Transition SS helps islanders tap into winter rains

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BY ANDREA PALFRAMAN

Transition Salt Spring

It’s an October morning in Ganges Harbour. Crowded around the Rotary dinghy dock are assorted skiffs and rowboats, each filled with gallons upon gallons of rainwater. Looking at the collection, you can’t help but notice how prolifically these vessels collect rain when the season is right. 

While mariners may need to crack out their bailing buckets, this year it’s with relief that we tug on our rubber boots. We’re emerging from a drought season that was longer, hotter and more noticeably harmful to our salmon, cedar and ecosystems than any in recent memory. Squelching through soaked gardens, it’s easy to wonder, “if only we could time the rains to come when gardens need it most!” 

Thanks to the availability of rainwater catchment systems, it’s not only possible, it’s simple and affordable.

Islanders are catching on — big time. Recently, Transition Salt Spring piloted a Rainwater Harvesting Rebate program for homeowners looking to install rainwater catchment systems. Transition was overwhelmed with applications, and the program, which provides $250 to $500 towards the installation of cisterns, is now fully subscribed.

Shannon Cowan of the Salt Spring Island Watershed Protection Alliance (SSIWPA) was one of those applicants. Ever since moving to her property five years ago, she’s wanted to connect her wide barn roof to a garden irrigation system.

Having put together the Non-Potable Rainwater Harvesting Best Practices Guide through her work with SSWIPA (available at https://tinyurl.com/ssiwpa-guide), Cowan started to envision her own system within the larger body of knowledge. The system she’s designed involves installing new gutters with leaf guards and downspouts, and two new tanks and pumps. This rain storage from the metal roof of her barn will be pumped uphill to her hybrid drip-fed/spray garden irrigation system. The whole system will be set up to be drawn upon during the dry times with water from her artesian well on tap for late spring when groundwater is still plentiful.

“I have been involved with water and watershed protection for eight years,” said Cowan. “It’s my humble opinion that if we consider rainwater catchment as the only source of fresh water on the island with which to treat our outdoor spaces — our lawns and gardens — we’d have enough water to spare to meet housing needs and ecological needs that we are currently falling short on.” 

The math is compelling. If Salt Spring Islanders were to install 1,000 new 3,000-gallon rainwater catchment systems, the island would keep 3,000,000 gallons from being drawn from St. Mary Lake. That’s about the equivalent of 43 Rainbow Road pools and could possibly allow housing and commercial constraints to ease. Currently, a moratorium on new water hook-ups is affecting affordable housing initiatives and holding up our community composting facility at The Root. 

“Even though the onus is on the homeowner who has the funds to do this, any amount of collection and storage helps. You can literally put in a system worth $500 and it will make a difference,” said Cowan.

Enter Chris Dixon. A former commercial tomato grower and passionate water conservation advocate, Dixon said, “I had the privilege of running Jane Squier’s commercial hydroponic greenhouse for a year back in the early 2000s. Because she runs a commercial hydroponic system, she is a master at water harvesting. I just looked at what she did and thought, this makes total sense. I went home and set myself up.” 

Dixon has no aspiration to store drinking water; what he catches he uses to water garden vegetables and irrigate shrubs and fruit on his half-acre plot. In his heyday, he grew 380 tomato plants commercially, along with 300 feet of blueberry bushes. At that time, he was gathering 20,000 gallons in two swimming pools in the Cedar Lane water district — where drawing groundwater for commercial irrigation is strictly prohibited.

“Now, we’re on the North Salt Spring Waterworks system, so, depending on the circumstances — and this year was particularly harsh — there are watering restrictions in the district. Anything a person on the shared system can do to store water and use it locally helps the entire community.” 

He bought a used above-ground swimming pool and modified it to hold roughly 8,000 gallons of water, which he collects off his roof through a downspout leading directly into a garbage can. In the can is a pump with a float switch. When the can is full, the pump comes on and empties the water into the swimming pool. A floating pool cover reduces evaporation and also keeps the mosquito population down. 

“There’s tonnes of water: the pool fills in two weeks once I’m into the season. I’m pretty close to having spent $500 on the entire system.”

That spend includes purchasing a second pump, available locally at a cost of between $100 and $150. 

“With a changing climate, it’s getting drier and drier every summer, and heavier downpours are running off the land faster in the winter,” explained Cowan. “With 2,000 wells on the island, watering our gardens out of that groundwater supply alone is unsustainable.”

The worst-case scenario? Wells could start drying up, forcing people to rely yet more heavily on water companies to truck in water. 

Cowan suggests that people “collect the rain, and use it where it is, instead of moving drinking water for non-potable purposes over long distances.”

Blessed with a bounty of rain — over 900 mm of it, give or take, each year — it’s heartening to see the community getting organized around this precious resource in response to a changing climate.

To learn more, come to the One Cool Island Climate Action Coach webinar called How to Install Your Rainwater Harvesting System on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. Registration is easy and free or by donation by going to Transition Salt Spring’s website referenced below or to https://form-can.keela.co/rainwater-webinar.  

While the Transition Salt Spring’s Rainwater Harvesting Rebate has been fully subscribed, there is a waitlist for those who would like to install an eligible system should the Capital Regional District provide additional funding for this program. It is unclear whether funding will be renewed at all, but to get on the waitlist go to https://form-can.keela.co/future-rainwater.

One Cool Island is a regular series produced by Transition Salt Spring on how we can all respond to the climate crisis–together. Andrea Palframan is a member of Transition Salt Spring, and volunteer communications contributor. To support our work and read the Salt Spring Island Climate Action Plan, go to https://transitionsaltspring.com.  

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