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Water conservation plan eases droughts

The Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN), with funding from the Marin Community Foundation, has launched its Stormwater Catchment and Water Conservation Initiative for Marin County residences and businesses.

The simple idea behind the program is to collect and store rainwater in the wet winter months and use it for irrigating gardens, lawns and landscaping in the dry spring and summer months.

SPAWN will use the $60,000 funds to educate, motivate and provide economic incentives to residents and businesses that want to participate. It is currently actively signing participants up for the program.

“We received funding from the Marin Community Foundation for pilot program in our first year. We have funding to help landowners to design storm-watching projects,” said Paola Bouley, conservation program director for SPAWN. “Right now, we’re doing aggressive outreach, getting people signed up and evaluating their water needs and what works best for them.”

Bouley said SPAWN was setting up workshops, trying to organize before the heavy rain season comes. She suggested that people visit spawnuse.org and take a survey. “We’re encouraging people to take the survey and answer questions about their roof area and water budget so we can determine the potential of these sites. Once we figure out the scope of all the projects ready to go into implementation, we’ll go into funding.”

Because about half of the water consumer in Marin County during summer is devoted to landscaping, Bouley said it’s important to manage the storm water so it can be used during the dry months.

At a recent forum in Fairfax, Bouley said, “The room was overflowing. There were about 200 people and there were people outside the building looking through the windows.” She said the high turnout was a testament to “how hungry” residents are to conserve water and find solutions to conservation issues. “The topic is on fire,” she said.

“The program has multiple benefits for people, endangered salmon and the environment, and the timing is extraordinary, considering the governor has announced a statewide drought emergency,” said Bouley in a prepared statement. She noted that the original proposal was drafted last year in the middle of a wet winter, but with drought on everyone’s mind, interest in the program is growing exponentially.

By using stored rainwater for irrigation, residents could conserve treated water, which becomes an ever more critical resource during drought conditions, for important human needs such as drinking and washing. On-site rainwater catchment systems also reduce energy use. Bouley noted that the energy needed to move water from reservoirs to treatment plants to households makes the Marin Municipal Water District the largest user of electricity in the county.

“By reducing water use, we also help reduce our carbon footprint and fight global warming,” she said. “Capturing stormwater and reducing peak runoff from impermeable surfaces such as roofs also helps reduces downstream erosion of creek banks and sedimentation of salmon spawning beds.”

In 2006, with funding help from the EPA and the state Water Resources Control Board, SPAWN, in partnership with the Lagunitas School, built a demonstration roof stormwater harvesting project. In an average rainfall year, a 1,600-sq.-ft. lunch-shelter roof on the playground functions as an above-ground well, capturing 30,000 gallons of pure rainwater that is then stored in a cistern and used for irrigating the students’ organic garden project. Left uncaptured, the roof runoff would have drained onto a concrete pad and into a 10-inch storm drain that emptied directly into Larsen Creek, a stream sensitive to erosion that is also home to endangered coho salmon.

The wild coho salmon and steelhead found in Marin represent the largest and second-largest respective remaining runs of these fish in central California. Stormwater runoff from excessive impervious surfaces (roads, parking lots, thousands of roofs) erodes stream banks, causing siltation of key spawning grounds and, combined with loss of floodplain and riparian habitat, washes baby fish out to sea before they are ready to migrate.

“Reducing stormwater runoff not only helps offset impacts on our salmon and watersheds, but can also help decrease our dependence on unsustainable water imports from the Russian and Eel rivers and relieve pressure on local supplies from behind dams on Lagunitas and Nicasio creeks,” said Bouley. “People are hungry for practical solutions to common sustainability issues. And with clean water supplies becoming ever more strained in California, roofwater harvesting is just one of the additional tools that need to be included in our conservation tool box.”