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San Francisco Welcomes the Rain
by Freya Keddie

The ancient practice of rainwater harvest is uncommon in urban areas that have municipal water services. Traditional infrastructure treats rainwater as a nuisance that must be disposed of as quickly as possible. However, San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission has set the stage for rain to become an important resource rather than a waste.

Confronted with chronic stormwater problem and a state-wide drought, San Francisco has launched a unique rainwater harvesting

Picture Courtesy of SPUC Stormwater Management Program

program. The city-wide initiative has all the expected features - discounted rain barrels, how-to guides, and workshops – but that’s just the beginning. Public officials have also laid the foundation for rainwater catchment to play a much bigger role in the city.

To jumpstart the new initiative, Mayor Newsom announced a pilot program
offering San Franciscans their first ready-to-install 60-gallon rain
barrel at a greatly discounted price. The new program was launched at an
elementary school where a five-barrel, 275-gallon capacity rain
catchment system had been installed along with a small vegetable garden.

The school’s demonstration system is as much a lesson for students as it
is for their parents. With sharp increases expected in the cost of food
and water, once families see how easy and cheap it is to harvest
rainwater they might be inspired to install their own systems in order
to get free water for home-grown produce. To this end, the city also offers workshops on how to "re-purpose" a used food barrel, converting it to a rain barrel for a fraction of the cost of a new one.

But the big news is that residents are now being encouraged think about
using rainwater – instead of clean drinking water – to flush their
toilets. With California entering its second year of severe drought,
people will soon realize that they simply cannot afford to keep flushing
clean drinking water - and money - down the drain. (Toilets and laundry
together account for about half of household water use.)

Public officials are betting that once people get their feet wet they’ll
want to add more rain barrels – or even install a larger harvesting
system for nonpotable indoor uses – and the city is doing everything
possible to smooth that transition.

In October ’08 the mayor signed a Memorandum of Understanding between
the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Public
Health and the Department of Building Inspection “clarifying the
standards for permissible rainwater harvesting systems and re-use of
rainwater for nonpotable (non-drinking) water uses without treatment.”

According to the press release: “In the second year of a drought, and as
the Bay Area and entire state push for greater conservation and new
alternative water sources, rainwater harvesting offers a simple way to
conserve limited drinking water supplies. San Francisco’s combined sewer
system, which treats both stormwater and sanitary sewage, will also
benefit from increased rainwater system installation through minimized
neighborhood flooding and reduced combined sewer discharges into the San
Francisco Bay or Pacific Ocean during very major winter storms.”

Related Links

San Francisco Rainwater Harvesting Program website
List of State and City Programs and Vendors
Rainwater Harvesting Brochure

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