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If you live in a rural area and want to harvest rainwater, your options range from simple to complex depending on your environment, climate, and goals. Choose from these methods for rainwater harvesting–both conventional and less common–to collect and store rain for drinking and hygiene, gardening, gray water uses.
In rural areas, the landscape, climate, and your individual preferences and family needs shape the the form rainwater harvesting takes. You may want to store water for drinking and cooking, hygiene needs, gardening to supplement store-bought food, or gray water uses, or perhaps all of those. Living in the country often permits much larger storage options than those in urban or even suburban areas have available.
What’s your goal?
Why do you want to harvest rainwater? What will you use it for? What is your current method for obtaining potable water?
Rural residents can have a variety of ways to get their potable water, ranging from:
- connection to a water system,
- use of a well,
- or relying on regular water truck deliveries.
Sanitation is more often handled via septic tank system than sewer. Because of that, the locations of a well and a septic system have important health implications, to avoid contaminating the ground water. Any significant rain harvesting project must be designed with this issue in mind.
Your goal might be simple, such as collecting and directing gutter downspout discharge into a garden, or a survival-related project of keeping a couple of barrels full of water, “just in case.”
However, the rural dweller often has so many more opportunities to capture rainwater for many uses, including drinking and bathing if properly purified. For instance, rather than an expensive extension of water pipes from the residence to a remote location, a pond can serve to collect and store rainwater for animals or crop irrigation. Properly sited, the pond could not only collect rainwater falling directly into it, but also collect runoff from nearby.
From simple to more complicated, here are some collection scenarios:
Pond with a liner
Here you have a lot of flexibility in size and capacity, pond liners are easy to install and maintain. A bonus is that it will attract wildlife. A fence or alarm may be needed based on local requirements if children have access. Read much more about using ponds as a water source here.
Snowfall collection and conversion to water
Many rural areas get significant snowfall in winter, and in areas that fluctuate in temperature from 20 degrees F to 40 degrees or warmer you may be able to harvest some rooftop snow. In addition to your residence roof, you can use sheds, carports and other non-residential buildings for additional collection.
Tin or galvanized steel roofing panels are easy to install and will hasten the melting of accumulated snow. Add gutters and a tank for storage if desired. Note that large outdoor plastic or metal tanks can rupture if water freezes; I use a stock tank de-icer in mine, it’s a thermostat-controlled electric heater that floats inside the tank to keep the water from freezing.
Harness the power of gravity: When setting up rain barrels or cisterns, elevate them to increase water pressure. This not only improves water flow but also minimizes the need for additional energy or pumps. Consider the natural topography of your land to optimize your system for maximum efficiency.
Are there government restrictions?
To a lesser extent than the limitations on rainwater collection in the urban/suburban environment, your potential project may be subject to state, county, or local requirements. Check this map to start learning about possible rainwater harvesting regulations in your area.
In Los Angeles County, even in rural areas with large lots there are “Low Impact Development” regulations restricting projects in new development or redevelopment; however, my county, adjacent to L.A. County, has no such requirements. I am subject to the usual building and health codes but nothing more.
Just keep in mind that septic systems are engineered to avoid ground water contamination, and use your common sense to avoid problems if you use septic and a well on the same property. Keep any major rainwater project at least as far away from your well head as your septic leach field is located.
What’s your environment?
High desert and atmospheric rivers
I moved out to the high desert outside of Los Angeles about 5 years ago to a house on a 2-acre lot. While rain is definitely a rarity compared to the L.A. basin, when we do get significant rain, it’s often as an “atmospheric river” system moving west to east; the elongated form of these storms means moderate to heavy rain for an entire day or two. The constant onslaught of rain often overwhelms soil’s ability to absorb water, resulting in effects ranging from filling intermittent streams to full-on flash flooding.
In August 2023, Tropical Storm Hilary came ashore near San Diego and hit the desert hard. We got approximately 8 inches of rain in my area. More on this storm and how I tapped into the runoff later.
More regular rainfall
Harvesting rainwater in this environment is challenging but not impossible. Other rural residents face a different environment, one of regular precipitation amenable to conventional rooftop runoff collection but also subject to snow and ice-clogging gutters and downspouts.
Finally, while many have enough rainwater to regularly fill large 1,000-3,000 gallon above-ground water tanks, in winter these tanks can be exposed to subfreezing temperatures which can damage or rupture them. But these are all problems that can be solved, as you’ll see below.
What’s your climate?
Your climate, defined as the long-term weather pattern in your area, will affect your ability to have a successful rain harvest and create the best setup.
Rainfall variations might affect choices
People in Seattle, known to have a rainy climate, can count on rain every few days; a smaller project can succeed because of the repetitive storms. Those in Phoenix will have rare rain except during their monsoon season, which may require a larger investment in storage to be worthwhile. I’m sure you also see how this is tied to the question of environment earlier.
Learn about the weather
Mastering the details of weather predictions will allow you to be ready to maximize your harvest. The most useful prediction tool used by the National Weather Service is the QPF (Quantitative Precipitation Forecast) which predicts the amount of rain expected in a specific area over a specific period, such as an hour. Knowing when a bunch of rain is set to arrive allows you to prepare your collection setup beforehand, as you’ll see below.
Maximizing a weather event
I mentioned earlier my rainwater harvesting in connection with my experience with Tropical Storm Hilary this past August. I’m at 4,200 ft. elevation, close to the top of an alluvial sediment slope that extends a half mile above me and 3-5 miles below. I have a 20′ x 20’ vinyl-lined pond as a combination rainwater collector and decoration. I also use gutters to collect from my roof, which drain into a 275-gallon tank for garden irrigation and fire protection.
I used several shallow channels to route the intense runoff around my house and maximize collection from this rare weather event; I filled two 2,500-gallon polyethylene water tanks for future use. Being alert to such opportunities can really make your collection projects worthwhile.
It varies greatly. You’ll need to check with your local, county, and state authorities to know with certainty. This Federal Energy Management Program Rainwater Harvesting Regulations Map can get you started.
Online calculators like this one can estimate potential water harvest based on local rainfall data, roof size, and other factors.
The possible projects are limited only by your imagination (and possibly funds, although you can save towards a bigger project.) Start small and simple, and build on your and other people’s experience. Water is the most important survival resource, and the more you have the better!
Tell us about your rainwater collection systems in the comments!