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West Virginians Harvest Rainwater in Wake of Chem Spill

Residents whose tap water was polluted are finding that rainwater is an affordable alternative.

Rain barrels by Gail Langellotto.

Some residents of the Kanawha Valley in West Virginia lost access to clean drinking water on January 9, when a coal-processing facility spilled roughly 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM—a chemical used to treat coal—into the Elk River and surrounding land. The spill affected the water supply for more than 300,000 people.

The quality of the water remains in question, but residents aren't satisfied with a choice between expensive bottled water from the store and possibly polluted water from the tap. Increasingly, they're going for a sustainable and self-sufficient alternative: rainwater harvesting.

While some rainwater collection systems are large and costly, a recent article by Marcus Constantino in The Charleston Daily Mail showed that a household's water needs can be met with a downspout, a few repurposed 60-gallon pickle barrels, and a garden hose:

The recent water woes in the Kanawha Valley have led people like Lori Magana of Charleston to install rainwater harvesting systems to avoid contact with what they feel is potentially contaminated tap water.

"It's sort of primitive," Magana said. "The rain barrel is hooked up to my downspout and it has a faucet. After many trials, I figured out the best way to take a seven-gallon jug from Walmart and carry it inside."

Magana moves rainwater from a 60-gallon barrel to five large, plastic totes in her kitchen. From there, she boils water in a pot before using it to wash in a battery-powered shower.

Magana is a member of a new Facebook group called Charleston Rain Catchers. Those who are active in the 133-member-strong group share photos of their rainwater harvesting setups and give recommendations on where to find the resources needed to harvest.

It's great to see West Virginians helping each other find a sustainable solution to this environmental disaster.


Molly Rusk wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Molly is an intern at YES!

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