The Rain Barrel Myth



Go to any of the dozens of websites dealing with rain barrels and you’ll find the same claims. Rain barrels are a great way to get free water for watering plants, to hedge against droughts, and to help protect the environment by reducing stormwater. The claims are made by universities and state and private conservation agencies alike. These 55 – gallon containers are simply set beneath a downspout to capture rain water off your roof. They can be set up in an array to maximize the capture. Most home improvement and gardening stores sell them (usually for over $100 each). Certainly they are a great way to capture free water for your plants, but what about the claim that you are helping the environment by reducing stormwater in your watershed? It turns out that if you do the math, rain barrels do virtually nothing to reduce stormwater.

Let’s take a look at a watershed in the town of Sewanee on the Cumberland Plateau. Here the upper Abbo’s Alley watershed (70 acres) goes into flood stage between 15 and 25 times per year. During these floods stormwater erodes stream banks and causes loss of soil from the watershed. It is known (see previous post – link at bottom) that during storms, about 40% of the rain that falls on this watershed enters the stream directly across the ground surface to become stormwater. Now imagine a 2 inch storm event.

2 inches = 0.167 feet and the 70 acres of the watershed = 3,049,300 square feet

To get the volume of water that falls on the watershed during a 2 inch event, multiply the rain amount by the surface area of the watershed:

(0.167 ft.) X (3,049,300 square ft.) = 509,216 cubic ft., which is the same as 3,809,200 gallons.

40% of 3,809,200 gallons turns into stormwater. This is 1,523,680 gallons.

If there were 60 rain barrels on the watershed (about 2 per house), then (if they were empty at the start of the rain) we could capture 3,300 gallons (60 X 55) of roof water, preventing it from going into the stream.

3,300 gallons divided by 1,523,680 gallons = 0.216%

So, all those rain barrels would only reduce storm flow by 0.216% and the barrels become even less effective for larger rain events.

The main problem with this misconception is that it gives people the false impression that they are reducing stormwater in some significant way and they may therefore be less inclined to support more aggressive stormwater control measures. Why support the construction of a big, ugly detention basin in the watershed when rain barrels can do the job? So sure, use rain barrels for watering plants – they are great for this. But understand that really being able to control and reduce stormwater on the Cumberland Plateau demands a more aggressive approach involving rain gardens, bioswales and detention basins.


Stormwater on the Plateau

The portion of the campus of the University of the South that sits atop the plateau is comprised of more than 50 first-order catchments, ranging in size from 4 to over 61 ha. The vast majority of the streams are intermittent, flowing only during the winter and spring months, and rarely during particularly wet summers and autumns. The few perennial streams, such as Abbo’s Alley, are typically fed year-round by springs. During storms (usually defined by hydrologists as at least 1 inch of rain per hour) soils are quickly saturated and much water flows directly to streams as overland flow, often resulting in a dramatic rise in stream level. In non-urbanized catchments on the plateau, about 20%– 25% of the rain that falls during such a storm enters the stream as overland flow (hydrologists refer to this as the “hydrologic response” of the watershed). This is due primarily to thin (0–5.2 m, 1.2 m average), sandy loams that overlie the relatively impermeable sandstones and conglomerates of the plateau top. As expected, partly urbanized catchments on campus have significantly higher hydrologic responses. Here, impermeable surfaces such as roads, sidewalks, roof tops, and parking lots create increased amounts of overland flow. The upper Abbo’s Alley area is such a catchment, exhibiting a hydrologic response to storm events of ~40%. This is primarily due to the catchment consisting of 20% impermeable surfaces (rooftops, roads, sidewalks, etc.). Additionally, extensive grass surfaces in yards and parks have infiltration rates (10–100 mL/min) that are lower than those of the undisturbed, nearby forest fl oor (250–300 mL/min). Stormwater in urbanized catchments is not directed into the sewer system. Rather, the storm drains that one sees along roadsides and parking lots direct water into the nearest drainage.


Storm drain with marker on Sewanee’s campus.


The diagram above shows storm hydrographs for Abbo’s Alley and Split Creek, a 100% forested, undeveloped catchment of similar size on the campus. These hydrographs were generated during the same rain event (5.9 cm in one hour) in November 2006 and demonstrate the increased hydrologic response of partly urbanized watersheds in the area.   Notice that the Abbo’s Alley stream rises much more dramatically in response to the storm compared to the Split Creek stream.


Abbo’s Alley stream during normal flow (left) and during a storm event (right).

Below is a description of a storm event at Abbo’s Alley from a Sewanee student:

“… At 5:53 the Abbo’s Alley watershed was experiencing a downpour. It began to thunder and lightning, and the stream rose enormously. A fast spike in the water level occurred, then the level fell again before rising to the peak. Between 6:00 and 6:30 a wave of insects washed by clinging to floating brown leaves (last fall’s leaves) and a few dog toys floated down the stream, along with a beer can and several salamanders. Around 6:10 water began to flow over the road about 30 meters closer to the meadow where Hodgson Pond used to be instead of through the culvert. At 6:19 peak flow was attained and the culvert was completely full of water. At 6:38 the rain stopped and the sky began to clear. It was partly cloudy until after sunset when another storm system began to move in and cloud over the sky.”

