LA residents testing new water conservation program

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Los Angeles residents are harvesting rainwater from their home rooftops as Southern California reels from a fourth year of drought. It's part of a new effort by the city of Los Angeles. KPCC's Molly Peterson looks at how some Angelenos are making it work.

Mar Vista homeowner Jeanne Kuntz fairly bounces around her yard.

Her enthusiasm is contagious: she could sell a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves. Her passion today is saving water, starting at home, in a new rain barrel.

"It just captured my imagination for a variety of reasons," she says, her hands looping through the air. "The beauty of this is, it's multipurpose: it's not just preventing the water from going into the street and then pulling all that polluted runoff into the ocean, it's also got the water for your plants right there."

Kuntz presses ripe, home-grown melon into the hands of the contractor the city of LA is paying to install rain barrels.

Two guys are Kuntz's downspout and re-route it; periodically, a clank of spout pipe comes from around the corner, and a phrase in Spanish. When the next rains fall, greywater - captured water that's not drinkable, but still usable - will accumulate in a brown 55-gallon barrel.

Kuntz is one of hundreds of homeowners testing barrels for the city of Los Angeles.

Catherine Tyrell is a consultant with the firm Malcolm Pirnie, working with the city. Tyrell says LA's plan differs from others she's seen that focus on new buildings. "It's about making changes in our existing homes. And that's really critical in a city like Los Angeles, so much is already built."

Jeanne Kuntz's new barrel sits on a cinder block. It's actually not new, but repurposed: made of food grade plastic, it once held gallons of pickles.

Others on LA's west side have old syrup barrels. Consultant Tyrell says the city's also considering barrels made from scratch that users can recycle later.

There’s another reason she says the low-tech program represents the cutting edge of conservation: LA's one dry region. Catching every drop - even the flow from gutters -matters a lot.

"What's unique here is taking it to an area that doesn't think it gets enough rain," Tyrell says. "But it's precious here in Southern California."

People could save plenty more of that precious wet stuff, says the Bureau of Sanitation's Wing Tam.

He estimates that a house with a 1,000-square-foot roof could catch thousands of gallons in a normal year of rainfall. Building codes in L.A. sometimes put greywater collection in a grey area; at the very least, city rules complicate matters.

Tam says his department aims to figure out how to streamline such projects in the future.

"We are working very closely with building and safety, we want to go citywide on this, to either change the code or modify a code so that it does not become an issue," Tam says.

The last hole holding the down spout is drilled into Koonz's house.

The last fastener bangs into place. The city of LA will evaluate how well rain barrels work, and what it must do to encourage their use. Tam hopes to roll out barrels citywide next year.

Right now Kuntz is just trying to sell her Mar Vista neighbors on the urgency of this project.

"The way I've put it to people is we're trying to get them all installed before the rainy season starts. And it gives people this idea there's a deadline," Kuntz says.

Kuntz says saving rain in a 55-gallon barrel is the same as saving money. She wants everyone to share the wealth.

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