Rethinking Cityscapes, One Rain Barrel at a Time
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We may be living through a renaissance for city planning and infrastructure management. Older cities are grappling with aging storm and sewer systems at the same time that extreme weather is testing the limits of even the most modernized communities. And in the mix are a handful of companies jumping on the much-needed green infrastructure bandwagon, developing products to redirect water before it rushes in a mad wash over the impervious sidewalks, roads and other surfaces that make up most urban cityscapes.
But other rainwater management companies have already stood the test of time. In the late nineties, when environmental concerns felt a bit more distant for most of us, Mike and Lynn Ruck, were newlyweds who had inherited Mike’s grandfather’s homemade rain barrel. The two were living in Raleigh, North Carolina, had just bought a house and were avid gardeners. “When we first got into this,” Mike Ruck told me, “it was about watering the garden. It was about conservation and not using city water.” He found that watering plants with treated city water (containing chemicals like ammonia, fluoride and chlorine) might leave plants perked up a bit, “but after a rainstorm, that same plant is just smiling.”
After a few years, a drought hit, and the Rucks recognized the importance of the rain barrel. “We thought, well, shoot, we need more of these,” he remembers. Not able to find other rain barrels on the market, the couple started making their own barrels, modeled after his grandfather’s.
Mike, a graphic designer, and his wife Lynn, a commercial photographer, soon found their weekends dominated by handcrafting rain barrels. “It really was just kind of a labor of love at that time,” says Ruck. By 2000, the couple sold over 300 barrels in one weekend and were eventually able to quit their day jobs and begin producing their own rain barrels, made in America, from 100 percent recycled plastic. Rain Water Solutions was born.
“When we first got into this, we used to just see the conservation types,” as Mike Ruck calls them, “water geeks” like themselves. But erratic weather like the recent years’ droughts have made people more keen on keeping rain barrels at home, and water quality standards are pressing towns and cities to better manage their runoff when storms do hit. Rain Water Solutions sells to homeowners and commercial land owners who can have barrels shipped directly to their door, but primarily to municipalities—and there the company fulfills a vital (and profitable) role.
As Jon Devine, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who leads the team focused on the Clean Water Act explains, stormwater causes a variety of problems for communities as rain hits hard surfaces like buildings and parking lots which prohibit water from seeping into the ground, where it would otherwise be retained by vegetation and evaporate back into the atmosphere. Instead, in most places runoff goes straight into streams and rivers without any treatment, picking up everything it touches—road grime, metals, oil and grease, pet waste, pesticides and fertilizers.
“It’s got a real toxic brew of pollutants,” Devine explains, and in more than 750 cities, stormwater is carried in the same pipes as sewage from people’s homes and businesses. When those old systems can’t handle the fast rush of stormwater, those systems (including human waste, viruses and the bacteria it contains) overflow into our waterways.
Rain barrels, according to Devine, are part of green infrastructure that can stem that noxious tide. Says Devine, “It lets you hold onsite water that would otherwise runoff.” And thanks to the Clean Water Act and EPA requirements for Municipal Septic Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits, communities must reduce pollution caused by runoff, and increasingly do so using green infrastructure techniques.
Rain Water Solutions works directly with municipalities to implement rain barrel programs, which help towns educate their residents about stormwater issues and offer a solution. Offering Rain Water Solutions’ new, more cost-effective “Ivy” model, the cities meet their MS4 requirements, Rain Water Solutions gets more rain barrels out into the backyards of consumers at a discounted rate, and community members together take charge of the stormwater that would otherwise be rushing off their land. It’s smart, do-gooding business—this year, Rain Water Solutions’ sales are up 25 percent from last year.
Rain Water Solutions might distribute 1,200 rain barrels in a community in one day, sometimes it’s as few as twenty, depending upon the needs of the municipality. For those who become obsessed with water management, like the Rucks have over the years, the company also designs and consults (and locally installs and services) large-scale rain harvesting cisterns that can capture between 1,000 to more than 60,000 gallons of water. It’s not all just altruistic water management—in North Carolina and cities throughout the country, by using cisterns, commercial landowners can dramatically reduce stormwater fees.
Ruck remembers back to even as early as 2003, hearing about water issues on the news, predictions then that the water-rich North Carolina could see serious shortages by as soon as 2050. Today, with water and climate change a looming presence in our consciousness, says Ruck, “That’s the future, these big systems,” he adds, “water issues are not going away.”