‘Saving the bay, one drop at a time’

Rain barrels give everyone a role in controlling runoff


Pamela Wood — The Capital
Steve Barry explains how a rain barrel works during a workshop for the Spa Creek Conservancy. Mr. Barry is director of the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, which makes and sells rain barrels.

As the summer sun dropped in the sky, about two dozen people gathered in a downtown Annapolis back yard, sipping beer and munching on grapes as they listened to the pitch: How they could help the Chesapeake Bay by installing rain barrels at their homes.

After the presentation, they crowded around the barrels, checking out how the downspout hooks in, where the spigot goes. They peppered the presenter, Steve Barry, with questions.

This, Mr. Barry knows, is what it takes get people comfortable with the idea of sticking a giant trash can-looking contraption under their rain gutters. They have to get up-close-and-personal before committing.

Mr. Barry, director of the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, has been preaching the merits of rain barrels for six years now, ever since he started making and selling them at the center.

In the first five years, his staff made and sold 400 rain barrels. So far in 2007, they’ve sold 600, including several at the downtown gathering.

Slowly but surely, it appears that rain barrels are catching on in Annapolis and beyond.

A martial arts instructor is having students decorate and auction rain barrels this month. Earlier this year, artists recruited by the Back Creek Conservancy painted scenes on barrels that were placed around Annapolis. The Annapolis Environmental Commission used most of its budget to give away 100 barrels.

The selling point is simple, Mr. Barry said: “You really are saving the bay, one drop at a time.”

Barrel basics

A rain barrel is constructed around a basic concept: You take some sort of barrel, point your downspout to it, and start saving your rain.
The execution can be a little tricky, when it comes to keeping out mosquitoes and attaching spigots and hoses.

But as rain barrels have become more popular, ready-made barrels have become easier to find. They still aren’t sold in hardware or home improvement stores, but they are available online.

Mr. Barry’s ready-made rain barrel kits from Arlington Echo remain the easiest — and often cheapest, at about $50 each — way to get rain barrels in this area.

Whether homeowners are buying an “Echo barrel” or one from another source, most rain barrels are pretty similar.

They’re usually made from 50-gallon drums, or occasionally old whiskey barrels. A hole is cut in the top for the water to go in from the downspout and there is a spigot or hose attachment at the bottom to let the water out.

RAIN BARREL RESOURCES

• Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center sells rain barrels for about $50 each. Call 410-222-4822 or visit www.arlingtonecho.net/rainbarrel.htm.

• The Spa Creek Conservancy will hold a rain barrel demonstration at 6 p.m. on Sept. 6 at 15 German St. in Annapolis. For information, visit www.spacreek.org.

• Balanced Life Skills will host an information session and auction of decorated barrels at 6 p.m. on Sept. 25 at the Annapolis Sheraton. Plain rain barrels also will be sold. Proceeds will go to environmental causes.

• Build your own rain barrel using plans from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources: www.dnr.state.md.us/ed/rainbarrel.html.

• The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also has a guide. Go to www.cbf.org and search for “rain barrels.”

Downspouts attach to the barrels in various ways. Usually there is some sort of mesh screen to keep mosquitoes from breeding.
The barrels help the Chesapeake by reducing the amount of harmful stormwater runoff that reaches our streams, creeks and ultimately, the bay.

When water pours down in rainstorms, it rushes along rooftops and paved surfaces, collecting pollutants and warming up on the way to streams. The warm, polluted water can harm aquatic life and can scour away stream banks.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, during a 1-inch rainstorm, 700 gallons of water will pour off of an average home’s roof — enough water to take 58 showers or 17 baths.

With rain barrels holding some of that water during storms and slowly releasing it over time, the water has a chance to percolate into the ground, where it is filtered naturally.

Barrel believers

Wally and Molly Stone were early adopters when it came to rain barrels, installing their first homemade rain barrel at their Annapolis-area home a decade ago.

The Stones have well water and were looking for a way to water their plants and gardens without having to use their well.

So Mr. Stone fashioned his own solution, using a large, green garbage can, cutting a hole in the lid and putting a spigot in the bottom. Mr. Stone said the garbage cans were easy to find and come in many colors, although the downside is that his aren’t as sturdy as he’d like.

The Stones have since added two barrels, one purchased from Arlington Echo and the other one made through a workshop with the Weems Creek Conservancy a few years ago. The garbage can barrels are now used as overflow barrels.

The Stones have been amazed to see how quickly the barrels fill up during storms. Last weekend’s brief storms filled the barrels to the brim.

“It doesn’t take you long to go through one of these,” Mr. Stone said as he filled up a watering can.

Added Mrs. Stone: “We’re sold on them.”

Rain barrels are even popping up in the Annapolis Historic District — most often in back yards that aren’t usually subject to the city’s strict aesthetic rules.

But for Conduit Street resident and political activist Chuck Weikel, both the front and rear of his home are subject to the rules. He’ll ask the city Historic Preservation Commission to allow him to install rain barrels later this month.

Meanwhile, Joe Van Deuren is spreading the message of rain barrels to students at his Annapolis martial arts school, Balanced Life Skills.

Next weekend, the kids will work with artists to decorate rain barrels. They’ll be auctioned off at a public event at the Annapolis Sheraton Sept. 25. Regular rain barrels also will be sold.

Mr. Van Deuren said he became interested in rain barrels after learning about them through the Leadership Anne Arundel program. The barrel events fit with his philosophy of helping students improve themselves and make the world a better place.

“Very few of us will ever be attacked on the street. The things that are more likely to harm us are the things we can actually do something about,” he said. “We have a responsibility to defend the environment.”

(Revised Sept 2007)