Ready for the Rain

City using rain barrels to help manage stormwater problem

May and June are two of Oklahoma’s wettest months but forget the umbrellas and put away the galoshes because the kind of storms we get this time of year don’t linger. They’re usually in and out in a hurry with lots of lightning, thunder and rain – heavy rain.

Our spring storms drop the kind of rains that flood streets, choke creeks and overwhelm streams. Then, the clouds go away, leaving the City of Norman with another stormwater management headache to contend with.

Carrie Evenson and her staff in Norman’s stormwater management program are dealing with the problem one 55-gallon barrel at a time, hoping they can team with Norman residents to make a dent in those massive surges of stormwater that can be so damaging in the spring.

For the past three springs, Evenson’s department has sold rain barrels for “harvesting” rainwater that can be used later in gardens and on lawns. The plastic, 55-gallon barrels can be attached to rain gutter downspouts and collect water as it falls from residential rooftops.

While residents enjoy clean water that they don’t have to purchase from the city, Evenson says the environmental benefit is much more significant. The barrels help to reduce the first flush of runoff that goes into the drainage system after a storm hits. That’s important because of the flooding impact the water can have, and it also can reduce the amount of fertilizer, sediment, debris and other pollutants that can flow into the watershed.

The City of Norman concluded this season’s Recycle the Rain program last month, delivering 153 rain barrels to residents from across Norman. Empty, the barrels weigh about 20 pounds, and were originally used to contain food, such as pickles, olives and olive oil.

The barrels are repurposed by Upcycle Products Inc. of Morris, Ill., which runs the barrels through a manufacturing process to add hose hook-ups and other features that make them an effective way to capture rainwater.

Evenson says Norman’s program is part of a grassroots initiative formed by the Central Oklahoma Stormwater Alliance, which is composed of a dozen cities in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. While some cities have had rain barrel programs for several years, Norman’s program is relatively new, but participation has been strong and steady.

The Norman program sells from 100 to 150 barrels a year, and she says the program is worthwhile. When it comes to a heavy rainstorm, water collected in a 55-gallon barrel may seem like a drop in the bucket, but multiply that up to 150 times and that’s more than 8,000 gallons of water that’s not flooding onto Norman streets. The city has been selling the barrels for three years, so the volumes are beginning to add up.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality considers the rain barrel initiative as a positive measure when issuing cities Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permits required by the EPA.

Residents who purchased rain barrels from the city program this year were given a free workshop to demonstrate how to set their rain barrels up at home. Evenson said the barrels will not be available through the city again until next spring, but the Upscale Rain Barrels are still available for purchase online or through retailers, such as Whole Foods. More information is available at: upcycle-products.com/index.asp. – BSM

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