Harvesting Rainwater and Snowmelt

By Lee Bellinger / November 12, 2013

By 2025, analysts predict two-thirds of all countries will be handicapped by water stress. The situation is especially dire in China, which has its sights set on importing water from North America.

Even if you’re on a private well, learning these techniques can give you critical skills for establishing a back-up supply.

Harvesting Rainwater and Snowmelt Is Simple and Effective…

Harvesting rainwater is sustainable and provides many rural communities around the world with both domestic and potable water. It’s also something that’s been practiced for over 4,000 years. Establishing a rain (or snow) water harvesting system can improve your self-reliance in good times and bad. It’s also a great way to cut costs and in most cases it is more affordable than drilling or digging a well.

With water shortages around world and a depreciating dollar, knowing how to harvest your own water may prove to be a prudent long-term investment. And in a true crisis, a gallon jug of clean water will prove to be a fantastic barter item.

One warning: Some areas have weird laws about who “owns” the rain and snowmelt, Colorado and Oregon are two great examples. In Oregon, for instance, state law says all water belongs to the government, and if you want “to divert or store it, you have to acquire a ‘water right’ from the state,” says Oregon Water Resources Department administrator Tom Paul. An Oregon man, Gary Harrington, was accused of diverting and storing tributary water into manmade ponds on his 175-acre property. Harrington argued the ponds were only catching and storing the rainwater and snowmelt that fell on his land. He lost the argument and spent 30 days in jail. Check your local area for ordinances and avoid nasty surprises.

Use commonsense and don’t go overboard; there are plenty of ways to collect and store water without excavating, building dams, or otherwise drawing undue attention to yourself. The good news is, many municipalities encourage rainwater harvesting and even offer rebates. You can search for available rebates online by using the term – rain harvesting rebates – and your area. Otherwise, you can easily find the equipment you need online or at your local hardware or department store.

A Basic Rain Harvesting System That Works!

rainwater collection A basic system is a relatively easy and quick way to get started. The main idea is to catch the rain as it runs off your roof and guide it into a container.

Do not use water collected from a roof for human consumption unless you’ve sanitized it, but feel free to use it for watering your roses, your survival vegetable garden, and your fruit trees.

On a 1,000 square feet roof, a rudimentary collection system can yield about 623 gallons of water from 1 inch of rain. With this basic system and following proper water conservation methods (i.e. fixing leaks, drip irrigation, etc.), you could have enough water for your garden, washing your car, water for animals, and more.

At minimum you’ll need:

  • A sloped roof;
  • Rain gutters;
  • Downspout;
  • A filter to keep out or minimize debris such as leaves from clogging your system;
  • A container for the water, like a trash can or barrel (rainwater barrels run about $100 retail, but savvy preppers know how to look for discarded food barrels for a few bucks or even for free);
  • Secure container cover or screen so mosquitoes don’t breed in the water;
  • And a method to get the water in the container to where you need it. A pail, a hand or mechanical pump, or simply a gravity-fed hose.

Can You Drink Rain Water? Yes, But…

If you want to use your rainwater for drinking and cooking (and brushing your teeth), you’ll want to add a few important steps to your system or hire an expert to do it for you. As you can guess, these steps involve better filtration and purification so it’s safe to drink. In addition to the steps above, many who use rainwater for drinking also utilize:

  • A Pre-Wash. The idea behind this step is to divert the first few gallons of rain water that washes off the roof containing bird droppings, chemical residue from pollution, sediment, etc., away from entering your water container;
  • Ceramic and Carbon Filters. High quality filters can remove inorganic chemicals and many biological dangers. Read the manufacturer’s labels for details;
  • Purification. These methods include reverse osmosis and/or Ultra Violet (UV) light to make certain even the smallest biological threats, like viruses, are dealt with.

Some Portable or On-the-Go Ideas You Can Use in a Pinch…

Even if you’re not planning on using your rainwater for drinking or if your electricity goes down and your home water filtration system, such as the UV light and reverse osmosis, gets knocked offline, you may want to have a few back-ups ready:

  • Take the extra steps to keep your rain catchment system clear of debris and sediment, and protected from mosquito infestation. Even if you only plan to use the water in your garden, this will save you a few important steps if you run into a situation where you need the water for survival.
  • It may be handy to own one or more hand-held water purifiers, like the Katadyn, which is often sold for camping. You can also find gravity fed counter-top versions, such as the Big Berkey, that can purify gallons of water without physical effort. Read the manufacturer’s labels for effectiveness information.
  • Boiling water can help kill many biological dangers, but may not help with all chemical or radiological pollutants. You might consider using a solar oven to boil water and save on energy and fuel.
  • Distilling water and chemical treatment is proven effective for purifying water. Our Ultimate Self-Reliance Mega Manual offers detailed instructions for different methods to distill water and even how to use chlorine, iodine, or colloidal silver to treat water for drinking.

Installing a basic rainwater and snowmelt harvesting system is a wise and inexpensive investment for the future.

For a more advanced solution, consider installing a cistern, either underground or in your basement. Even a home sprinkler system designed for fire safety can serve double duty as a backup drinking water supply. Fire departments also use cisterns for water storage in areas that do not have public water lines or access to a fire pond.

An easier and cheaper option if you live in or near a rural area is to strike up a close relationship with a nearby farmer. Farms tend to have advanced and/or redundant water supply installations.

Being able to barter your goods and services with a farmer could help you secure access to enough water to take care of your household should the need arise. And if you ever consider buying a rural property as a bug-out location or for your retirement, take a look at farms; they are nearly always built on land that has proven water supplies. The landscape in many areas is dotted with old dairy farms or poultry farms that have seen better days; the cows and chickens may be gone, but it’s a pretty good bet there’s still a reliable water source on site.

If water conditions worsen, the cost of the equipment and hiring experts would only go up. This is certainly something to look into sooner rather than later.