Rooftop rain collection helps rural Sonoma County residents and salmon

Rainwater collection from buildings is growing more common in Sonoma County, with two efforts afoot to help install systems for rural landowners.|

Rain on the roof at Karl Andersen’s home in Bodega is more than a sweet sound of the season after four dry years.

It means he has enough water to irrigate his garden and greenhouse through the next fall, and that, in turn, means more water for the coho salmon in Salmon Creek, which meanders through the near-coast hamlet where Alfred Hitchcock famously filmed “The Birds” in 1963.

Rain runs off Andersen’s roof and through pipes into three green plastic storage tanks that hold a total of 15,000 gallons of water, a valuable amenity in a water-scarce corner of Sonoma County with California now officially in a fifth year of drought.

“They are just about ready to overflow for Christmas,” Andersen said last week, noting that December rains nearly topped off the tanks.

Because the state gets most of its rain in the winter and most of it escapes into the Pacific Ocean, the idea of capturing rainwater in tanks and ponds is gaining momentum, including a financial boost from Sonoma County’s two resource conservation districts.

The Sonoma RCD, which covers most of the county, and the Gold Ridge RCD, which covers the west county, are offering funds for the design and construction of water storage systems on rural homes and ranches in five watersheds that support coho salmon.

The Gold Ridge district, founded in 1941, has funded 20 projects in the past five years, including the tanks at Andersen’s home and a 35,000-gallon tank nearby next to the Bodega Volunteer Fire Department, which uses the water primarily for firefighting rather than outdoor irrigation.

Another project, that wasn’t part of the current grant program, installed a roof-water containment system that can channel ?1.4 million gallons of water into a pond at a Bodega area dairy.

That supply avoids the use of 6,000 to 7,000 gallons a day of water from May to October that would otherwise be pumped from wells near Salmon Creek, said Brittany Heck, the conservation district’s executive director.

The goal is twofold, Heck said: to boost the flow in a salmon-rearing steams and give landowners greater “water security,” since private wells can go dry.

“The idea is to capture this resource when it is plentiful,” said Valerie Minton, program director for the Sonoma RCD.

With most of the funding coming from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the districts are currently underwriting water storage projects in the Dutch Bill, Green Valley, Mark West, Mill and Grape creek watersheds. For details on the program, go to

A rural residential rooftop rain collection system typically involves a series of 5,000-gallon tanks and would cost about $20,000, Heck said. The districts generally require landowners to contribute ?10 percent of the project costs. Andersen said he contributed $4,000 to the system installed at his home in 2011.

Gravity moves water from his roof to the storage tanks, and an electric pump pushes it out to his garden and greenhouse.

The system is simple in principle but requires careful engineering to work, he said.

Urban residents can install small-scale rainwater collection systems using 50-gallon barrels that cost less than ?$100 apiece. Santa Rosa offers a 25-cents-per-gallon rebate for approved systems that collect at least 100 gallons of water.

One small project might not seem significant, but the collective impact of rainwater storage in a given watershed can “make a big difference,” Heck said.? For the salmon that must survive through the summer in the creeks where they were hatched, a trickle of extra water can be critical.

The state Water Resources Control Board ordered about 10,000 rural residents to curtail outdoor water use this year to help protect the coho in Dutch Bill, Green Valley, Mark West and Mill creeks. The Department of Fish and Wildlife also rescued about 3,000 young coho from Dutch Bill, Mill, Porter and Felta creeks.

Coho were on the verge of extinction when officials launched a broad effort to rebuild the population in 2001.

Finding money to fund local rainwater storage projects is a scramble because “there are people all over the state looking for this money,” Minton said.

Bodega Fire Chief Ron Albini said the 35,000-gallon tank provides his department with all the water it needs for training and firefighting in each of the past few years. One large blaze, he said, could drain the tank.

Karl Andersen is an unofficial ambassador for the program.

“More people should collect rainwater off their roofs,” he said. “It’s not hard to do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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