A little rainwater turns out to be a LOT ( thrown away)

Rain slicked sidewalkSome rain fell in Southern California the last few weeks.

We had three storms and a few showers, totaling in the range of three inches; here at TreePeople we logged 3.75 inches.

That means 64,000 gallons of fresh rainwater flowed into our cistern.

Although last year was the third year of a state-wide drought in California, with a stage 3 drought emergency declared in Los Angeles, the little rain that did fall in Los Angeles actually filled our irrigation cistern by February, which allowed us to water five acres of newly-planted trees and shrubs. As Jim Hardie, our Park Manager says, it's a "wonderful system," and it carried us all the way from March through October without requiring us to call on the city water grid for irrigation at all.

We are now in an El Nino condition, according to the climatologists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which usually brings more rain than average to our region. But JPL's lead forecaster, Bill Patzert, recently warned that we shouldn't expect it to solve our drought problems.

"Wet or dry, we will still be rationing water next summer," he told The Orange County Register. "The drought is deep and there is no one big, wet winter fix.”

The California Department of Water Resources recently announced that they expect to deliver only 5% of the usual amount of water to southern California via their canals.

Hearing of drought and water stress troubles me to no end, because the same solution that works for us at TreePeople could work throughout Southern California.

Rainwater harvesting is a well-known and well-established solution that could give our hard-hit city an economic and environmental boost. TreePeople's been calling for rainwater harvesting, greywater permit deregulation, and sustainable community forestry for years. If we'd taken that path, we'd be sitting pretty now.

Instead we remain in a crisis mode.

It's not necessary -- not at all. In Australia, rainwater harvesting is such a central part of life it's become the conversation-starter of choice.

Twenty-one years ago while traveling up the east coast of Australia with my wife and infant daughter; I noticed that nearly every conversation between rural and some suburban Australians began with a simple question.

"How yur tanks?"

Instead of the automatic, “How are you?” or “Nice weather we're having”, it was a specific question that—once I figured out what it meant--spoke volumes about these people’s connections: to the land, to each other, and to the environment.

Tanks, also known as cisterns, are the very large containers that store captured rainwater and provide most rural and many suburban Australians with their life support: vital water for drinking, bathing and gardening. Many rely exclusively on captured rainwater for all their needs.

This one question bundled and abbreviated a collection of concerns: How is your water supply holding out? How has the rain treated you? How are you doing in managing your land and water? How is your family holding up? At what state of readiness do we need to be for our community today?

Having spent much of my life working to awaken people’s awareness and inspire them to take personal responsibility for the environment, I was flabbergasted at the advanced state of consciousness being expressed by these Aussies. I saw in that awareness an answer to the water and climate crisis facing cities both in my native Los Angeles as well as in arid and non-arid lands around the world.

This experience helped motivate us at TreePeople to shift our thinking from planting trees and decorating the city to thinking more deeply about water, trees, and watersheds.

I can't help but note that in this country, we call water basins "watersheds." In Australia and the U.K., they are "catchments."

They're oriented towards capturing water; we're oriented towards shedding it.

The good news is that California officials are beginning to see the possibilities in rainwater harvest and conservation. This is not a pipe-dream; in Sydney, for example, the government offers an aggressive program of rebates for rainwater tanks. Coupled with conservation, a Sydney household can supply up to 40% of its total water use with rainwater harvest.

It's great to see that California officials are waking up to this fact. The City of Santa Monica has begun offering rebates and Los Angeles has launched a pilot rain-barrel program. And, according to a story published Sunday in the Riverside Enterprise-Press:

A 10-person Western delegation recently toured Australian cities to get a handle on how the country has responded to its shortages.

Australia is suffering the driest period in more than a century of record keeping and scientists say it is most likely the result of climate change. The drought and heat have brought deadly fires and agricultural collapse, problems similar to what California has experienced on a lesser scale.

The tour group included Wendy Martin, the state's drought coordinator at the Department of Water Resources, who said she was struck by the effectiveness of conservation measures there. Water use is about 40 gallons per person, per day, including outdoor watering. California's per-capita average is 200 gallons.

"We have a lot of room to improve, that was one of the striking messages," Martin said.

Some of the conservation measures that are common in Australia but still rare in the United States: rainwater tanks that capture water for gardens and toilet flushing; dual-flush toilets; dual house plumbing for recycled water; and water-efficient appliances in virtually every home, she said.

Water use outdoors, which accounts for about half of consumption, is also much more efficient. Residents use low-water native plants instead of grass and permeable pavement that allows water to sink back into the ground, Martin said.

"We're going to have to make some major shifts outside, and in what our yards look like," she said.

We are going to have to make some major shifts, but when it comes to our yards, enormous amounts of water can be saved by the simplest of measures. Sydney has about 4.2 million residents and saved about 4.16 billion gallons of water in its first year, according to its annual report.

In Los Angeles, every inch of rain that falls offers us almost 8 billion gallons of water, according to the US Geological Survey.

Every step we take towards capturing this water -- instead of rushing it to the ocean -- solves multiple problems at once. The water we capture helps us avoid polluting the ocean. The water we capture helps us reduce our energy bills and carbon emissions (because we need to pump less water from the State Water Project over the Tehachapi Mountains). It helps us avoid drought, and reduce air pollution, and nourish our plants and trees.

What are we waiting for?