Have you noticed lately that things have started running dry? If you’re an irrigation or landscape contractor living and working in one of the current drought states—California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and many others—as the skies have dried up, so has your cash flow.

Severe drought has forced many of your customers to make sacrifices. Facing higher water rates, draconian watering restrictions and/or steep fines for violating them, many have allowed their lawns to die. Encouraged by rebate programs, some have removed their lawns entirely, But brown is not the color of money. So what’s the answer? Close up your business until the rain starts falling again?

For most, that’s not an option. Nor is it safe to assume that once the drought lifts, things will go back to business-as-usual. Many home and business owners have made significant changes to their landscapes.

You may have to look at other options to replace the revenue you’ve lost.

There are alternatives to closing your doors. One of them is taking a hard look at graywater recycling and rainwater harvesting. Learning to install and maintain these systems could be the answer you’ve been looking for.

Rainwater was the answer for Mark Ragel. He spent 40 years designing and building recreational swimming pools, until the recession of 2008 hit. As the economic climate darkened and second-mortgage money became scarce, he began looking into rainwater harvesting. Now he’s the owner and founder of Water Harvesting International in Tucson, Arizona.

“I began to research it when I built my home in 1999. I couldn’t find an economical storage tank for my property, at least a 15,000-gallon-capacity one. I designed an economical, below-ground storage cistern that’s constructed similarly to how shotcrete swimming pools are built.”

In 2008, Ragel had more than 300 employees. Even though the swimming-pool business had dried up, the larger water-harvesting systems still required crews to excavate, install piping and build the steel-reinforced, below-grade shotcrete structures. “I was able to use all of my in-house tradespeople to install the first two 10,000-gallon systems in 2009.”

In 2010, he sold his interest in the pool company and focused strictly on water-harvesting systems. At first, Ragel designed and installed both graywater and rainwater systems. Now, he specializes in rainwater-recapture systems with 10,000- to 40,000-gallon capacities.

He’s found a market with rural property owners on private wells. In outlying areas of the Tucson valley, some wells are not performing adequately and some are going dry, due to the drop of the local aquifers.

“Rather than drilling a new, deeper well—which could dry up in another five years—we show them that they can turn their homes completely over to rainwater, and eliminate the need for a deeper well,” said Ragel. “Those are the clients I’m looking for; that’s my niche market.”

For example, one of his current customers has a new home under construction. To extend the city water line out to her property would cost $30,000, in addition to monthly bills forever. Drilling a well and installing a pump and electrical system would cost $40,000 to $50,000, plus ongoing maintenance expenses.

Instead, he was able to show her a 10,000-gallon below-ground rainwater-harvesting system that would meet her needs, as well as those of her husband and their small garden, that would cost between $35,000 and $40,000. It also provides 100 percent of their drinking water.

Graywater was also the answer for Leigh Jerrard. He started out as a licensed structural architect, practicing until 2008, when, “I got laid off. I had to start looking around for another thing.”

Giving baths to his young son in the new house he’d just bought, he found himself “maddened by having to let 50 gallons of bathwater go down the drain, and using drinking water to irrigate plants.”

“I took a workshop from Laura Allen at Greywater Action, and started putting out postcards saying that I’ll do graywater installations. The phone started ringing.” And it hasn’t stopped since. The last two years have been the biggest yet for his Los Angeles-based Greywater Corps, LLC.

Drought has made business brisker for Jeremiah Kidd. He owns Santa Fe, New Mexico-based San Isidro Permaculture and Regenerative Design. Besides being a landscape contractor, he designs and builds rainwater and graywater systems.

His bottom line is helped by the fact that Santa Fe’s municipal water is amongst the most expensive in the country. That drives residents to think about their water use. As a result, “we’re currently very busy,” Kidd says.

Busy, too, are rainwater and graywater contractors in California.

Many that we contacted for the story told us they didn’t have time to be interviewed, as they have more work than they can handle.

Business is booming for Remy Sabiani. He owns the Water Wise Group in Templeton, California, offering an inexpensive graywater system. Two-thirds of his buyers are green industry or plumbing professionals, who install the units. “Last year was a very big year, and this year is even bigger,” he says.

Lincoln Perino can relate to what the California contractors are going through. As owner and president of Tucson-based Ethos Rainwater Harvesting and Erosion Control, LLC, he’s been doing a land-office business since he opened his doors in 2012, installing and designing rainwater and graywater systems. He also does water-smart irrigation and landscape design.

Obviously, there’s a big market out there, just waiting to be served. And there are rainwater and graywater systems for all types of customers, at a broad range of price points, from simple ones costing a few hundred dollars on up to complex installations that can run $10,000 or more.

Active and passive rainwater harvesting

There are two main types of rain water harvesting systems, ‘active,’ and ‘passive.’ Active systems use storage tanks, passive systems don’t. Active systems have several parts: catchment areas, collection points, a conveyance system, a means of storage and outflow.

Catchment areas are the impermeable surfaces where rainwater or snowmelt runs off, usually roofs. Collection points are the gutters, downspouts and the basins below downspouts. Those are the links between the catchment areas and the buried PVC pipe, the conveyance system that takes the water to the storage unit(s). That consists of above-ground barrels, buried cisterns or bladders.

From there, the water flows out to the sprinkler or drip system, either via gravity or with the help of a pump. Filtration is also needed at some point, to keep sprinkler heads and drip emitters from clogging with debris.

In passive rainwater harvesting, a site’s topography is manipulated to direct, capture and infiltrate stormwater by digging out ponding areas and creating berms, swales and rain gardens; this is referred to as ‘earthworks.’ Plantings are done in depressions in the ground, rather than in raised beds. “We grade sites so that water drains to the planting areas, instead of toward the storm drains,” says Kidd. “We intentionally design into the landscape ways to hold on to all of the rainwater, instead of having water drain away, off the site, which is the traditional way of doing it.”

He says that irrigating in this way can even change a site’s microclimate, taking it from a high-desert situation to a lush oasis, without using one drop of extra municipal water.

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