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A question often posed to avid Alabama rainwater collectors is why — why fret about rainwater collection in a state where residents can typically count on 40-plus inches a year?

Simple answer:  Many of them are farmers, and much of the rainfall occurs at the times of year when they can't make optimum use of it for their crops.

As it turns out, this was only part of the challenge for Sarah Rose, who grows shiitake mushrooms, medicinal herbs and other crops on the Dragonf Fly Herb PhFarm in Blount County.

Until recently, just getting adequate amounts of water on the dry land and woodland area that she farms required a Herculean effort.

"I filled up water buckets with water, put them in my truck and hauled them up and poured them over plants," she says, adding that she also soaked shiitake mushroom logs with the water she collected and hauled to the site.

Rose's initiation into rainwater collection occurred a few years ago during a medical herb conference, where she met Dr. Cathy Sabota, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System home grounds and gardening specialist and Alabama A&M University professor of horticulture.

Sabota was interested in enlisting a handful of growers willing to take the leap of faith into rainwater collection.  In Rose's case, the leap didn't require much faith.  Any alternative trumped hauling buckets full of water.

"Dr. Sabota came out, looked at the site, made an estimate of what could and could not be done and then came out and installed the system, and it's been a real boon," recalls Rose, who is currently working with Sabota to determine just how well her collection is working.

Using this data, they hope to learn what improvements can be made to secure even better yields.

Rose's long-time friend, Jamie Findley, who has more than 30 years experience in piping design, assisted with the design and installation of the system, equipping it with a series of features to safeguard against freeze protection, a critical concern.

The rainwater that otherwise would run off the farm's community shop building is instead routed through a filter and, ultimately, into a 2,500-gallon storage tank from which the water can then be pumped to Rose's production area, located some 300 feet away.  The field has been equipped with a series of valve boxes to which Rose can connect to water her herbs, orchards and produce.

This provides each plant with a source of water that helps it grow, Rose says.

Sabota estimates entire cost of the system was around $2,000.

How profitable is such a system to Rose and other growers?

The seven rainwater collection projects she's established since 2007 collect some 125,000 gallons of rainwater.

"This is enough to supply the water needs of 31 homes for a month or more than two homes for a year," Sabota says.

To put it another way, that's enough water to irrigate three quarter-acre gardens once a week for four months, which would yield an estimated 1,000 pounds of vegetables and 100 ears of corn.

Collection systems also work to reduce the amounts of rainwater that wash across impervious  surfaces — sidewalks and roadways, for example —  picking up chemical substances and other pollutants along the way that are ultimately carried into lakes, streams and other surface water and sewage systems, Sabota says.

The Dragonf Fly PhFarm effort and similar demonstrations are only the beginning.  Sabota recently secured a federal grant to develop "Water Wheels," a 36-foot trailer equipped with 3-D  interactive instructional technology aimed at teaching young people, homeowners, businesses and communities how to make optimal use of water conservation practices.

She hopes to culminate these efforts with a statewide grassroots effort that enlists "Water Dogs," volunteers equipped to provide businesses and homeowners with training and trouble-shooting assistance with water conservation-related issues.  Part of this effort will also involve the development of a comprehensive database on water-management issues throughout the state.