We'll unravel the mystery of how capturing rainwater sustains and conserves at the same time, with special guests farmer Tim Miller of Millberg Farm in Kyle, Texas, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Green Team members Annalise Reichert and Christy Seals.
Under the Texas Sky: S2:E7: Rainwater Collection
Sustainability. It's a discipline we don't always think about.
[AMBIENT BIRDS SINGING]
Unless you're conscious about the possibility of depleting your resources.
And we should be conscious about that possibility. With a worldwide population approaching nearly 8 billion people, the demand on our natural resources has increased dramatically since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
One natural resource we often take for granted is water. Fresh water to be exact. Fresh water is what humans and wildlife need to survive. You may be thinking, why worry about water? It's everywhere isn't it? Well that's true. But you might not know that ninety-seven percent of the water on earth is salt water that makes up the oceans. Only about two and a half percent is fresh water, and eighty percent of that water is frozen in the polar ice caps leaving only a fraction of a percent left for animals and us.
No matter where you live in this world, and certainly if you live in Texas, you've heard messages about conserving water. It's a way of life now as increased demand from an ever-expanding population puts more strain on the state's most precious natural resource.
Over the last few decades, many Texans have heard and answered the calls for water conservation.... by catching water from the sky.
[DROPLETS OF RAIN]
Today’s podcast is about harvesting rainwater. We'll unravel the mystery of how capturing the rain both sustains and conserves at the same time. Stay with us.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
Today we visit with Tim Miller of Millberg Farm in Kyle, Texas. Tim sustains all of his gardens with the rainwater he collects at his farm. We'll also visit with members from Texas Parks and Wildlife's Green Team to learn why rainwater harvesting is becoming more visible in State Parks and Wildlife Management Areas. Our first stop on this rainwater journey is Millberg Farm.
[TIM] I would say I'm a minimalist with water. No question about it.
That's Tim Miller, a harvester of the land and sky. He's a certified organic grower who operates a community supported agriculture program on his 5 acre Millberg Farm in Kyle, Texas. Tim has a long history of growing heirloom vegetables and fruit in central Texas. But he first got his hands in dirt at the age of 8 in his family's backyard garden in Menasha, Wisconsin.
[TIM] Then that became my personal garden, when I was probably around 12 years old. No one was allowed to take anything from my garden even though it was our family's garden.
You might say Tim's family roots run deep when it comes to working with the earth. His freshman year of high school he began working at the Mahler Estate in nearby Neenah, Wisconsin, following in the footsteps of three family generations before him.
[TIM] My dad worked there when he was in high school. My grandpa worked there when he was in high school and my great grandfather worked there his entire life as the head gardener.
By his senior year in high school Tim, like his great grandfather, would become the Estate's head gardener. It was here that Tim would begin utilizing the design principals of Permaculture. But there was another unique aspect of the Mahler Estate that would make a life-long impression on Tim.
14 [04—TIM—26] The Mahler Estate had a huge lawn, fruit trees, vegetables, big huge rose garden. It was in itself an early concept of what we consider permaculture farm. Mr. Mahler worked for Kimberly-Clark Corporation and Kimberly-Clark Corporation was the first corporate America business that started a community garden site for the employees. So, I had that...oh look at how nice these two entities are working about making that change on gardening for people who are working on a regular basis...
The seed of community gardening was planted and after moving to Texas in 1984, Tim was employed at Austin Community Gardens for 9 years. He built gardens around the city for senior citizens and shared his knowledge with children at several school gardens. Soon Tim found himself coming full circle when he and his wife decided to start a farm. Specifically, a master planned certified organic permaculture farm. His goal... to provide food for his family and sell the additional produce to his community. But there was one unique difference in the way Tim would operate his farm.
[TIM] I set forth, because I was knowledgeable, I was never going to pump water from the aquifer to raise my profit. Alright, many obstacles along that way. All the extension personnel said you can't do it. No one's ever done it. You can't raise fruits and vegetables without irrigation. I'm thirty years in and now this year is better than last year's growing season. Each season has progressed better.
So how did Tim do what the extension agents said he couldn't? He started harvesting a different crop. Not from the ground, but from the sky.
[TIM] I utilize only saved rainwater for all my cropping. And that also entails growing edible nursery stock material as well. So I have a lot of mobile rainwater collection roofs that are small in stature, mainly because of my vegetable cropping is scattered amongst 30 different growing beds. Most of that water is being utilized into peppers, tomatoes, some squashes, some cucumbers. I don't use drip irrigation so I hand-water everything on 5 acres.
Across his property Tim has designed the land with swales, terraces, small ponds and check dams to help retain water longer after rains. He's also constructed several shed roof structures to collect rainwater, all out of recycled and donated materials. But his barn roof collects the majority of his rainwater which is stored inside a very special birthday gift Tim received from a friend.
[TIM] He came out here in 2011 and saw my farm flourishing in the worst drought of recorded history. And he thought so highly of my farm that he said, hop in, and drove me to Tractor Supply and bought me a 3500 gallon water tank for my birthday. And I just loved it, and that really upped my ante other than saving water in barrels.
[WATER IN BARREL]
Tim still uses the barrels, only now he's able to fill them with rainwater from the larger tank.
[TIM] It's just a hose clipped on to my barrel. And every time I go out into the field like now, I don't go into my field empty handed. So I gotta go, walk out this way and I'm carrying four gallons of water for my distribution of rainwater. So those are just old Gatorade bottles. I don't use milk jugs. Water bottles that come in gallon size are the bottles that I typically utilize.
[SFX—WALKING IN GRASS]
With 140 fruit trees and 30 different varieties of vegetables, you can imagine Tim gets a lot of exercise hand-watering his gardens. And he's learned how to be very efficient along the way. He only uses about 5000 gallons of rainwater per growing season, which for Tim runs from October to July, and sometimes until August.
[TIM] Rainwater for me, it's a very efficient way to water my crops. I can't imagine there's another grower out there more efficient than what I'm doin' now other than someone who does a hydroponic system where they're growing in water, you know. So, expanding out on that concept of people saving rainwater, you know there's a good group of people that are up and becoming and getting more expansive into Central Texas and that's permaculture farmer. Designing their land around that permaculture concept. That in itself is so important. That's holding that water onto those properties if they've designed it in an appropriate way to save that water instead of the runoff that is naturally seen in communities all around the area.
Tim Miller has become one with the land. A conservationist and farmer who has learned to use all of the natural resources for the betterment of his land, his family and community. To help protect his gardens from rabbits and mice, Tim has built tall perches for hawks to oversee his gardens. Patches of sunflowers provide food for wildlife, and special fencing protects his most vulnerable vegetables from the area deer, some of which provide food for Tim's family.
[TIM] I'm a hunter as well, I like to harvest one to three deer here at the property, and I've set up a real nice little spot that I think now the deer over the past 30 years, the deer all know that if they step in this little zone, they know someone might get harvested. They have come to recognize that, acknowledge it, that's fine, it's nice to know family units of deer. Which one is maybe a little undernourished, which one is an older deer, and to harvest out one of those deer than just haphazardly just shooting any deer that comes along. It's one way for me as an area landowner to keep the deer population somewhat in check.
Tim's water conservation efforts have not gone unnoticed. He's been recognized with awards from the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, as well as the Blue Legacy Award from the State's Water Conservation Advisory Council as an agriculture producer. Tim's influence has reached many people, but perhaps no one more personal than his own son Tarrent who documented his father's environmental conservation for a school project. He wrote that living on a farm allowed him to learn things about the environment his peers might take for granted. And he also knows money does come from trees; you just have to water them.
[TIM] I think moving down here to Texas and seeing how all state agencies all advocated rainwater collection, there was some great motivation factor on that aspect and rainwater collection was just starting to get back into play here with landowners and homeowners. You know, it took a little time, ‘91 when we bought our first farm. Then at that point, then I had that opportunity to save water.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
Harvesting rainwater is nothing new. In fact, archaeological evidence of water storage and supply systems have been documented as far back as 2000 B.C. in the Middle East, India and China. In North America both settlers and natives collected rainwater and in certain areas it was essential to survive. But as civilizations progressed and countries became more developed, cities and towns built centralized water utilities that treated the water. Today a majority of those utilities rely on water from nearby reservoirs, rivers, lakes and underground aquifers.
Collecting rainwater has traditionally been viewed as something farmers and ranchers do. But over the last few decades, rainwater collection has made somewhat of a residential comeback. Advances in water treatment technology and a heightened awareness for water conservation have convinced many Texans to harvest rainwater for their homes.
Naturally people who harvest rainwater become more conscious about conserving water. This is a good thing because the idea of conservation begins to permeate other aspects of life and our interaction with the natural world around us.
[MUS—CYCLES OF LIFE]
Continuing our rainwater journey, we visit with two members of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Green Team. Annalise Reichert [ANA-LEASE RYE-KURT] is a Sustainability Program Specialist in the Support Resources Division, and Christy Seals is a registered architect and the Design Program Manager for the agency's Infrastructure Division. The Green Team's mission is to help Texas Parks and Wildlife improve its environmental sustainability efforts. A key part of that process is meeting goals set forth in a sustainability plan that focuses on energy efficiency, water conservation, waste mitigation and recycling. Part of the water conservation goal? To install 10 rainwater catchment systems by year 2020. But how does the agency determine where to put them? Here's Annalise.
[ANNALISE] We're doing that through a variety of ways. One way is we have developed a sustainability checklist for our design team. So, anytime we are building new facilities at any of our sites throughout the state, one area we like to look at is rainwater catchment. The design team will determine is it possible to install rainwater catchment at our facilities.
