Rainwater harvesting: Catching life in a barrel

A large rain barrel that captures the runoff from a car port.

Rainwater harvesting isn't exactly new to New Mexico.

For thousands of years the original inhabitants found a wide variety of brilliant ways to put water to work. Much later, Hispanic colonists did the same with the creation of acequia communities, employing an ancient technique that originated in North Africa and is still in use here today.

Although the methods have changed and technological advancements offer many more options than were available historically, the importance of rainwater harvesting has only increased. With our normally dry environmental conditions, our frequent cycles of drought and the dire predictions of climate scientists, the collection, storing and utilization of rainwater is perhaps more important now than ever.

Longtime Taos-area contractor Charlee Myers says that, in general, groundwater wells across the county are drawing down. There are more people in the area using more water and the meager snowfall of the last decade has done little to replenish the regional aquifers.

Myers is the owner of Mountain Mesa Construction and sits on the Board of Directors for the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (ARCSA), a national group that advocates for sustainable rainwater harvesting practices and regulations.

“In a lot of our, county wells are simply too expensive to drill. This is especially true west of the gorge,” says Myers whose home water use is 100 percent from rainwater and snowmelt. Myers says that he has not had any outside water augmentation to his system since 2011. Since then his tanks have remained at least 60 percent full. Our most recent snows brought him up to full capacity. “We go through dry periods in Taos and people wonder how harvesting could work. But even in a drought, when it rains it rains a lot. And with the right size tanks you can take advantage of that.”

It may seem odd to some but New Mexico is actually one of the leaders when it comes to rainwater harvesting. For example, Santa Fe County mandates that new developments and large buildings have catchment systems. A number of subdivisions and communities rely almost exclusively on catchment strategies — the Earthship community for example. This year there is a bill before the state legislature that would give tax credits to people who install rainwater harvesting systems.

This is a far cry from Colorado where the State restricts catchment and claims the water, essentially killing any attempt at harvesting. Meanwhile Texas has become one of the centers of rainwater catchment. But their laws can be confusing and controlling. In New Mexico the State Engineer's Office actually encourages harvesting. It only makes sense after all.

“We have a recognition that if you don't collect then you will be pumping it out of the ground and removing it from the system,” says Myers. “Overall, New Mexico and Arizona are two of the most progressive states on this issue. We are a bit of a cutting edge leader.”

It is worth noting that a Taos resident is on the board of a national organization. Myers' position empowers him to make sure Northern New Mexico's lifestyle, culture and environmental considerations are always on the table as national standards and rules are put in place. Myers is also one of co-authors on the new national “ARCSA Rainwater Harvesting Manual” due out in July 2015.

So why might you want a system at your own place? As mentioned before wells in Taos county are expensive and generally declining. Climate change predictions call for not only drier conditions in general across our region but also more violent storms with faster runoff that won't replenish our aquifers. You may also have concerns about water quality. Filtered harvested water is cleaner and lower in mineral content than aquifer water for example. In the long run, water harvesting could be a money saver for you.

Rainwater and snowmelt can be collected from rooftops, sidewalks and a wide variety of surface areas. You can use that collected water to drink or wash or water your landscaping and garden. Methods for collecting the water that falls on your land can range from simply setting out buckets and pots to the use of systems of check dams, swales, underground cisterns and rooftop collection. Before you begin, decide how you will be putting it to use. Your intended use and needs will help you decide what kind of system to put in.

According the Myers, the four top things to think about when considering a rainwater harvesting system are your type of roof (metal or permeable membrane roofs are the best), the size of storage system you will need, your local “freeze factor” (how long and how hard freezes last in your area) and your budget.

“If you can afford it, underground tanks are best for our area. Being underground helps with the freezing issue but also our ultraviolet rays are pretty harsh and can break down the tanks if they are above ground.”

Harvesting rain and meltwater just makes sense in Taos. Not only do we face issues that should encourage this practice but we have a history and a wealth of knowledgeable people to access.

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