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A Rainwater Collection System for the Sugar Shack

Here are some shots of the gravity-fed rainwater catchment system I just finished for the Sugar Shack, the 14-person urban intentional community in the heart of Mid-City LA where I have been residing the last few months. It has been an incredible learning and growing experience, one that has begun to fulfill my vision of “permaculture structures” that are amazingly beautiful and amazingly multi-functional, and I hope this system will serve the community for decades to come.

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This is a 220-gallon system composed of the four 55-gallon drums you see in the photos, all acquired by one of our housemates from a TV shoot he worked on a couple of months ago. The system has two collection sources, on the left a roughly 80 square foot sloped second-story roof area, and on the right the roof deck over the community room. On that side I think we’ll get about 200 square feet of collection area, based on how the roof up there slopes.

In an average LA rain-year, with about 15 inches of rain and about 85% efficiency in the system (we’ll lose a bit of water to some gutter leaks even as I’ve improved them extensively), we can potentially catch up to 2,200 gallons, assuming we cycle the water into the garden between the usual run of winter and spring storms.

For every foot you raise the rain barrels, you get about one pound per square inch (PSI) of pressure, so I built the table to raise the barrels about 2-1/2 feet off the ground and stabilized it with concrete pier footings on a bed of sand. When the barrels are full, the added height will yield a pressure of about 5 or 6 PSI, enough to run a hose around the garden (and maybe better than our showers, I might add :)). Plus a double coat of eco-friendly Penofin oil finish on reclaimed wood otherwise headed for the garbage is amazingly beautiful, waterproof, easily restored, and will last for years.

Learning about rain catchment in the last couple of years, I was compelled to take the project on as a gift to the community; like any well-designed permaculture system, a good rainwater catchment system as part of a larger ecological strategy can provide multiple “yields” or benefits to residents and communities. Some of these are hidden until you look a little closer at a good system and what it can do. Catching water for garden use is actually just the beginning, and more than it seems to be at first glance. A well-functioning system

  • Keeps local moisture local. Instead of shunting rainwater uselessly and often toxically down storm drains, captured rainwater cycles through your garden, then percolates through the soil and back down to the local aquifer or evaporates from the leaves of plants. Either way the water gets naturally cleaned in the process and eventually becomes available to plants, animals and people in the watershed to use again either via rain or wells. Even just putting filters made of old window-screen on the inflow points of your system can cleanse the inflow more thoroughly than many municipalities now do, even if some of that inflow just ends up in storm drains as excess.
  • Converts dollars into ecosystems – the system costs some money to build, but then increases your self reliance as opposed to dollar reliance. You spend a little money only once, rather than continuously for costly municipal water unsustainably imported from somewhere else, and the captured water supports your food forest.
  • Can save lives in a disaster. In LA, like much of the world, fires are a fact of life and when the municipal water supply is taxed, 220 gallons to wet the ground can mean the house is still standing. Even non-potable water can be boiled and drank in an emergency as well; 220 gallons for the Sugar Shack can mean a 6-day emergency supply for the house’s 14 residents.
  • Can take the pressure off aging infrastructure. In the US, much of our water infrastructure is approaching the limits of its design-life. Considering the condition of our institutions and economic system here in the US, we can’t count on these systems getting redesigned or even restored to original functionality any time soon. “We the people” must now shoulder the burden of building a decentralized infrastructure, but this can be an opportunity.
  • Can include structural elements that can become trellising for vertical gardens. The truss beams on our table will make nice supports for tomato vines.
  • Can act as thermal mass, dampening temperature fluctuations around the garden and even part of the house.
  • And can give you more water than you might expect. Depending on your location, you can perhaps expect to see your system fill several times during a season. The system I built here in Los Angeles for instance is a 220 gallon system; during an average winter, I expect that it will get filled three or four times based on the square footage. To see how much water you can collect from a system, click here.

In the near term, I’ll be posting some video on Youtube showcasing the Sugar Shack system and releasing a short e-book on how to build your own rainwater catchment system. For now, enjoy the photos while your party is reached and stay tuned.

