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Drop in the Bucket

At CALS’ O.J. Noer turfgrass research facility, Doug Soldat is saving up for a not-so-rainy day.

With the help of graduate student Brad DeBels BS’07, Soldat, a professor of soil science, built two huge tanks to collect stormwater from the facility’s 7,000-square-foot roof and divert it into the soil—a concept similar to the rain barrels that many homeowners use, but on a massive scale. While consumer-grade rain barrels typically hold 50 gallons and can overflow quickly in heavy storms, Soldat’s tanks each capture 4,000 gallons of water, which trickles back into the soil through underground lines.

“In a three-month period we collected 19,000 gallons off the roof at the Noer center and sent it all to the turf—3,150 square feet of lawn,” Soldat says. “We were able to use and infiltrate all of the rain that that fell on the center’s rooftop.”

Systems like this could make a dent in the amount of water pumped from wells and surface waters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about a third of the water piped to a typical household is used outdoors, and half of that goes to water lawns and gardens.

But Soldat sees it as more than a way to water the lawn without turning on the tap. It’s also a tool for infiltrating more stormwater, preventing runoff that floods and contaminates surface waters, and recharging rapidly depleting groundwater. “In one of our (plots), we put on three-and-a-half inches of water in four hours without any ponding because all of the water leached through the soil,” says DeBels. “If you did that with overhead irrigation, you would be putting it on faster than soil could infiltrate. Your lawn would be a muddy mess.