May 2013


In my 9th grade geography class, Mr. Ferguson had several standard rants he liked to visit on us, like how high school freshmen were not yet fully human. We all had the potential of full humanity, and in a few more years we could achieve it, with work. We were halfway between primordial ooze and human.

Another rant was how we lived on the outskirts of civilization, Los Angeles being civilization. “And you can see,” he’d say,”as you go from LA towards the desert, that the people get less and less hip until you get here, right on the edge.”

At the time I thought he was funny and slightly mean, but probably wrong. I was living in Joshua Tree and going to school in Twentynine Palms. Almost three decades later, I’m back living in Joshua Tree and working as a therapist in Twentynine Palms, and I’m thinking he was probably right. I don’t know about people getting less hip as you leave LA–it’s arguably true, but depends a lot on your values and aesthetics–but look at this map of population density and you will see that I do live on the edge of civilization. (Click on it for a clearer view.) Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms are the last two splotches of orange (at least 100 people per square mile, no more than 250) heading east out of LA. Just east of us is all fewer than 10 people per square mile for an hour’s drive, then less than 1 person per square mile for another hour. It’s beautiful country, but desolate.

Southern California Population Density 2000

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I went to my first Transition Joshua Tree event, a rainharvesting workshop on April 28. It was fun and inspiring to meet with a good-sized group (maybe 20?) of neighbors interested in water sustainability in Joshua Tree. It was nice timing, too. Reanna and I just spent the previous day on the Desert-Wise Landscape Tour, looking at how local people are designing for low-water use.

The main topic was how to catch and store rainwater that falls on your roof. Our presenter, Buck, seemed to have quite a bit of experience installing gutters and catchment tanks, and thinking about water in the desert. He had a machine that made seamless gutters of any length out of strips of aluminum:

gutter maker

And showed us some tanks and filtration systems:

catchment tanks

One of the participants reported catching over 2,000 gallons of water in a four-minute “rain event” with one of these systems. While it is very dry here (less than a half inch in 2013 so far, I believe) it can rain really hard. In my 10 years in the rain country of the Pacific northwest, I never saw it rain half as hard as a big rain in Joshua Tree. So you can wait a long time for a rain event but you want a large storage capacity when it does.

We want to catch as much of the water as possible because we are using up our aquifer about 10 times as fast as it is replenishing. (If it is replenishing, that is–there seems to be some controversy about it.) Water that runs off of our roofs flows down washes to the dry lake in Sunfair, where it mostly evaporates, and eventually rains on someone else downwind of us. According to the conservation representative from the Joshua Basin Water District in attendance, we use 151 gallons per person per day and sustainable use is under 15. She talked a bit about two plans to replenish our aquifer using technology: One, under way right now, is piping in northern California water from the Hisperia aquaduct down into our aquifer. Another, under study, is diverting the Quail Springs wash from the surface (and the dry lake) underground. I’m not sure what that will look like–I picture a 600 foot hole in the middle of the wash, with caution tape around it–but at least it would be using our own water.

Living on less that 15 gallons of water a day looks to be tough. Here’s an essay by my sister-in-law, Maya, about going from 420 gallons per day to 50 gallons a day, with a toddler and while continuing to grow food. I’d like to visit each person who came to the workshop and see what systems result in what level of water usage. Because Reanna and I share a water main with my family, I don’t know how much we are currently using. I will figure it out and write a post about it.

I just visited my brother Ely in Glendale and the forecast was calling for rain in the next couple days. He was happy about that. They need the water. Glendale gets an average of 21.09 inches of rain a year (according to Wikipedia) and had only 16.95 inches in the last ten months (according to Weather Underground). Ely just emailed me that a meteorologist on the radio today said they’ve only gotten 5.15 inches so far this year, 9 inches below average).

But what is going to happen to that rain water? Almost all of it will fall on rooftops, sidewalks, parking lots and roads:

Glendale

For a case study, I looked at Ely’s neighbor’s roof. They have a gutter on the low side, which will catch most of the rain that falls on that roof:

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The neighbor’s gutter dumps into a drain pipe that heads towards the street on Ely’s side of the wall, picking up the runoff from another roof along the way.

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Back on the neighbor’s side of the wall, the pipe dumps on the ground.

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The water runs along the wall, down onto Ely’s yard, and onto the sidewalk.

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Down the sidewalk, into the street.

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Down the street.

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And into 50 feet of storm drains.

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Verdugo Wash

The drain dumps into the Verdugo “wash,” a giant concrete culvert a few blocks away.

Los Angeles River

Which is a tributary of another, even bigger concrete culvert, the Los Angeles “river.”

(photo by Ron Reiring

Which dumps into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach Harbor. (photo by Ron Reiring)

The system moves the water that lands on Glendale to the ocean quickly and efficiently. Meanwhile, they wash their cars and water their lawns with water pumped in from the distant Colorado River.

Here’s a totally different way of thinking about rainwater, from another, drier city that also relies on the Colorado River–Tucson, Arizona. Watch for the wow moment, starting around 1:20: