Fairfax County Rain Barrel Workshops

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, Spring 2007)

This spring, for the first time, low-cost build-your-own rain barrel workshops were offered in Northern Virginia! Rain barrels are containers that can be attached to downspouts to collect rooftop runoff. A spigot on the barrel can be attached to a standard garden hose so that conserved water can later be used around the house in gardens, birdbaths or for household chores.

In addition to conserving water, rain barrels also help improve the quality of our water by slowing the flow of stormwater, or the water that runs off of pavement and rooftops when it rains. Stormwater is the leading source of pollution in our local streams and the Chesapeake Bay. Stormwater picks up pollutants as it flows across our paved surfaces. The fast-moving water also causes erosion in our streams.

By storing and retaining stormwater, rain barrels limit pollution-laden stormwater flows and the stream erosion that contributes to sediment and nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Two rain barrels are linked together to collect rooftop runoffAlthough each rain barrel captures only a portion of the water that runs off the typical rooftop during a storm event, they can be linked together to capture more water. And the cumulative benefit of many rain barrels throughout a region can also be significant. (Cisterns, which are larger and often require professional installation, also can store stormwater for re-use.)

The build-your-own rain barrel workshops in Fairfax County and the surrounding jurisdictions this spring were modeled after a program developed by Clean Virginia Waterways (CVW). CVW is a Farmville-based non-profit associated with Longwood University. Under the leadership of executive director Katie Register, CVW and its partners have been hosting rain barrel building workshops in central Virginia since 2004.

Katie started the rain barrel program after she and her husband built one for their home and realized other people would benefit from what they had learned. “I started teaching rain barrel workshops as a concerned citizen, but quickly realized the program was a natural fit for Clean Virginia Waterways. Every workshop we’ve had has been sold out. People are interested in water conservation and protecting water resources. They want to be proactive.”

This spring a grant through the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, the fund established and maintained by Chesapeake Bay license plate fees, enabled Katie to develop a rain barrel building “train-the-trainer” curriculum. She started taking her model for rain barrel building workshops to other communities throughout the state.

Rain barrel workshop trainers build practice rain barrelsIn March, NVSWCD worked with Arlington County and the non-profit Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment to bring Katie to Northern Virginia. Katie led two rain barrel building workshop train-the-trainer sessions for environmental professionals, agency staff, and citizen volunteers from Northern Virginia. The response to these workshops was overwhelming!

Arlington County hosted the first Northern Virginia-based rain barrel building workshops in late April. Additional workshops, including seven in Fairfax County and one in the City of Alexandria followed over the next several months. At the workshops, attendees converted 50-gallon black plastic pickle barrels donated by the Mount Olive Pickle Company in North Carolina into rain barrels.

By the end of the 2 ½ hour workshops, each participant had learned about the environmental benefits of rain barrels, had constructed their own rain barrel to take home, and knew how to install and maintain it. A materials fee of $35 per barrel was charged to cover shipping costs, tools, and parts for the rain barrels, still much less than the approximately $100 charged per rain barrel by retailers.

“This is such an exciting program and one that has been overdue in coming to Northern Virginia,” enthuses Kevin Munroe, the director of the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia’s Audubon at Home program and a participant in Katie’s March training. “The citizens I work with want to make their landscapes more environmentally-friendly and have been asking for low-cost rain barrels.” The Audubon Society of Northern Virginia is one of several organizations and agencies partnering with the district and the Arlington County organizations to make the Northern Virginia rain barrel building initiative successful.

The Fairfax County Public Schools are another important partner. They hosted a free workshop for teachers as well as several workshops for the public at their facilities, and stored and transported the rain barrels to each Fairfax County workshop site. The Fairfax County Park Authority, local Master Gardeners, Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, the Reston Association and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church also were involved providing facilities, staff or volunteers for programs.

“It has been very helpful to be able to learn from Clean Virginia Waterways’ experience and have Katie as a resource,” confirms Aileen Winquist with Arlington County. “Without her model, we might not have been able to tackle what is a much needed and very valuable program.”

Learn more about the Northern Virginia Rain Barrel Program or Register for an Upcoming Workshop!

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