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Rainwater Industry Goes Beyond the Barrel in Portland

The head of an association for people who trade in wooden barrels, concrete cisterns, and flexible pipes kicked off a national conference here Wednesday by making a confession.

“My name is John Hammerstrom and I drink my rainwater,” said the president of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association as he introduced himself at the organization’s national conference.

Laura Cullinan of Houston, Texas peeks into a 550-gallon rainwater cistern at a home in Southeast Portland during a tour which was part of the national rainwater harvesting conference.

Katie Campbell / OPB

A crowd of more than 200 people soaked up the the specifics in how to gather, treat, move and use rainwater.

Rainwater harvesting – the collection and storage of rain for such uses as irrigation, flushing toilets and drinking – has been around forever. But as an industry, it’s still young. So young that just about everyone in the business of building and selling rainwater harvesting equipment in the United States was able to fit into the same conference room this week in the Portland suburb of Clackamas to show off their inventions.

On display were old-fashioned wooden rain barrels and industrial-looking 550-gallon above-ground cisterns. There were water catchment devices built tall and thin, replicating a wall and aimed at blending into the landscape. And at another stand, vendors showed off something called a “rain pillow” – a flexible horizontal tank that inflates and can be stored out of sight in the crawl space under a house.

“A lot of this is in the research and development stage,” said Clair Klock, who works in the Soil and Water Conservation District of Clackamas County, Ore.

Klock has been involved in the rainwater harvesting scene since 1999, when a Clackamas County landowner came to him for help because his wells went dry. Ever since, Klock has been explaining what’s becoming a more and more complex business of harvesting, filtering and treating rainwater.

“When you get in the rainwater field, you get people from around the world calling,” Klock said. (In fact, conference attendees traveled not only from throughout the United States but also from Canada, Denmark, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa and Australia.)

So what’s the draw to rainwater harvesting all about?

“In Hawaii, it’s not a sustainability issue,” said Trisha Macomber, who works as an extension educator for the University of Hawaii. “It’s a we-have-to-do-it-because-we-have-no-other-choice issue. We truck in water for (drinking) and use rainwater for everything else.”

In Bellingham, Wash., the discussion is much more about sustainability.

The city water supplies are having a difficult time keeping up with residential water use during the summer months, when water use in Bellingham often doubles, said Anitra Accetturo who oversees that city’s water conservation program.

“Meeting peak demand is an issue for us. We need to get use down,” Accetturo said.

One way to do that would be to get residents to start harvesting their rainwater for irrigation, rather than using tap water to water their lawns and gardens.

“We’ve been doing rain barrel workshops since 2002,” Accetturo said. “And what we’ve found is that rain barrels plant the seeds for the bigger picture of an alternative strategy to conservation.”

The rain barrel, Accetturo said, has been foundational in getting her community to think differently about water usage.

“It makes people think about taking rainwater harvesting to the next level,” she said.

But to many at the conference, the rain barrel is just the beginning.

“Rain barrels are the gateway drug,” said Jason Garvey, the owner of Portland Purple Water, which builds and installs rainwater systems.

To explain, Garvey told the story a homeowner in Southeast Portland who started with a rain barrel a few years ago. He recently helped her expand her rain harvesting system to two 550-gallon cisterns in her backyard, which she uses to water her gardens.

And now, Garvey said, she’s looking to add a potable system that can bring rainwater into the house for drinking.

And the simple rain barrel is what started it.

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