The increased stormwater flow in urbanized watersheds means they are also characterized by higher degrees of erosion and soil loss compared to their undeveloped counterparts, exhibiting steeper, higher stream banks, undercut stream banks, and exposed roots (see photo below). Plateau catchments often show macropore development along the axis of the stream channel. Here, erosion has created karst-like, sinuous passages in the soil. These macropore systems are discontinuous along the length of the stream channel, and therefore alternately move water above and below ground. In developed watersheds, these macropore systems often become overwhelmed with water during storm events, leading to accelerated lateral and upward erosion. Occasionally, this upward-enhanced erosion breaches the surface of the ground, leaving tree roots suspended across the resulting open channel (see photo below). Such “macropore blowout” structures are the hallmark of increased erosion on developed watersheds on the plateau.


“Macropore blowout” structure behind range pole in stream on an urbanized watershed on the campus of the University of the South. Notice lateral erosion, bank undercutting, and sandstone bedrock stream floor. Range pole divided into 1 foot sections.

Some significant differences in water quality may be detected during storm events between developed and non- developed watersheds. The former are characterized by increased levels of Na, Ca, and Mg. Increased Na is attributed to winter road salting, while Ca and Mg are likely derived from weathering of carbonate road gravels. First- flush sampling on developed watersheds has also indicated the presence of oil and grease (<5 ppm), while non-developed watersheds have remained free of these contaminants. Finally, pH values on developed watersheds range from 7.2 to 7.6, compared to 4.6–5.5 on non-developed counterparts during all flow conditions. This elevation of pH is likely due to the presence of carbonate road gravel and concrete in the developed catchments.

The University of the South has recently taken more aggressive steps in order to minimize the negative effects of increased stormwater flow in urbanized catchments. Prior to 2010, the only evidence of stormwater flow control on campus was limestone rip-rap that was strategically placed to reduce erosion. With the renovation of Snowden Forestry Building in 2010, a large bioswale was constructed to filter roof water from the building. The bioswale is sufficiently large to accept roof water from the new Ayers Hall dormitory, which is currently under construction. A bioswale is a depression that is filled with permeable materials designed to slow and filter water as it passes through.


Bioswale that will accept roof water from Ayers Hall (foreground) and Snowden Hall (near background).

Additionally, several detention basins have been constructed adjacent to parking lots, dorms, and on the University’s golf course. These basins temporarily hold stormwater, permitting sediment to settle out and slowing the water down.


Tiered detention basins adjacent to student parking lot.

Watershed Sciences at Sewanee


One of the best ways to learn about water on the Cumberland Plateau is by completing the Watershed Sciences Certificate. A certificate is like a minor, but also includes a capstone experience.

The following is a description of the certificate as found in the catalogue of the University of the South:

Watershed Science Certificate

The Watershed Science Certificate is designed for students interested in gaining a better understanding of the interactions among the physical, chemical, and biological factors that affect our watersheds and wetlands. Students pursuing the certificate take a range of courses that focus on water resources and watershed science. In addition to hydrology, students take at least one half-course in applied watershed science, and choose additional watershed science courses from a list that contains offerings in a variety of disciplines, including biology, chemistry, forestry, geology, and environmental studies. Each student completes the Certificate with the Watershed Science Capstone course, a multidisciplinary, project oriented course in which students address issues related to two or more of the following topic areas: the interaction of biological processes and watershed function, chemical processes in streams and watersheds, the relationship between forested landscapes and hydrologic systems, or geological processes in terrestrial aquatic systems. The capstone project may be a semester project created solely for the capstone, or may begin as a watershed-related summer internship project that is further developed by the student during an academic semester.

Students who obtain the Certificate will be better prepared to pursue graduate training in watershed science and other hydrologic disciplines, or to begin careers associated with watershed science and management.

Students deciding to pursue the certificate should contact one of the faculty members of the Watershed Certificate Organizing Committee to develop his or her study plan. The Organizing Committee is also available to help a student identify his or her area of emphasis and primary faculty supervisor for the ESci 430 Watershed Science Capstone; together the student and primary supervisor identify the second discipline and arrange to work with a faculty member in that area.

Watershed Certificate Organizing Committee
Professor Knoll, Forestry and Geology
Associate Professor McGrath, Biology
Assistant Professor White, Chemistry
Five-and-a-half courses required (these courses cannot be used to fulfill any degree requirements in the student’s major or minor).

Core Watershed Science courses required (10 semester hours)
Geol 314 / Fors 314: Hydrology
Either Geol 315: Watershed Contaminant Hydrology (half course, 2 hours) or Fors 260: Forest Watershed Measurements (half course, 2 hours)
ESci 430: Watershed Science Capstone
Additional Watershed Science coursework required (12 semester hours from the following)
Fors 262: Forest and Watershed Restoration
Fors 270: Water Resource Policy and Law
Fors 303 / Geol 303: Soils
Fors 305: Forest Ecology
Either Chem 211 (Environmental Analysis) or Chem 411 (Geochemistry of Natural Waters)
Biol 210: Ecology
Biol 235: Freshwater Conservation
Biol 237: Freshwater Biology
EnSt 217: Fundamentals of GIS or other GIS course, (half or full course, 2 or 4 hours)
EnSt 240: Island Ecology (summer program; only 4 hours count toward the Certificate)
EnSt 310: Comparative Watershed Studies (half course, 2 hours)
EnSt 311: Comparative Watershed Studies Field Course (summer; half course, 2 hours)
EnSt 317: Advanced Applications of GIS