the demand for treated water nationally by 50%! Another way of looking at it: in the summer months as much as half of the average household water use is for irrigation. Homes and green grass are so much a part of the American psyche that in many places it is illegal to allow lawns to turn brown for lack of proper watering. Homes without shrubs? In many places that is unthinkable. Golf courses without water? No way. And yet we plan to get rid of extra rainwater, even spending big bucks on storm water systems to get rid of it fast.
So strong is the mindset about runoff as a problem and not a resource that urban storm water systems are designed to GET RID OF THE WATER. Given the expense of storm water systems, each system has a capacity that is limited, making it possible to accurately predict at what point the storm water system will reach capacity and flooding will begin to occur. In other words, ordinary rains can be handled (by getting rid of the runoff). Exceptionally heavy rains will cause flooding because it is too expensive to carry away all the water.
It may be some time before the powers that be change this approach to storm water management but each one of us could change our own approach to runoff. We could and should imitate our forefathers who believed in rain barrels out of necessity. When there were as yet no water lines, garden hoses or water treatment plants there were rain barrels to catch water from rooftops: lo and behold, a mindset that runoff water was a precious resource! That rain barrel water was used for washing and for irrigation. On a much larger scale, runoff was also viewed as a way to replenish wells and create lakes, ponds and reservoirs. Our supply of electricity and water for irrigation was vastly increased by management of runoff as a resource.
Everybody wants to save energy but thinks of water as cheap. We will pay $1.00 or more for a quart of bottled water. That’s not cheap! Neither is treated drinking water. The water bill might be low. But it does not show the energy costs incurred to provide that water. The water needed electricity in order to be pumped from somewhere into the holding reservoir. Then it had to be pumped to and through the treatment plant where electricity was required to turn and run everything that turns and runs. Then it needed to be pumped to each home, then pumped from each home to a waste water treatment site unless the wastewater was treated on site where electricity is also almost always required.
Runoff water is rain. Rain is beautiful. It is the source of most of our usable water. Rain and runoff are free. We would do well as individuals and as communities to appreciate the gift for what it is and rethink approaches to runoff.
Losoncy is the president of Clean Up America, Inc.. His company markets Eloos, a new type of waterless evaporative sanitation systems. For more information go to http://www.eloo.ws