My rainwater collection tour started one morning with a cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum, in Lenny Librizzi’s front garden on Staten Island. This prairie plant’s daisy-like flowers bloomed way over our heads, and its oval leaves joined at the stem like big hands, cupping about half an inch of the rain that had fallen the night before.
“The insects and birds know they can go there for water,” says Librizzi, who is a bit obsessed with this precious resource.
As assistant director of the open space greening programmes at the council on the environment of New York City, he designs rainwater harvesting systems for community gardens. He and Lars Chellberg, who also works for the council, started building them in 2002, after the severe drought the year before.
This summer, while much of the south-east, Texas and areas across the US are suffering from drought, the north-east is enjoying regular rains. You won’t save a lot of money harvesting rainwater — as Librizzi said, “city water is dirt cheap; you pay about a penny a gallon” — but you’ll save water.
“My tank has probably been emptied and filled three or four times since I put it in this spring,” Librizzi says. “That’s 600 gallons that’s not going into the sewer,” he adds, and it saves the water in the reservoirs for drinking, which is important because “only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater”.
Eco-storage: Lenny Librizzi next to his home rainwater tank. Photograph: Andrew Henderson / NYT
Librizzi installed his tank on the north-west corner of his house, about 50ft from the little 10X20ft kitchen garden he tends with his wife, Kathy Venezia, and their children, Paulina, 12, and Julian, 11. The 32 inch-diameter tank holds 165 gallons, and he estimates that it collects about one quarter of the rain that pours off his 1,000 sq. ft roof. It sits on a wooden platform, about 15 inches off the ground, to increase the water flow to the garden.
To keep the tank stable in a storm, Librizzi wound metal strapping around it and the downspout; to soften its industrial look on the side facing the street, he erected a trellis for a native honeysuckle or autumn clematis.
The construction is simple: Rainwater flows down a spout from the roof until it reaches a T, where a filter catches leaves and particulate matter; water is then directed into the tank through a pipe set at a slightly downward angle. When the tank is full, the overflow runs through the other pipe in the T and into the ground.
Rainwater harvesting is practised in community gardens in more than 20 cities in the US, Librizzi says, including Seattle, Vancouver, Chicago and New York, where there are about 36 working systems operating under GreenThumb, a parks department garden programme, and more on the boards.
Because the topography and climate of different gardens are so variable, the collection systems have to be designed to suit the individual sites. Seattle and New York, for example, get about 40-50 inches of rain a year, Librizzi said, but Seattle gets much of its rain in the winter, in a light drizzle. New York’s is spread out, with downpours followed by dry spells. Community gardeners in Seattle, therefore, often build large tanks, with a capacity of 10,000 gallons or more, to capture winter rains; New York gardeners use smaller tanks, from 500-1,000 gallons.
Harvesting rainwater is like growing your own food. It puts you in touch with the seasons and where your water comes from.
And anyone who remembers the drought of 2002 knows it could happen again. As Librizzi likes to say: “You have to learn to live with your water supply. Use it judiciously until the next rain.”
©2008 / The New York Times
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