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The Rain Catchers 

Thursday, Apr 14 2005
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On a breezy March day in Westchester, TreePeople assembled a collection of public servants, environmentalists and media people at Open Charter Elementary School to witness a mock rainstorm: 4,000 gallons of water sprayed in five minutes from a fire hose onto the parking lot.

The demo itself wasn’t much — water spraying from a fire hose onto a parking lot and disappearing down a drain. It’s where the water went next that made the news.

Instead of heading down a storm drain to the sea, the water ran through a high-tech filtration system and collected into a 110,000-gallon cistern that was neatly covered by a manicured-grass T-ball field. The idea, when rain real or fake isn’t falling, is for a pump to take the water up and out of the cistern, then use it to irrigate the field.

“Eighty percent of the city water is wasted,” announced a little boy named Tyler over the solar-powered P.A. system. “But here at our school, it’s collected and saved. If we at a small elementary school can do it, we have to ask ourselves, why can’t a big company?”

Another question he might have asked: Why can’t we as individual homeowners and renters collect rainwater in our own yards?

The greening of this elementary school, with its water collection system and its corridors of native trees — a radical departure from LAUSD’s all-asphalt format — is the third complete implementation of the sustainable practices being developed by TreePeople’s Transagency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (T.R.E.E.S.). It’s hoped that other campuses will follow Open Charter’s lead. But the first project, seven years ago, was a simple single-family home on West 50th Street in the Crenshaw district. That house, owned by the late Rozella Hall, was retrofitted with a cistern and sloping front and backyards that today allow rainwater to flow either into a collection tank or back through the lawn into the groundwater table. The cost was high — $55,000 — but the retrofit was meant to serve as a model for other homeowners as the technology gets cheaper.

Right now it’s not easy to install the same kind of water-caching and reuse cistern in your own backyard. “There isn’t a clear and simple path to implementation yet,” says T.R.E.E.S. project manager Rebecca Drayse. “We’ve only been doing it to show it’s possible.”

The problem, she says, is mainly with the cisterns, each of which have to be custom designed and fitted to the property. The Hall House cistern accounted for two-thirds of the project’s cost. “We’ve been investigating how to get a mass-produced and cheaper cistern. We just don’t have the answer yet.”

Meanwhile, homeowners (and even some renters) can take advantage of simpler sustainable landscape practices.

“Anyone can replicate the berms and swales we have at the Hall House,” Drayse says. “That’s just building a depressed area,” or “berming in” with a raised row of soil around the perimeter of the property. “The redirection of your [roof] downspout to the swale only costs a few dollars — you just get a little extension for your pipe.”

You can also build your own dry well by digging a hole big enough to contain a sand-filled box, or water trap. “That filters out some of the oil and pollutants and gives the water a porous space to percolate back into the aquifer,” she says. At the Hall House, “there’s a grate in the driveway, and so the water travels down the driveway, gets captured into the grate and goes down through a little pipe into a sand-filled box in the front lawn.

“That’s a fairly simple technology,” she says, “just like swales and mulching. They’re all things people can easily do to slow down the water, increase water capture and keep green waste out of the bin.”

Swales and mulching will also improve the condition of your soil. What they won’t do is collect water you can use to cut your water bill later in the summer. For that, Drayse suggests checking out the rain barrels at the Low Impact Development Center (lid-stormwater.net). They’re not quite as elegant as a cistern, but they do work much the same way — capturing water that rolls off the roof for reuse later.

Drayse is careful not to put too much emphasis on the cistern. “This is not about having a cistern at every home or school,” she says. At Pacoima’s Broadus Elementary School, T.R.E.E.S. set up a water reclamation system without a single cistern. “The soil at Broadus is great for infiltration. It’s a good aquifer for recharge, and if you notice all the gravel pits and gravel mining up there, you realize it’s a sand-and-gravel-based soil, so it’s an appropriate place to recharge water.” (Los Angeles currently draws 15 percent of its water from the San Fernando Valley basin.) “The reuse is indirect,” says Drayse. “One engineer at watershed protection called the aquifer ‘God’s cistern.’ ”

In places where the aquifer is close to the surface, however, such as Santa Monica, the Pacoima solution could be disastrous. “You don’t want to increase the chance of liquefaction in an earthquake,” says Drayse. “In that case, rain barrels and cisterns are more appropriate.” The city of Santa Monica, in fact, is in the process of installing a cistern under its new library.

Out in Sun Valley, TreePeople has been educating residents in sustainable landscape management with workshops and classes. They’ve just put out a bilingual brochure, “You Can Try This at Home!”

“That project calls for 20 to 40 percent homeowner participation,” Drayse says. “We’re trying to make that as easy as possible.”

She adds that most people quickly see the advantages of reclaiming storm water once they’re educated. “People want to do the right thing if they’re given the right tools,” she says. “We see that over and over.” She’s fielded retrofit requests from the unlikeliest sources.

“In the past,” Drayse says, “when we dealt with government agencies, they’d say, ‘There’s no way that people are going to want to do this sort of thing in their own backyards.’ And then in the next breath they’d ask, ‘Can you help me do it?’ ”

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Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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