Oh, and let it rain, let it rain, let it rain!

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How 500 Toilets Could Change the World

One of permaculture’s 20 or so principles goes something like “Make the smallest change possible for the greatest effect possible.” In a sense it’s taking efficiency to the ultimate degree. It’s like the karate master taking down the boxer by quietly letting the boxer throw a thousand punches and then… wham!

From another direction you could think of it like the overquoted statement “a butterfly flaps its wings in China, and a hurricane occurs in Brazil.” Systems scientists talk about “chaos points,” pivotal convergences or moments whose outcomes can cause the direction of history. I think it was Malcolm Gladwell wrote something interesting about Duke Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 led to World War I, and World War II since that grew out of Germany’s response to the Allies’ punishment for World War I. Ferdinand had been traveling in the American west sometime around the turn of the century. He stopped at a rodeo show and stepped up when one of the performers for a volunteer. She asked him to put an apple on top of his head, and then she shot it off clean with her six-gun. Apparently the story goes, she never missed. But what if she’d missed that one time? We might have had a very different 20th century.

So chaos points are apparently random. None of the people at the rodeo show could have predicted the future. But sometimes we do have foresight. Sometimes we can see the rough outlines of staggering opportunities. Which brings us to the 500 toilets. Haiti is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That’s a story told by economists, who, as far as our government, media, etc., are concerned, might as well be priests. Seeing through their “gross national product growth” model where product and growth and even human livelihood can only be conceived in terms of dollars, Haiti is the poorest country, and it’s pretty much fucked. The debt-load, which to economists is like a physical object, as real and non-negotiable as a tree, a plastic bag, the ocean or a person, is just too great, there is little dollar-generating business or export, 90% of the population doesn’t hold a paying job and without money, you can’t do anything.

The story I experienced on the ground is something more like this: the Haitian people do indeed face incredible hardship. Their institutions are barely functioning, and where they are, they’re propped up by NGO’s that have a lot of problems of their own including the politics that affect any organization, but also well-meaning but one-dimensional goals and a tendency, perhaps to see things in economists’ terms – the biggest complaint is often lack of resources. The streets and waterways of Port-au-Prince are filled with rubble and garbage. There’s the cholera, the depleted soil, and lots of people build their houses and livelihoods out of whatever they can find. The literacy rate is something like 50%… most of us who care to read this far probably know enough of the story that I don’t have to go on. But that’s only half the story – more on that in a minute.

If Haiti is an extreme, Cite Soleil, a district within Port-au-Prince is an extreme within an extreme. It’s an area with about 2,000 residents, cut roughly down the middle by a slow moving river that flows into the floodplain and ocean that borders the area to the west. If history had gone a little differently, Cite might have been a beach resort. Here the garbage shapes the landscape to a whole other level in places, and it’s also mixed with human feces. With only 2 functioning toilets, people just shit in the streets, or in the river, where other people bathe and wash clothes. With no toilet paper, they’ll just use whatever they can find or nothing at all. In Port-au-Prince you often see hungry, feral dogs in the streets, goats, and even the occasional cat. In Cite Soleil, there are also pigs, who wallow in the shit-smeared mud and garbage. To the average American, this just sounds disgusting. Don’t include Cite on the itinerary, and what’s wrong with those people, why don’t they help themselves, maybe they need psychologists to plumb the depths. Enter the chaos point.

For 2,000 people, figure 500 toilets. One toilet for four people, enough that people won’t fight over the bathroom in the morning, or just give up and head for the river. But how would we do this? We’re talking about millions of dollars to retrofit the town, tear up the ground, lay pipe, rehabilitate sewers, import toilets, prepare the water for flushing the toilets with a filtration plant – and that would certainly be millions. This time, we’d bring in safety inspectors so that the buildings don’t collapse the next time there’s an earthquake or a hurricane, and oversight to ensure transparency and nip corruption in the bud, and people to staff the plant and maintain the sewers. Haiti could borrow the money it needs at interest, good news for the global credit system, the Haitian government cajoling and incentivizing farmers to pull more out of depleted soils for export, finding ways to get its urban populace to compete with the Chinese, GNP and tax revenues being shoved upward up to help pay the debt, but it’s never enough. Wait a minute… And where would the Cite sewer go? To the Carribean? Human shit in the ocean, algae blooms killing the coastal ecology, so another treatment plant on the other end. Hold on. We’re talking about a chaos point, a staggering opportunity, not… this.

