Oct 19, 2009

Bring It

This afternoon’s rainstorm made me even more inclined to go out on a limb and believe in the prospect of a nice, soaking El Nino year. I keep reminding myself that we had early rain last year (Halloween), only to be followed by a disappointing November and December, a disastrously crispy January, and sub-normal annual totals. But this year, how can one not feel we’re in for a drenching? I’ve been keeping my eyes out for actual data to post here pertaining to the likelihood of a strong El Nino, but I’ve come across little. This guy, whose blog I’m going to start following, thinks we’ll have a wetter than average winter, but doesn’t make any terribly bold proclamations. (The wettest weather will be from late December to early March—well, yeah.) He breaks the west into southwest and northwest, and I didn’t know which the Bay Area is, so I dropped him a line—we’re southwest. The latest press release from NOAA makes a lot of predictions, the most undramatic and conservative of which is for California. Other than these, I’ve read a few stories saying we’ll definitely have a weak El Nino, and maybe will or maybe won’t have a moderate one. Then I came across this story reporting that a lot of data doesn’t exist, due to damaged or lost weather buoys—subscription required, but the gist is, data-gathering buoys have been damaged and/or stolen, so current long-range forecasts are spotty).

So all bets are off! But I’m betting on a soaker anyway, and getting my new plants in the ground early. People seem to dismiss the freakish rain we had in September by saying it was the remnants of a hurricane off Baja, and the brilliant deluge last week (about 4 inches by my rain gauge) is explained as the remainder of some typhoon off Japan. But citing the origins of those rains doesn’t explain them, it just begs the question—we don’t usually have rainy remnants of hurricanes and typhoons in fall, so why are we now?

For the short term, I'm starting to take dry short-range forecasts with a dose of optimistic skepticism—today the forecast was “showers.” I was out on an errand for work when the showers hit; umbrella-less and desperate, I took refuge on a passing bus, not caring where it was going. It happened to cross Market at Powell, so I bailed off and ran as fast as I could down the stairs to the Muni/Bart station, but the stairs had become a waterfall, with a pond at the bottom that was ankle-deep. I couldn’t help being reminded of the 1997-98 El Nino. At that time in my life, I despised rain, our apartment in the lower Haight ‘hood not affording a lot of gardening opportunities to help me appreciate its necessity. We clocked about three times normal that year and I thought of that year as a year to endure; now I would love to endure another. Even on the rare sunny days, the city’s supersaturated parks seeped constant streams onto the sidewalks and down the streets. It was as though all the open spaces were Glenn Beck, unable to stop weeping, and seemingly for no reason. One clear, warm day I went running and stepped in dog poo, so I simply detoured over to Buena Vista Park and held my shoe under the powerful, cleansing faucet that was its northeast stairs. That’s the kind of year I’m hoping for now, partly because the state just needs it, and partly because it will establish the hell out of my plants—the 12 flats I’m putting in this fall, and everything I planted last year. That “once established” caveat you always see on plant descriptions following the words “drought tolerant” is going to be taken care of in short order.

I keep also toying with the idea of collecting roof runoff. I saw some barrels at Home Despot that looked pretty simple to hook up, and for a while I was determined to ask for them for my birthday; but when the time came I’d sort of rethought it, because it seemed so complicated—the barrels would fill quite quickly, and then where would I store the water? If I could get a bunch of storage barrels, how could I transfer the water into them if they weren’t downhill from the collection sites—and how would I apply the water to plants if they in turn weren’t downhill from the storage barrels? I’m sure these questions have answers, it just seemed too tiring and potentially expensive to figure them out. But when a coworker asked me if I had my rain barrels out last week and I admitted I’d sort of abandoned the idea, he seemed so crestfallen it caused me to start thinking about it again. I had rationalized that my downspouts all empty into the soil anyway, rather than into some street drainage pipe, but my astute coworker pointed out that the ground can only hold so much—witness the weeping parks of ’97-98. And
USDA Soil Survey tells me the water on my plot has only 80 inches to sink in before hitting impermeable rock, after which I think it joins the great rushing river in a pipe under the street and out to the bay. So there is then something to this rain collection idea. If anyone knows how to do it and can recommend a source for supplies, please post here!!


  1. I'm not sold on small scale rain water harvesting in our area as a source for landscape irrigation.

    Here's an example using an area 10' x 50'.

    To irrigate this space I'd use inline drip tube with emitters spaced 12" on center and the pipe spaced 12" apart. 500' (tube length) x 0.6 Gph (may differ from manufacturer to manufacturer) = 300 gallons per month, more if establishing a garden. To irrigate this space just for the 6-8 months of dry you are looking at storing 1800 - 2400 gallons.

    To put this into perspective - 25 to 33 Home Depot rain barrels.

    If you’re serious about rainwater then you either have to upgrade the storage or send it back into the ground (tricky as it is with hard pan).

    Looking forward to El Raino also.

  2. Slow down there, Mr. Plant Coddler. The plants in my Garden of Tough Love don't get that much water. That said, your point is well-taken, I do need to really weigh whether it's worth it. I don't have immediate plans to retrofit the drip system to run off rain storage, but am taking a "never say never" stance on that for now. I was mostly thinking it might be nice to store rain water for use on the big crybabies of the yard, such as vegetables and container plants on the patio--those are always keeling over and begging for water, and I think it would be sort of nice to go good ways into the summer without having to turn on the hose. But I'm still in the exploratory stage. I dare not look up info such as "how much water is used in an average shower" because if it turns out to be like, the same amount as is in a rain barrel, then it will seem futile. So I won't research things like that, but I am keeping my mind and eyes open on rain storage. Admittedly, it may be more appropriate in climates that get some summer rain, where there would be a constant collect-and-use-and-recollect cycle; here you would have to store a whole lot to get through summer.

  3. Please check out my blog for a post called 'Build a rain garden the right way!' You can get some ideas about rain gardens there. I am hooked on rain gardens too.

    I came back to welcome you to Blotanical. A big welcome, WELCOME!

  4. Janie, thanks! I'm heading over to your blog right now.