Bay Area residents dip into harvested rainwater during dry spell

The Bay Area is experiencing a historic dry spell during what is typically the rainiest months of the year. More homeowners are turning to rainwater catchment systems to turn last December's rainfall into a year-round safety net.

In Santa Rosa, Jesse Savou owns and operates Blue Barrel Systems, one of the leading rainwater catchment system retailers nationwide. She started the business in 2012, and saw business double in 2020 and continue to steadily grow over the past year.

"It's been our busiest January," Savou said, noting that homeowners in the Bay Area as well as other regions of the country are adopting rain harvesting systems in their homes.

The Bay Area hasn't seen measurable rainfall since the first week of January. The brief but heavy December rains easily filled Savou's 20 rain barrels in her backyard.

"What people don't realize is, even a little bit of rain is going to fill a system," Savou said.

Blue Barrel systems connect to the downspouts of a home. Savou also connects some of her barrels directly to an irrigation system, and can fill up her watering can too. The water is safe to give to pets, garden with, or use to wash a car. The more water Savou uses this winter, the more capacity she will have to refill her system the next time it rains.

"Every single inch of rain that falls on a 1,000 square foot roof is going to give you over 600 gallons of high-quality rainwater, to put that in perspective that will fill 11 of these 55-gallon barrels.

The Sonoma Ecology Center has created a garden park, demonstrating to the public how rainwater harvesting works. 

Steven Lee, a senior scientist and research program manager at the Sonoma Ecology Center utilizes a 70,000 gallon rainwater catchment system to keep his five acre Glen Ellen farm hydrated during the dry months. Still, he's concerned about Sonoma's low water levels.

"In this year that we're in now, we are having a pretty bad year that came on top of a pretty bad year," Lee said, noting that the dry January and February has put Sonoma in "dire straights," though there's a chance to recover if rain comes later this spring or in the fall. 

For much of the Bay Area, water levels are near levels they were last year, low enough to bring counties and water districts to enforce or recommend water restrictions.

In January, San Mateo County's Flows to Bay outreach program distributed dozens of discount rain barrels in San Carlos. San Mateo County offers a range of rain barrel rebates as high as $200 depending on the size of the system.

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"Rather than having that water run down the drain and become a source of pollution where it can pick all kinds of contaminants and pollutants in the roadways and the storm drain infrastructure itself, you can make that water a resource rather than a waste and put it to good use at the same time." said Reid Bogert, the Senior Stormwater Program S.ecialist for San Mateo Countywide Water Pollution Prevention Program,

The cities of Santa Rosa and Santa Clara offer rain barrel rebates too. Savou recommends interested homeowners check with their city, county, and local water district to find out if rebates are offered, noting that harvesting rain water can help bring down water bills, too.

"It's really what nature intended for water," Savou said. "For it to be getting back into the ground, rather than it flowing away through all this pavement we've been putting all over the place."