By Robin Adams
Back in the fall of 2019, I started looking into the feasibility of a rain barrel workshop. Rain barrels are essentially a cheap way to collect rainwater from a roof for use in gardens and landscaping. This benefits the resident because they save money on their water bill and can water their plants with the nitrogen-rich rainwater, which plants love! Encouraging storm water collection is a part of the City-adopted Energy Conservation Plan as well. A large part of my service is finding ways to implement this plan, so pursuing a rain barrel workshop seemed like a great use of my time.
A part of the reason rain barrels would directly benefit the City as well as the residents is because urban runoff from roofs might otherwise make its way to Rock Creek or our Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP). According to the Storm water Master Plan, as much as 45% of the treated sewage at the WWTP during the spring runoff is derived from storm water. Storm water runoff does not require treatment and can bypass the wastewater treatment facility, so treating this spring runoff as sewage is estimated to cost the City over $10,000 annually in wasted energy use. Aside from the financial costs, it is also a public health and safety concern as City employees must deal with excess flow into the WWTP to prevent flooding of the plant.
With support from the Mayor, I submitted my first grant to the River Network to host a rain barrel workshop in the spring of 2020. This would’ve been an event where participants come together to assemble and decorate a rain barrel, then go home and connect to their gutter system to begin collecting rainwater for their garden.
After a few months, they finally got back to me to say they denied my application. So, I decided to apply for a small community grant from the Red Lodge Lion’s Club… who also denied my funding request. Discouraging? Yes. But based on feedback from the Lion’s Club, I decided to run a workshop in the spring without any external funding and set the price of the barrels to cover the costs of running the event.
Fast forward to early March. I’m well into the planning process for my own workshop to be held in mid-May. I have a meticulous, itemized budget designed so I can price the barrels as low as possible while just managing to break even on them. The payment page set up by the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation was finalized and just about ready to launch. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.
Just kidding, it was the pandemic that changed everything.
For a while there I was gripped with uncertainty about the future of the project. Should I cancel it? Postpone? Would people really be willing to assemble and install the whole system themselves without guidance? Are rain barrels something people even want in Red Lodge?
Fast forward again to the present. The project launched last week, reworked as more of a delivery service than a formal workshop. I’ve set up a section of the City website (cityofredlodge.net/rain/) to give as much information as possible about how the installation process will work, ways residents can use their collected rainwater, and why storm water diversion is vital for Red Lodge’s sewer system.
If we sell all the barrels we have available, this will translate to roughly 80,000 gallons of storm water diverted from the WWTP annually (based on average roof sizes). While this is a small amount relative to the capacity of our WWTP, I hope that this campaign also serves as an educational opportunity for people to implement other water conservation projects in their homes such as low flow toilets, rain gardens, and graywater landscaping. As stated in the City Energy Conservation Plan, increased water conservation will lead to both a decreased carbon footprint as well as a decreased use of taxpayer funds through reduced maintenance and energy costs and reduced need for future incoming WWTP capacity.
The response for Catch the Rain has honestly blown me away. I’ve already sold 31 barrels in less than a week, and the orders don’t seem to be slowing down. In the words of my office mate, who’s been a good sport about my phone ringing off the hook: ‘those barrels are going like hotcakes!’ Luckily, the local dessert company, King’s Cupboard, can donate more 55 gallon drums than the thirty we had initially planned – the new goal is sixty drums distributed by June 15th!
It’s been an incredibly validating experience, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing this project through to the end.