Let's Get Smarter About Rain

Apr 4, 2017
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
by Sejal Choksi-Chugh

This year, the Bay Area has been deluged with rain. After years of severe drought, we’re not complaining. However, the downpour came with side effects. Creeks, roads and neighborhoods flooded. Sewage overflows caused major spills in local communities. Billions of gallons of rainwater washed off polluted surfaces, moving heavy loads of trash, oil and other contaminants into San Francisco Bay.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Bay Area can get smarter about rain and put it to good use. And rainy seasons can help make the Bay Area more resilient to future drought. What’s needed is a shift towards thoughtful conservation and collective planning: big actions by cities combined with small actions by us as individuals and families.

There are a variety of big actions to start planning for and implementing now. When repaving streets and gutters, cities can use permeable materials that allow rainwater to soak into the ground. Paved area can be re-purposed to create parks and green space that absorb rainwater. The water will be filtered as it percolates through the soil, which can remove some pollutants. Eventually, the water will recharge local aquifers—nature’s underground water storage tanks. In the dry season or during drought, communities can tap into those aquifers, further purify the water and use if needed.

Cities can also use retention basins to collect rainwater and direct it to the ground. Instead of storm drains and pipes infiltrating and overwhelming sewage pipes, or carrying polluted water to San Francisco Bay, they can recharge local aquifers.

Big projects like these can be costly. But planning for them now will cost far less than other ideas currently being touted as the solutions to California’s water needs—such as the proposed twin tunnels under the Delta. Plus, rainwater capture helps prevent flooding and increases California’s fresh water supply. The tunnels won’t do either.

And the rain that falls here can provide a lot of water. According to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and TreePeople, if the Los Angeles-San Diego area and the San Francisco Bay Area captured their rain and recharged local aquifers, California could increase water supplies by up to 630,000 acre-feet per year. That’s enough to meet the annual water needs of more than a million Bay Area households.

Capturing rainwater will also help reduce sewage overflows, and prevent pollution from trash and other contaminants that now get washed off paved surfaces into San Francisco Bay during storms.

Rain harvesting projects by cities are part of the answer. And there are a number of actions we can all take to help make the Bay Area smarter about rain, starting at home. Install a rain barrel to capture rain that runs off your roof, and use the water to irrigate landscaping in summer. Create a rain garden—an area planted with native vegetation that soaks up rain from a roof, driveway, sidewalk or patio. And if you’re planning a landscaping project, repave your sidewalks, driveways and patios with permeable materials.

You can also speak up and encourage your city government to be rain-smart. As a result of a recent Baykeeper lawsuit, the City of San Jose has committed to major infrastructure projects that will capture rainwater and store it for later use. As an added benefit, that will mean more green spaces throughout the community.

Let your city leaders know you want them to do the same and that you would support rain-smart city projects. And when rain-harvesting infrastructure projects appear on your local ballot, vote “Yes!”

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