Another permaculture principle goes something like “pollution is resources out of place.” Matter is a resource, even human shit. There are lots of ways to build a compost toilet, but the simplest is a toilet seat on top of, say a 15-gallon bucket. You sprinkle some organic material, like sugar cane scraps in the bowl when you’re done. At GrassRoots United we used rice hulls, and voila, no smell. When the bucket gets full, you empty it out into a large compost bin, shovel some more organic scraps on top. Dumping can be a bit queasy, but think of the alternative, remember the street and the river? Make sure the bin is covered so that rain doesn’t get into it. The compost gets hot, human pathogens get fried, and wait about six months, at which point you have the kind of black earth gardeners salivate over. You’ve taken water out of the cycle completely. No pipes, no cholera, no algae blooms, no sewage treatment plants, no oversight, no corruption, no jobs for jobs’ sake, no permanent NGO installations, no debt, and readymade soil for the garden, food scraps for the newly clean pigs, who can now become a food source, and food for returning wildlife that will carry biomass, seeds and soil in the form of droppings all over the country. The healthy soil makes healthy gardens, which make more soil, and healthy, self-sufficient people regaining their dignity, hooray for such advanced technology, and hold on we don’t have to stop with Cite Soleil.

Excited Cite residents spread the word about those 500 toilets, the difference they’ve made. Other districts begin building them. A bucket in a box, with a toilet seat, four posts and a tarp… it takes a lot of skill. Haitians with an average 6th grade education could never build them, let alone understand the benefits, wait a minute…. Really? Soil starts coming back in other areas. Within, say a year or two, compost toilets become standard fare in Haiti, embraced by the government, and the benefits are on the ground for all to see. The country begins turning a corner, focusing resources elsewhere, planting in the channels, addressing the mountains of plastic garbage, etc. And the world, even the so-called developed world begins to accept and consider this technology more seriously. “Haiti has virtually eliminated cholera, reforestation is well underway, and the Carribean around Port-au-Prince is becoming clear” the news report goes. Oh yes, the mainstream media is still talking about Haiti’s dollar poverty, but facebook, twitter, and a hundred thousand blogs are getting the word out, and creaky-boned old Uncle Sam just can’t avoid it any longer.

In LA we don’t want to do it with just a bucket and four sticks and a tarp. We want bio-mechanics to do the queasy parts and custom tile floors to boot, but having the best of both worlds just means we’re learning how to really live in style. And by then, the Haitians might have enough resources to lux their toilets just a little, even if they’re broke. The oceans get cleaner, we get more drinkable water, the soil cycle gets completed, we’ve got food on the vine, and we’re all a little freer. The best part about it is those Haitian people, who in the GNP growth paradigm can be nothing but victims, are actually an intelligent and resourceful bunch who are aware of their situation. There are leaders among them who are going to run with the opportunity when they see it and they are already seeing it. While in Haiti I met several Cite locals enrolled in the Love & Haiti / Larry Santoyo permaculture course who, with new knowledge in hand, couldn’t wait to get to work. I’m not sure, but by the time of my writing this, after two weeks back in LA, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they’ve already made connection with the Sustainable Oganic Integrated Lifestyles folks, who are already working on compost toilets in Cite Soleil. It’s amazing that, with their backs against the wall, the Haitian people might just embrace an approach that we in the USA are unwilling to consider, and that it could eventually make them among the most advanced and richest in the world, in an age when “advanced” and “rich” have come to mean something very different. It wouldn’t be the first time in history something like that has happened.

And I really hate to do it, but I think it’s in order, I feel strongly enough about it. I’m not really in a financial position today to be donating a lot to causes, but maybe some of you are and it will make some difference if you can’t make it to Haiti. So here goes – http://oursoil.org/donate. Thanks again & much love.