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Do more with less water

June 30, 2016
by Heila Ershadi, Moab Sun News Guest Column

Imagine a new way of thinking about water stewardship in our high desert community. Or rather, imagine new technologies applied with values from an older time: never waste anything; do more with less; make the desert bloom.

Recently, a friend stopped by my home to see the new landscaping, designed by a local permaculture consultant. My friend has lived in Moab since the roads were mostly dirt, and you could hang out on Lion’s Back in privacy. When she saw my new gardens, she remarked, “You’ve done it like the old-timers did!”

The land around my home has been contoured so that rainfall from the roof is channeled through the downspouts into the gardens. The gardens are full of plants selected both for their loveliness and their ability to survive the Moab climate, and also apricot, apple and cherry trees.

It’s not exactly classic Old Moab landscaping, but it does share the features of orchard goodies, a healthy appreciation of mulch and the use of household roof water for irrigation.

A lot of homes in the area once used graywater. Graywater is the relatively clean water from bathroom sinks, showers and washing machines that can be used for irrigation, reducing the need to use culinary water. Graywater is technically legal in Utah, but is heavily regulated. Our local health department has been granted approval for a pilot graywater program that would assess the potential to allow more flexibility of design, a great step forward for would-be graywater users.

Some older homes in Moab have graywater systems that predate the current laws and are grandfathered in. For example, a large family home in Spanish Valley built in the early 1960s uses graywater from the washing machine in the months when there is no danger of freezing.

“We simply move the washer drain hose … to a graywater pipe installed in the wall behind the washer that goes directly out to a large garden bed in the yard,” explained a resident. “Needless to say, we have to be careful what laundry products we use, but washers use a whole bunch of water – once! We really love this efficient system.”

Catching stormwater in rain barrels became legal in Utah in 2010, and you can store up to 200 gallons of rainwater at a residence without a permit, and up to 2,500 with a permit.

A half inch of rain on a 1,000-square-foot roof produces approximately 280 gallons of water, says the Utah State University website. In Moab, an average-sized roof could capture around 5,000 gallons of storm water annually. Add that to the roughly 50 gallons per day that the average household of four could save by using graywater in the warmer months, and you have around 14,000 gallons yearly in potential water savings!

Rain barrels and graywater systems are small-scale examples of individual actions that can add up to huge benefits for our community and watershed. A larger-scale example is a wastewater treatment plant that discharges its treated water either into a constructed wetlands or to replenish a natural wetlands habitat.

The typical “gray” infrastructure treats water like a waste product to get rid of; green infrastructure treats it as a valuable resource with environmental, economic and social benefits.

Take the example of the wastewater treatment plant that replenishes wetlands. Not only can this create better habitat for wildlife and the people who enjoy seeing them, it can lessen the risks from flood and fire to the ecosystem and the people who live and work nearby.

Another example is curb cuts, strategically placed openings in roadside curbs that channel stormwater into planted basins, naturally filtering out pollutants while growing trees and other plants that look beautiful, shade pedestrians, and reduce the excess heat created by large paved areas. Never waste anything. Do more with less. Make the desert bloom.

As the multiple long-term benefits of green infrastructure become more understood, agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are prioritizing green infrastructure and offering grants to offset those higher initial costs.

Cities all over America are putting green infrastructure into policy and practice.

Tucson passed a Green Streets policy in 2013, requiring that green infrastructure features be incorporated into new road construction or reconstruction whenever possible. Also in 2013, Seattle set the goal to manage 700 million gallons of stormwater annually with green infrastructure by 2025, calling green infrastructure “a critical aspect of a sustainable drainage system.” Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Cincinnati are a few other cities embracing green infrastructure.

Imagine what we could do in Moab! And please, share your ideas. Canyonlands Watershed Council holds monthly roundtable discussions every third Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the Grand County Public Library, 257 E. Center St. Come to learn, share and collaborate on community-driven initiatives for watershed health.

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