Innovation Earth: Ed Begley Jr.'s 10,000-Gallon Solution for Drought

As one parched Texas town turns to toilets for drinking water, I wonder what the future holds for us here in California -- in the midst of one of the worst droughts in the state's recorded history. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides one third of California's water, is currently at 18 percent of capacity. With vegetation turning to tinder, the risk of another catastrophic wildfire season is growing.

The latest National Climate Assessment, released earlier this week, is unequivocal: Climate change is here, and the West will continue to get hotter and drier.

How will California -- and the world -- cope with the growing threat of climate change-fueled water scarcity? There seems to be no shortage of high-tech ideas, including generators that turn air into drinking water and billion-dollar desalination plants. These are exciting prospects, but I wonder if we aren't overlooking a simpler, more obvious solution: Catching the stuff that falls from the sky for free.

That's why the most forward thinking among us are revisiting an old-school technology: rainwater harvesting. (Where it's legal; there are still some states, unbelievably, where it is not.) But every drop counts these days, which is why actor and noted environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. recently installed a 10,000-gallon rainwater tank in his new LEED-platinum-certified home, now under construction in Studio City, California.

The ultra-sustainable home, along with Ed and his wife, Rachelle, are the stars of BiteSizeTV's new green-themed reality show "Our Green House." I caught up with Ed after the show's Earth Day premiere to talk water conservation and his new home's favorite feature.

Jennifer Grayson: Ed, why am I covering rainwater harvesting for my Innovation Earth column? Isn't this something we should have been doing for a long time?

Ed Begley: I agree, and it's something we have to start doing now. For years, and where I currently reside, I just had 50-gallon rain barrels underneath the downspouts. It's poor-man's rainwater catchment: You get a hacksaw and cut off your downspout so you can fit a tank underneath.

JG: Is that enough to make an impact?

EB: I also have an underground 550-gallon tank that catches rainwater from the garage. We've had really short rains so the collection system has not performed the way I've hoped here. With so little capacity it fills up and then the little bit of rain we've had just becomes overflow. I've probably only saved 100 gallons a month. But that's something -- it all adds up.

JG: I'm guessing you won't have a capacity issue with your new 10,000-gallon tank. How much rain does it take to fill up something of that size?

EB: The tank can fill up in two to three days of heavy rain.

JG: What will you do with that much rainwater?

EB: The plan is to completely eliminate using [city] water for irrigation. We also have a graywater system that will be used to water the trees.

JG: Wow. I recently read that one-third of our water use at home in the U.S. is just for our lawns and gardens. So, how does this system work?

EB: Ten thousand gallons of rainwater will be captured from every downspout on the house and from the hardscape. That will all lead to the rainwater tank underground. The whole thing looks like a giant propane tank. Inside is a bladder that holds the water, and there's a pump that maintains pressure around the bladder when the sprinklers come on. There's also a secondary overflow tank that pumps up to the street to the city sewer line in case there's overflow.

JG: It sounds like it doesn't take much work on your part.

EB: Yeah, you don't have to go and tinker with it. [Acting] Let me turn on this valve... [Yelling] OK, get ready! Turn on the sprinklers! We're ready to go, we've got pressure! It's all automatic.

JG: What does something of this scale cost?

EB: This system is not inexpensive. I think when all is said and done, it'll have been $65,000.

JG: Yikes.

EB: I understand that most people can't afford this fancy pants system that I've got. I'm a pioneer; I like to try this stuff before others. I'm willing to be the first one in the circle of wagons over the Donner Pass.

JG: What about for homeowners who want something a bit more sophisticated than a rain barrel but can't swing a 10,000 gallon tank?

EB: For one like I have but not as grand a scale, you can get into a system -- say, a 500 gallon tank -- for around $5,000. But even if you live in an apartment, there are lots of things you can do to conserve water. I take three-minute showers.

JG: An army shower.

EB: Navy shower.

JG: Shoot, I always get that wrong. So, why aren't we placing a higher priority on conservation? Do you think it's just a mindset most of us are in? If the water's coming out of the tap, we must be fine...

EB: No matter how many articles are written, we don't see what's coming. There will be huge problems with water in the next five years, and by that I mean shortages and rationing. If you don't believe me, drive to Lake Mead or do a Google search for "Colorado River delta" and see: It's dry! The Colorado River does not reach the Gulf of Mexico anymore! We take all the water before it gets out of there. The only reason LA has grown as much as it has is because we have our straw dipped in somebody else's drink.

JG: Given the dire circumstances you'd think we'd be doing more.

EB: The top priority should be to work with farmers and make sure that they get pots of money -- state money and federal money -- so they can do more water conservation programs with farming, because farming actually takes more water than we're using. But I don't know why everybody isn't putting a rain barrel under their downspouts to collect that water to water with. That's something we could do tomorrow.

Our Green House airs Friday mornings at 8 a.m. PST on BiteSizeTV.

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