On a recent damp and chilly Saturday afternoon, 20 volunteers gathered in a semicircle around Arnie Thompson, Acterra watershed project director, in Los Altos’ Redwood Grove.
“With any luck, we’ll have the installation finished before it starts to rain,” Thompson said.
The volunteers assembled to build the first phase of a rainwater harvesting and native gardens demonstration project, a joint effort of GreenTown Los Altos, Acterra and the Los Altos History Museum’s “Shaped by Water” exhibition.
Four hours later, as the first raindrops began to fall, the catchment at the Caretaker House was complete: the house’s downspout had been modified, two 50-gallon rain barrels were seated on a new brick and wood platform, a first- flush diverter had been installed and a perforated overflow pipe snaked through the open space where the second-phase native garden is planned.
“Stormwater runoff is a severe problem for our local watersheds and the San Francisco Bay,” said Kathleen Santora, GreenTown project coordinator.
The impervious cover of houses, patios, driveways and roads keeps rainwater from slowly filtering back into the ground after a storm. Runoff becomes “a conduit for pollutants such as heavy metals from automobiles, and toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers from lawn care. Plus, without rainwater harvesting, we’re literally throwing money down the drain,” Santora said.
Sponsored by the GreenTown Water Stewardship Committee and coordinated by Santora and Forrest Linebarger, the education project focuses on two key areas: stormwater management and water conservation.
Linebarger, an architect and principal of Vox Design Group, developed the landscape plans for the educational display, including rainwater catchment, a native garden, an interpretive walk with signage and a bioswale – a gently sloping stone drainage course planted with native grasses to slow and absorb stormwater runoff. The design builds on the “Slow It, Spread It, Sink It” principles, endorsed by many water districts in California.
Acterra, an environmental non-profit group serving Silicon Valley, installed the rain barrels and will maintain the site through its stewardship work at Redwood Grove.
The Redwood Grove project is an outdoor expansion of the Los Altos History Museum’s “Shaped by Water” exhibition, curated by Linda Gass, a Water Stewardship Committee member. The display, which runs through April 22, addresses the history and future of water in the Santa Clara Valley in an interactive, family-friendly format. The demonstration project looks toward the future.
“Most people just don’t know about the serious water problems we’re facing,” Gass said. “But I have hope because of the younger generation, like the kids working here today. Change happens when individuals take action.”
Peg Champion is a member of GreenTown Los Altos and principal at Champion Organic Communications. Her work focuses on communication and education strategies to encourage sustainable behavior. For more information, visit www.ChampionOrganic.com.