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Harvesting the rain
Using a rain barrel to collect water is a simple way to use the power of showers when and where you need it
By Candace Renalls
Duluth News Tribune
Published September 4th, 2004

Growing up in a small Minnesota town in the 1970s, Jesse Schomberg remembers his parents and grandparents using rain barrels to collect runoff.

"I remember them being very common then," he said.

The use of rain barrels fell out of fashion, but now Schomberg's mother is putting buckets under her gutters again. And Jesse is joining the growing ranks of gardeners who are using rain barrels.

"I'm really glad to see this trend," he said. "It's good for our plants, good for our streams and our lake, too."

By catching and storing runoff, rain barrels provide water for gardens as nature intended -- unchlorinated, and without lime and calcium. Moreover, rain barrels help reduce polluted runoff into lakes and rivers.

Schomberg, who lives near the North Shore, has recently set up three rain barrels at his home to catch runoff. His house's steep-pitched roof forms sharp "Vs" where rainwater funnels down into the barrels.

After a big rain, he goes out and takes a look at the accumulation.

"It's worked out great," he said of his system that doesn't use gutters or downspouts. "We get an inch of rain and it fills up."

He got his first barrel in July from the city of Superior's wastewater treatment plant. At $27, which includes the hardware, it was a bargain. Such kits can retail for more than $100 elsewhere.

A grant from the Duluth-Superior Community Foundation has allowed the Superior Wastewater Treatment Plant to offer the rain barrel kits to area residents for a reduced fee. The kits include a 55-gallon recycled plastic food grade barrel and parts to make a rain barrel that can work with a modified downspout or catch free-falling water as Schomberg's setup does.

When assembled, it has a spigot near the bottom to attach a hose, a spigot halfway up for filling watering cans, an overflow opening near the top and screened louvers on top where water enters.

Before attending a recent workshop, Robert Trauba of Superior had been catching rainwater at his lake property with an open barrel.

"I believe in these very much," Trauba said as he assembled his rain barrel. "You can use any barrel, but you don't have the convenience of all these features, like the spigots."

He likes the features so much, he's planning on getting another kit.

Those who buy a kit can put it together on their own or attend a workshop where staff help them assemble the rain barrel. With workshops this summer, at least half of the 250 barrel kits have been given out. Another shipment of more than 100 barrels for kits is expected next spring.

Schomberg got two barrels from the program and fashioned a third rain barrel out of a plastic food grade barrel and parts he had on hand. He has a soaker hose attached to one rain barrel that waters gardens under his home's eaves where the soil would otherwise be sandy and dry.

"It takes a couple of days to empty," he said of a full barrel of water.

Besides providing clean, free water for his gardens, Schomberg got rain barrels to help reduce the harmful effects of polluted runoff into Lake Superior.

When stormwater runs over streets and other impervious surfaces, it becomes polluted with oil, dirt, pet waste, pesticides, fertilizer, gravel and trash. The polluted runoff flows into storm drain systems, which can flow directly into lakes and rivers.

Rain barrels reduce that polluted runoff as well as help relieve the burden on wastewater treatment facilities during heavy rains.

At the workshops, research assistant Charlene Johnson tells participants that major rainfalls of more than an inch of rain occur, on average, seven days a year in Superior. And for every inch of water that falls on a 1,000-square-foot roof area, 600 gallons of water can be collected.

Judy Palen of Duluth had no problem putting together her rain barrel. She planned to use hers to catch runoff over the doors and windows of her mobile home. She would hook the barrel up to an outdoor shower and also use some of the rainwater for her gardens.

Her daughter, Amy Darker of Superior, also got a rain barrel. She hopes it will solve her wet basement problem.

"I have a leaky basement," she said. "I'm trying to dry it off, get the water from seeping in and divert it away from the house."

Some people, like Milton Radjenovich of Buhl, have been using rain barrels most of their lives.

Radjenovich, 81, has been using a converted 280-gallon fuel oil tank and a square 300-gallon steel tank to catch rainwater runoff for decades.

He has faucets at the bottom of each tank for filling water jugs. With the water collected from downspouts on his garage, he waters his entire 21-by-50-foot vegetable garden every three days or so.

That takes a lot of water and the rain barrels help him do it in a way that conserves water.

There's another advantage: it keeps his water bills down in the summer, he says.

CANDACE RENALLS is at (218) 723-5329 or e-mail:

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