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6 Simple Ways to Bring the Water Revolution Home

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4. Grow a water-friendly backyard


waterbucket_bestideas.gifYou can turn your yard into a water-friendly garden. Richly composted organic soil stores water, keeping it out of storm drains when it’s rainy and saving water when it’s dry. Plant a cover crop in late summer. Before spring planting, mow the cover crop and cover the bed with a layer of cardboard topped by straw or leaf mulch. Plant seedlings or large seeds through small holes cut in the cardboard. Or till in the cover crop, then plant veggies or flowers.

To further boost your garden’s water-storing capacity in dry regions, dig sunken beds—they’ll collect rain from garden paths. Winter moisture will sink into the ground and fill spaces between soil particles. In very rainy places, make a “rain garden” in a low spot.

What keeps soil moist and loose, suppresses weeds, and encourages helpful soil critters? Mulch. Potatoes, garlic, and large seeds will grow through thick mulch. For small seeds, mulch lightly until they sprout, then add more between rows.

 Turn one-gallon plastic bottles into low-tech drip irrigation. Cut a 2-inch hole in the bottom of each bottle, remove the lid, and bury the top of the bottle in your garden bed. Space bottles 18 inches apart. About once a week, fill the bottles through the 2-inch hole. Water seeps slowly into the soil.

Bury terra cotta pots so the lip is just above the surface. The pots wick water to deep-rooted plants and work well in container gardens. Use a narrow-necked pot and plug the drain hole with clay.

Tomatoes, squash, melons, potatoes, and some fruit trees can be dry-farmed—grown with only rain even in dry climates. Dry-farmed crops need more space—up to 4 times as much as irrigated ones. Mulch well, and let the plants sprawl.

—Cleo Woelfle-Erskine

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5. Catch the rain



In an average year, enough rain falls on even a small roof to meet all of your basic water needs, and then some—but much of that water disappears down city storm drains.

Catch your rain, and you can save water and reduce the load on your city’s storm system. Rain barrels are the simplest method.

You can build your own from a 55 to 90-gallon food-grade plastic barrel. Place it outside on a firm, level surface and connect it to your gutter downspout. Cover the inflow with a screen to keep out debris. Install a spigot at the bottom so you can drain and use the water, and attach an overflow pipe near the top. See more detailed instructions on rain barrels below.

Some home designers have extended the rain-barrel concept, building homes that draw water only from the rain that falls on their roofs. It’s not a new idea. Houses in arid regions around the world rely on rainwater tanks. But builders like Darrel McMaster in Boerne, Texas, have updated roof and rain tank designs to make them marketable to American homebuyers.

Such homes can cost 10 to 12 percent more to build than a standard home, but you get your money’s worth in just five to seven years, says McMaster.  

While the average American family of four uses about 400 gallons of water at home each day, McMaster claims homes relying on rainwater may use as little as 35. “If all you have is rainwater, you’re going to manage your water a whole lot better,” ­McMaster says.

—Ashlee Green

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6. Cozy up to your creek


You want to protect your local waterways, but you’re not sure where to start. How healthy is your river? You can check it out for yourself. The next time it rains, splash down to your local stream. If you find trash and oil slicks, you’re not alone. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 40 percent of all U.S. streams fail to meet state or federal water quality standards.  

Start at the headwaters and walk downstream. If you have to scramble through willow thickets, you’re in luck! Once you emerge, look for beavers—the keystone species in most North American watersheds. Beaver dams cool streams, create wetlands, and shelter fish. If you see bare, muddy banks, look for cows or new developments, which increase runoff. Eroding banks can clog fish spawning grounds with mud.

Many fish (as well as swallows, lizards, and frogs) eat water bugs. Insect larvae clinging to wet rocks provide clues to water quality—stoneflys, for example, need pristine water, while leeches survive in scummy stormwater. (See below for a simple identification guide for river critters.) If you see no bugs or fish, it might mean the water needs serious attention and cleanup. Consider adopting your stream.

To find out more about your local stream and its advocates, or to adopt your watershed, check out

Creek exploration isn’t just for rural dwellers. Get inspiration on exploring urban rivers at the L.A. Creek Freak blog and from the companion book Down by the Los Angeles River, which describes Joe Linton’s stealth campaign against the chain link fences along the Los Angeles River. Using bolt-cutters, he sometimes cut locks before leading curious Angelenos down the concrete banks. These walking tours showed hundreds of people the living river inside the flood-control channel. Now, largely through grassroots efforts, many of these fences are coming down.

—Cleo Woelfle-Erskine

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This article is part of Water Solutions, the Summer 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Cleo Woelfle-Erskine writes about water in Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground and at his blog, Cloud Catcher, at

Berit Anderson, Ashlee Green, and Keith Rutkowski are editorial interns for YES! Magazine.


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