Two large barrels, painted with blue and green swirls and bright orange koi fish, fill to the brim with stormwater after a few rainy days and supply Linda Zolten Wood with all the water she needs for her flowers and fruit trees.
“We have two 55 gallon rain barrels,” the professional artist and Collinwood resident said. “When it rains, we keep that water, and that’s 110 gallons of our own water that we don’t use from the city.”
Zolten Wood began conserving rain water in 2011, after receiving her first barrel from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s Office of Sustainability. She soon grew tired of the plain white look of her barrel, and decided to decorate it with a colorful painting of koi fish.
A year later, Zolten Wood founded the Collinwood Painted Rain Barrel Project, with the goal of filling Cleveland with whimsical rain barrels and encouraging water conservation throughout the city.
“I just want pretty rain barrels to be used a lot,” Zolten Wood said. “The more painted rain barrels, the better for the city and the better for everyone to enjoy gardening and reusing their rainwater.”
Stormwater left to run down streets, driveways and other hard surfaces can carry debris and chemicals into local sewer systems. By using rain barrels, residents can save stormwater and use it to water their gardens, helping the environment and saving money at the same time.
In order to expand stormwater education and reduce the amount of stormwater runoff in Cleveland, the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District began hosting a self-funded workshop program 14 years ago that has supplied well over three thousand barrels to area residents.
The workshops are an effort to help keep Cleveland in compliance with the Clean Water Act. The Cuyahoga SWCD provides the rain barrels that allow residents to reduce their water consumption and lower the amount of stormwater that fills local sewage systems.
The city of Cleveland’s Office of Sustainability also has a rain barrel program. This year, the city delivered 250 rain barrels to Cleveland residents. According to coordinator Patricia Donnellan, because last year’s program was canceled during the pandemic, there were more than 300 people on the waiting list.
“One thing we really pride ourselves on as a district is trying to remove the barriers to making a conservation practice,” said Amy Roskilly, conservation education and communications manager for the Cuyahoga SWCD. “So we really try to make it as easy and convenient as possible for you to do the practice that we would love for you to do, but you know, we want to give you the tools to do it.”
In urban areas like Cleveland, stormwater is the primary focus of the soil and water district, Roskilly said, and is a bigger issue compared to the polluted agricultural water runoff of rural communities.
Stormwater is created when rainwater runs off man-made, impervious surfaces such as rooftops, driveways and patios—anything that prevents water from getting into the ground. Overwhelming amounts of stormwater from heavy rain events typically end up in combined sewer systems, which collect sewage, wastewater and stormwater. When the system is overwhelmed, dirty water sometimes flows into the environment through combined sewer overflows (CSOs), so that it doesn’t back up into our homes and buildings.
The sewer district launched Project Clean Lake in 2010, “a 25-year plan for huge storage tunnels, smart green infrastructure, and treatment plant improvements to manage higher flow volumes and reduce overflows,” according to the website. “These projects will offer relief for overloaded pipes and keep more stormwater out of the combined sewer system, which can also help local communities alleviate sewer backups and flooding problems.”
“We put down these hard surfaces in the past 100 years, and all of a sudden, the streams are receiving a heck of a lot more water a lot faster,” Jeffery Jowett, senior watershed team leader with the sewer district’s stormwater management program. “They want to get back to an equilibrium, and in order to do that they’re flooding and they’re causing erosion in places that we don’t want that to happen.”
Reducing stormwater runoff at home could allow organizations like the NEORSD to catch up on issues that have existed for decades, while reducing the environmental issues caused by overworked water systems.
“It is always a good idea to keep that water out of whatever system you’re in and allow that water to hopefully soak into the ground as it would naturally,” Jowett said. “That’s really the point of any stormwater management is to get that water into the ground and not simply send it away, where it can lead to problems.”
While many organizations and activities saw a decline during the pandemic, Roskilly’s rain barrel workshops continued to draw people in, likely due to the increase in free time and the desire to be outdoors.
“A lot of people were home and they just wanted to garden,” she said. “The rainwater is actually healthier for the plants, because it doesn’t have fluoride and chlorine in it like our water does, that will come out of the hose … It’s just a little added boost when you’re using rainwater instead of hose water to your plants.”
What did have to change during the pandemic was the amount of in-person interaction during the workshops. Presentations and demonstrations were replaced with a variety of instructional videos for viewers to watch at home that demonstrate how to set up and install the barrels and the benefits of rain barrels over all.
Participants register, pay for the $60 barrel and pick up everything needed for setup and installation, except for the drill.
“They show up, they get their barrel, their diverters, some supplemental information and everything in the new diverter kit,” Roskilly said. “It’s really convenient and that’s something that I think will stick past COVID.”
In addition to the environmental impact, homeowners and those responsible for paying the sewer bill may see a financial benefit to rain barrels through the NEORSD’s stormwater fee credit program.
Each home’s monthly stormwater fee is calculated based on the square footage of impervious surfaces on the property, including roofs, decks and driveways. The fee is $5.15 per three thousand square feet of impervious surfaces, with a maximum fee of $9.25.
By managing 50 percent of stormwater runoff at home through porous surfaces (which absorb water and reintroduce it into the soil), rain gardens (which collect water runoff), or rain barrels, NEORSD will waive 25 percent of the resident’s stormwater fee.
“You will get a savings on your stormwater fee, 25 percent, but some people also realize a water and sewer discount because they’re using less water [and] they’re capturing that stormwater in that rain barrel,” Jowett said.
One barrel might not manage enough stormwater to qualify for the fee credit, but it’s possible to combine stormwater control measures to qualify, like using a rain barrel and a rain garden, or, as Roskilly recommends, multiple rain barrels on the property.
Zolten Wood’s two barrels qualify her for the fee credit program, and the stored water after a rain event typically lasts over a week. The amount of money she saves by reusing her rainwater for her outdoor plants, shrubs and trees in her garden that she would otherwise require hose water, leads to even more savings.
“It all works towards a discount in the bigger picture,” she said. “It makes us feel like we’re kind of rich. We can plant all these things because we can afford all that water.”
This story was produced as part of an environmental justice reporting initiative involving partners Ideastream Public Media, The Land, The NewsLab at Kent State University, WKSU, La Mega, and the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEOSOJO).
Zaria Johnson is a senior journalism major at Kent State University and an intern with The Land.