And Christy says that getting to that determination depends on how the project's sustainability goals fit the actual environment.
[CHRISTY] Annalise mentioned the sustainability checklist. So, this involves more than just water conservation. It involves sustainable measures in general. And part of what we're doing with any new capital project, whether it be new construction or renovation is aligning the sustainable goals of the project with the realities of the project site. Rainfall information. You know, in sites that don't get a lot of rainfall, does rainwater catchment make more sense or less sense? In areas where we're building a lot of new roof area and there is a lot of rainfall, then all of sudden rainwater collection might make more sense because water is available and you are building enough roof area to capture it. You're not just thinking about the roof and tanks either. You might be thinking about runoff and erosion control.
[CEDAR HILL RAIN]
Case in point, torrential rains caused erosion and flooding in Cedar Hill State Park near Dallas. Joe Pool Lake, which borders the park, rose nearly 13 feet and left some areas of the park underwater for 90 days. Christy explains why rainwater collection is integrated in the design of new structures at the park.
[CHRISTY] We're doing a big project at Cedar Hill State Park right now that's in response to the flood damages from 2015. So in that case we're building new restrooms and we're creating new roof area in a place where flooding and erosion control is already an issue. So the more we can mitigate water runoff from a building to not exacerbate an already erosive condition the better, so in that case we're not capturing the rainwater to use it for anything, we're holding it in rain gardens and infiltration basins so that it doesn't run down hills and create more erosion.
For several years Texas Parks and Wildlife has installed rainwater collection systems at Wildlife Management Areas. They call them Guzzlers, and in places like the arid mountains of West Texas, they provide a valuable resource for sustaining animals like Big Horn Sheep.
Back in East Texas, rainwater collection system at Mission Tejas State Park not only serves onsite facilities, it also aids in the educational outreach for conservation. Once again, here's Christy.
[CHRISTY] In a headquarters situation you look at not only the use of the water but the interpretation of that, because that's your first stop for visitors to learn about the park and learn about all sorts of things that the park is doing. So at Mission Tejas, if we did rainwater catchment for toilet flushing, could we eliminate the need to upsize our water service. Ideally that reduces their operational costs of water use because they're using an alternate source for flushing the toilets. Then visitors see these rainwater tanks and read about the fact that Mission Tejas gets 45 inches to 50 inches of rainwater a year. That equals on this size of a roof this many gallons of rainwater collected. We flush the toilet this many times a year, so we've offset that water use by this rainwater. And you have this kind of cycle of understanding of I see the tank. I can kind of visualize how much water is in there. I flush the toilet. I understand the water's coming from that tank. I go home, look at my roof, think, hmm. I have a toilet, I could collect rainwater. Not all municipalities let you use your rainwater for flushing toilets, but it just puts in the mind here's something I can do at home. Whether it be for watering my yard or giving my birds a birdbath or having vegetables in the backyard.
Educating park visitors about the importance of water conservation has a ripple effect. That's what green team is counting on in the big picture. The agency has improved its sustainability with rainwater collection and Annalise says that work will continue.
[ANNALISE & CHRISTY]
[ANNALISE] We are currently in the process of revising our sustainability plan to have some more aggressive goals around rainwater catchment. Initially we had a goal of installing about 10 rainwater catchment systems in our state parks and facilities. We've already far exceeded that goal; we have about 30 different facilities who have some type of rainwater catchment system installed. Anywhere from a fire suppression system to toilet flushing to simply an educational component for the park.
[CHRISTY] And this is Christy. Another important piece is broadening our understanding of sustainability to include resiliency as we see parks getting flooded, wildfires, hurricane. Thinking about our utilities and how they can be more resilient. Water utility and wastewater utility and how we can have a diversity of solutions for those types of utilities. Again, rainwater catchment, water conservation, water reuse needs to be part of that conversation.
Becoming resilient in our sustainability is no longer a concept but a necessity. As we work to protect and preserve our natural resources, we must also improve our ability to bounce back when mother nature changes our world. Maybe collecting rainwater can be part of your outdoor effort to become more sustainable and resilient.
What do you love about the Texas outdoors; what have you experienced that you’d like to share with the world? Tell us with your own Shout Out to the Wild. Just go to underthetexassky.org and click on the Get Involved link. We’ll be in touch.
[MUS—TO ORBIT YOUR SOUL]
And so, we come to the end of another podcast. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife and is available at UndertheTexasSky.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks to producer Randall Maxwell for his work on the podcast.
We record the podcast at The Block House in Austin, Texas. Joel Block does our sound design.
We receive distribution and web help from Susan Griswold and Benjamin Kailing.
I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti, reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.
[SFX—RAIN AND THUNDER]
Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.
[TIM MILLER] Rainwater for me, is a very efficient way to water my crops.