Citizen Q

May 30, 2008 

We asked readers to tell us what steps they think need to be taken to make sure the Triangle is better prepared when the next drought hits us. Here are some of the ideas.

Will Hooker is a professor at N.C. State University. He teaches courses on landscape design and sustainable living.

About eight years ago, I was on a scholarly off-campus leave and was living in Samoa studying sustainable living.

My family and I were staying on a small island, one mile wide by two miles long, that had a population of around 800 people. The only water source for the entire population was a 6-inch water line from the main island, and it supplied water to half of the island each day for half a day, switching to the other half during the second half of the day.

My wife, son, and I adapted our water-use practices radically in this situation. I wrote at the time that if everyone back home ever experienced a severe water shortage, it would quickly make conservationists of us all. This is exactly what happened.

My wife, son, and I were able to reduce our water use to an average of 60 gallons per day total for the three of us. ...

And now, even though the drought is officially over, we still use the shut-off valves on our showers between soaping and rinsing; we still stand in small plastic water tubs when showering to capture the water used; and we still use this captured shower water to flush our toilets.

In addition, even though we've been practicing roof-water catchment to augment our landscape irrigation for the past seven years, we are going to increase our storage capacity from 600 gallons to ... between 6,000 and 8,000 gallons.

We have measured what it takes to irrigate our fruits, veggies, herbs and medicinals (we do not irrigate our lawns! -- bad idea!), and it takes 300 gallons to do this once; to keep our plants healthy, we estimate that it takes two to three waterings per week, or around 800 gallons total.

It is my belief that we are going to typically be facing somewhere between two and three months of severe drought each year where water rationing will likely be necessary.

At a need of somewhere around 3,200 gallons per month, this translates to a need of between 6,000 and 9,000 gallons of storage capacity to make it through the drought months.

Using the calculation of 600 gallons of water falling per inch of rainfall per 1,000 square feet of house footprint (our house is 1,000 square feet), we could have captured 22,800 gallons of water off our roof last year when we "only" received 38 inches of rain. ...

The point here being that we receive more than adequate rainfall to capture and store enough to meet our needs. The trick will be in knowing when to stop utilizing the water in the storage cisterns in order to keep them filled in anticipation of the expected droughts and water rationing during the July through October months.

Question about water rationing:

We all know that one of the biggest water usages is in the irrigation of landscapes. But there has been no differentiation made between watering a status symbol, the lawn, and in water for food-producing systems.

My family and I grow around 20 percent of our own food on our 0.2 acre lot. Using water for this purpose saves energy by reducing the amount of food that we use which comes from 2,000 miles away for the average American home, it increases wildlife habitat and diversity, it increases the nutrient value of the food we consume, and all in all, is a very positive contribution for us and for those who live around us.

Somehow the water-rationing regulations need to take into account the difference between food production and the maintenance of status symbols. This IS a BIG deal.

Tap underground water in emergencies

"These wells could be closed off until they are needed. ... I have seen concrete underground storage with tennis and basketball courts built on the top of the tanks. The city could use the space for garages, landscape equipment storage or any other needed space as as offices and meeting halls."

-- Charles Rhodes, Raleigh

THE IDEA: Map out where underground water supplies are located and build wells and storage tanks that can be tapped during emergencies.

COULD THIS WORK? You can't feasibly build storage tanks big enough to replace water-supply reservoirs such as Falls and Jordan lakes. In a long-term drought, groundwater supplies drop, too. And in North Carolina's rocky central Piedmont region, including the Triangle, it's far more cost-effective to tap new surface-water sources to augment the main supply, such as quarries, small lakes and streams. Furthermore, the state's large aquifers that conceivably could be tapped lie in the coastal plain, generally east of Interstate 95 -- and some of them are already overused.

-- Staff writer Matthew Eisley

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