New Harvest: Rain

Yesterday I provided a link to an article that describes concerns about the huge amounts of water required in the production of ethanol in the Champaign-Urbana region.

High oil prices and support from Washington have inspired such interest in the corn-based gasoline additive that the Illinois Corn Growers Association now says at least 30 plants are in various stages of planning across the state.

All will use a lot of water.

It would take about 300 million gallons of water for processing the product and cooling equipment to make 100 million gallons of ethanol each year, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

There are three plants planned for the area, the one in Champaign expected to use 1.7 million gallons of water and to generate at least 500,000 gallons of wastewater each day. Water recycling and improved technology are reducing the amount of water used in the process. Even if they didn’t, this is actually small potatoes compared to current Champaign-Urbana daily residential use of 23 million gallons. I visited there a few months ago. They are building houses like crazy–just like here–and it’s not difficult to believe that this type of growth eventually will affect the water level even of a mighty aquifer like Mahomet, which supplies Illinois communities with 250 million gallons daily. Says Allen H. Wehrmann, director of the Center for Groundwater Science at the Illinois State Water Survey:

It would take more than a century to pump the aquifer dry even if no water returned through rainfall and other natural recycling, which amounts to about 40 million gallons per day, he said.

Even so, there can be a cumulative effect as demand is added.

“When you get down to the local level, there will be impact,” Wehrmann said. “You can’t take the water out of the ground without lowering water to some degree. Other well owners may see water levels fall. In some cases their pumps may go out of the water, and that may mean lowering a well or pump.”

Extended droughts and too much pavement, which prevents surface water from returning to the aquifer, would exacerbate the impacts.

Then there’s the risk of groundwater contamination by industry, especially bad news since our surface water is already so incredibly polluted. (That’s material for a whole separate diary/rant.)

Meanwhile, parts of Northeastern Illinois are already anticipating water shortages in coming years. The Chicagoland communities that draw from Lake Michigan will soon max out the amount they can pump from the lake, and some communities that depend on groundwater are already experiencing drops in levels.

A Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC) report states:

According to NIPC’s analysis, 11 townships are likely to have water shortages by the year 2020 and others may follow. Some of the fastest-growing townships, like St. Charles in Kane County, Naperville in DuPage County, and Algonquin in McHenry County, are facing the worst potential shortages. In some cases, the problem is lack of water; in others, it’s the cost of tapping a new water source.

The city of Joliet had to dig one of its wells 100 feet deeper because the water level of the aquifer it depends on has dropped about 60 feet.

Distressed? Depressed? Cheer up! There are bright spots in this picture. One is regional planning. Others are improved conservation efforts, wastewater reclamation* and preservation of open spaces. Yet another comes from the sky–oops, no, don’t look at the sun!–I’m talking about capturing rain in barrels.

The EPA says that lawn care accounts for nearly one-third of water usage nationwide, and there is no reason not to use rain water or gray water* on those lawns. In the dry West and Northwest, whole communities are encouraging the capture of roof rainwater by offering discounts or rebates on barrels (see here and here and here.)

Here’s how they work. Rain lands onto the roof and flows into the gutter system as usual but instead of ending up on the ground is instead diverted into a barrel that has a screen on the top for filtering debris and a spigot on the bottom for filling your watering can or connecting your garden hose. Roofs and gutters can have bird poop and other nasties so you’d never want to drink this water as is, but it’s fine for watering your plants.

Most barrels hold 50-60 gallons and can connect to each other so when one gets full the overflow spills into the next. Prices generally range from $80-$140 but I’ve seen some real deals on e-bay.

Here’s the kicker: a roof with an area of 1,000 square feet has the potential to collect 600 gallons of rainwater for every inch of rain we get. In this part of Illinois, we average a bit over 37 inches of rain annually. My handy calculator bespeaks a storage potential each year of 22,000 gallons. My roof is a tad larger than that. Yippee!

For the life of me, I cannot find information on the square footage of the Champaign-Urbana ethanol plants, only production capacities. But I ask you, why couldn’t we require industrial water users–and golf courses and park districts and government buildings–to collect the rain that falls on their roofs in the situations where it makes sense?

*Water reclamation & gray water: Water reclamation means that you use the same water for two or more uses. One example is if you use dishpans for washing & rinsing your dishes, then throw the wash water on the compost heap (all-natural dish soap, of course) & the rinse water on the coneflowers. Gray water is water that has gone through some household use–the aforementioned dishwater or baths, for instance–but can be re-used on the lawn. Potty water is called “black” water and cannot be used again without treatment. (I am at this point not clear about the category, gray or black, that dishwasher and laundry water should occupy because I’ve read conflicting advice on that today.) At least one water system, the Earthship system, uses the same water four times.

Other related links:

The Beckoning Cistern sculpture & creating urban watersheds: