The water that ran through the streets and basements of Chicago in late August has an official name, conferred by the Environmental Protection Agency: urban storm water runoff. As government-consigned monikers for environmental threats go, the title sounds relatively benign. The words "storm water" evoke more pleasant images (barefoot children splashing in puddles, couples sneaking kisses beneath shared umbrellas) than, say, deforestation or ozone depletion. However, the damage wreaked by heavy rainfall in cities is prodigious: It backs up sewers and floods basements; it washes harmful sediments into nearby bodies of water, stifling aquatic life; it raises the temperature of said bodies of water causing further damage; and it picks up the oil, tar, antifreeze, pesticides, road salt, cigarette butts, animal droppings and other detritus deposited on roads and flushes them, sometimes untreated, into the watershed. The EPA considers pollution from urban storm water runoff as potentially the most harmful source of contamination to U.S. waters, putting it ahead of fallout from factories and sewage treatment plants.
The biggest source of the problem is a lack of permeable surface area in urban developments. The concrete slab on which our city resides covers marshy prairie land, once home to deep-rooted plants that evolved to absorb heavy rainfall. In undeveloped parts of the Midwest, about half of all rainwater infiltrates the ground, about 40-percent reenters the atmosphere through evapotranspiration (that's the combined process of evaporation and transpiration from plants—and a great word to sling around at your next organic wine-and-cheese party) and only about 10-percent runs off the surface to fill lakes and rivers. Conventional paving and roofing materials impede this natural cycle, so the bulk of Chicago's rainwater flows directly into sewers—either as a toxic stew mixed on the roads or through downspouts that feed into residential waste water lines. In heavy storms, like those we experienced a few weeks ago, the sewer system can't handle the load and overflows into streets, basements and the river.
Since the creation of the Department of Water Management in 2003, City Hall has made notable efforts to remedy the problem, from placing inlet control valves in sewers to enthusiastically talking about and beginning to implement permeable pavement in alleys. Homeowners are encouraged to disconnect their downspouts from sewer lines and redirect them to lawns and gardens. The city also started a rain barrel program, outfitting reused 50-gallon plastic jugs with spigots, overflows and mosquito netting, and selling them to the public at $40 a pop.
My landlord had already redirected the downspout of our apartment to the back lawn, but I liked the idea of storing rain water in a barrel to use on my garden and houseplants between storms. I got the okay from my landlord and headed to Greenmaker Building Supply to pick up one of the barrels. After seeing how easy they were to link together, I wound up getting two.
At first glance, the installation process appears to be as simple as cutting back your downspout and sticking the barrel beneath it, but there are a few important factors to consider before you get out the hacksaw:
1. You'll probably want to elevate the barrel to easily access the spigot. If you're planning to attach a hose, the higher you raise the barrel the better, since you're relying solely on gravity as a water pump.
2. It will overflow. A lot. To put this in perspective, consider that in a half-inch of rain, a 1,000-square-foot roof receives about 350 gallons of water. Be sure to attach overflow hoses that unload on vegetated areas. You don't want to save 50 gallons of water only to flood your basement (or your neighbor's) with the remaining 300.
3. The barrel should be put away or overturned in winter. Make sure your downspout empties onto permeable land when the barrel is absent.
4. Hand-sawing through corrugated aluminum is not as easy as you might imagine. Obtain the proper tools and energetic friends.
City of Chicago rain barrels and installation information are available at:
Chicago Center for Green Technology, 445 N. Sacramento Boulevard
Greenmaker Building Supply, 2500 N. Pulaski
City Escape Garden Center, 3022 W. Lake Street
Ace Landscaping and Garden Center, 2700 E. 95th Street
Grand Street Gardens, 2200 W. Grand Avenue
For information on properly disconnecting your downspout, visit the Department of Water Management’s website.
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.