The Boston Globe - September 7,
Going against the flow:
Experiment traps rainwater runoff to ease water shortage
By Beth Daley
Late in a parched summer, in a town bound by severe
water restrictions, Jim Fitzgerald turns on his hose as often as he
likes, for as long as he likes. As his neighbors' lawns wither, he
can sprinkle his tomato plants or wash his car at will.
Fitzgerald's water comes from two new, 400-gallon
cisterns partially buried in his lawn, filled with rainwater shed by his
roof during recent storms. He can't drink it, but the water is
clean enough to top off his pool. And soon he will be joined by 39
other Bellingham homeowners in a grand experiment designed to trap rain,
the oldest source of fresh water in the world.
The idea is intended to fix a problem as old as the
suburbs: Communities channel rainwater out of town so efficiently
they're drying themselves out.
"Suburban and urban developments are designed to
shed water," said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles
River Watershed Association.
The group is financing the project, one of the
nation's first, with a portion of a $1.3 million settlement it
negotiated with a local power plant that uses ground water to cool
equipment. At $3,000 each to install, the systems aren't cheap,
but the watershed group hopes other communities will start to subsidize
their own or the association's - version of the program. The
association is even manufacturing the cistern systems, called SmartStorm,
"We aren't putting water back into the ground and
at the same time we are taking more water out of it. We have a
ground water drought dating to 1999. Even during heavy snows and
rain, it hasn't been replenished," Zimmerman said.
Ground water for many suburbs is what the Quabbin
Reservoir is to Boston: The main source of water. In Bellingham,
as in scores of other towns, most water comes from town wells.
Those wells rely almost exclusively on ground water, which is
replenished by rain.
But suburban communities are designed with sloping
lawns, storm drains, and wide gutters - all of which send water rushing
straight out of town. A recent rainstorm in Bellingham illustrates
the problem. The rain flowed off roofs, onto lawns, down
driveways, into streets, and into storm drains. By the next day
the rain had stopped and there was hardly a puddle to be found. If
all the asphalt weren't there, the water would be absorbed into the
ground, naturally filtered and keeping ground water tables high.
The problem is far from suburbia's alone, and can cost
taxpayers vast amounts of money. Cities where the ground is
largely paved over with asphalt and concrete, send virtually all their
water down drains. Many of the older city storm drains are
combined with sewage pipes- or leak into them. The mixing of drain
systems means that a huge amount of usable rainwater is processed as
sewage. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which treats
waste from 43 communities and ships it 9.5 miles out to sea, estimates
more than 50 percent of all the water it treats is clean.
During storms, that rainwater so overwhelms the MWRA's
new Deer Island Treatment facility that sewage is still occasionally
released into Boston Harbor and the Charles River. Hundreds of
millions of dollars is being spent trying to solve the problem, either
by separating sewer and storm pipes or building more scrubbing stations
to wash water clean.
"The more local you keep it, the less it flows
through gutters, down city streets and sidewalks, and the cleaner it
is," said Bruce Berman of Save The Harbor/Save The Bay.
The state's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs
is also trying to come up with ways to "keep water
local." Intel in Hudson uses ground water for manufacturing
and the company has put up $1.5 million to support ground water recharge
projects in the Assabet River Watershed. The US Environmental
Protection Agency even held a contest for landscape architects recently
to design picturesque ways to keep water on people's property, from
Japanese gardens to porous bricks.
At Fitzgerald's house, the town green plastic cisterns
half-buried in the backyard are far from high tech. When it rains,
the roof's water drains to a downspout that connects to the
cisterns. Not all the water is pristine; the first several gallons
may be carrying bird or other waste from critters on the roof, but a
device allows that water to drain away. The rest - hundreds of
gallons even during a small rainstorm - flows into the cisterns. A
hose is attached to them and Fitzgerald only has to turn it on to get
water for the lawn or to top off the pool. If the cistern fills
up, the overflow pours into a dry well in the yard to replenish the
Fitzgerald, who works at the Charles River Watershed Association,
is still trying to work out the kinks before the other 39 homes are
chosen in Bellingham. The association wants to pick homes within
the next two weeks in a cluster to measure the effect it has on water
tables and storm drains.
"It doesn't take up a lot of room.
We'll still play softball out back in the yard," said Fitzgerald,
as he stood above the cisterns. "I wanted to be part of this:
I wanted to help solve the problem. And it's free