Is your home ready for El Niño?

Some Santa Cruz residents are planning to utilize heavy rainfall conditions to conserve water and reduce their dependence on the city

By Joel Hersch 

Rainwater catchment expert Golden Love explains how a home cistern works. Pictured at Ron and Molly Sinoway's backyard on the lower Westside.

Rainwater catchment expert Golden Love explains how a home cistern works. Pictured at Ron and Molly Sinoway’s backyard on the lower Westside.

For the City of Santa Cruz and the surrounding communities, longterm water storage has proven itself to be exceptionally problematic. With an annual demand of about 2.8 billion gallons, after successful conservation efforts, and a storage capacity of approximately the same amount at the Loch Lomond Reservoir— the city’s main water-storage method—multiple drought years could leave us high, dry, and thirsty.

While the large-scale demand weighed against storage capacity may be cut a little too close for comfort, there are ways that homeowners are taking water security into their own hands, reducing their dependence on the water department, and preparing to harness the exceptionally rainy weather conditions predicted with this winter’s El Niño storms.

Couple Ron and Molly Sinoway, who moved recently to Santa Cruz’s lower Westside from Humboldt County, decided to install a 1,500 gallon cistern in their backyard to collect rainwater, which they will use for a variety of home necessities, including irrigating fruit trees.

“With the drought, we wanted to be able to catch and store more water, and keep growing food,” says Ron Sinoway. “We did a lot of that back in Humboldt.”

The Sinoways’ new cistern collects all of the water flow off of their roof through multiple downspouts, some of which direct flow back into their land, instead of onto the streets.

The whole system was designed and installed by local landscaper and water catchment expert Golden Love, who says the number of people installing rainwater catchment barrels and cisterns has been increasing.

“Due to the drought, it’s becoming more common,” Golden says. “People are trying new ways to conserve more water because of the water restrictions.”


Big rains on the horizon 

With heavy El Niño conditions expected to hit this winter, rainfall could increase by 75 percent, from a typical, none-drought year’s 31 inches up to 55 inches, all in the course of several months. Golden Love calculated that Sinoway’s cistern, with pipes feeding runoff from their 1,000 square-foot-roof, he could catch up to 15,400 gallons of water annually with just 28 inches of rain.

“With the 1,500 gallon cistern, they could fill this tank up 10 times in a year,” Love says.

With more residents installing home cisterns, and the prediction of heavy rain condensed into such a short timeframe, Love says that he and other installers are using larger downspout piping to handle the potential surge in water flow. Instead of 2 inch pipe, they are upgrading to 3 inch to handle more volume.

During the interview, Love received a call from another homeowner in the Soquel hills asking for information about a 10,800 gallon cistern. That individual, Love explains, was in the process of drilling a second well on his property and had to dig to 800 feet to access the aquifer, which is deeper than ever before.

“Over-pumping aquifers has become a big problem in our area,” Love says.

The City of Santa Cruz is currently researching the viability of injecting water into the depleted aquifers during the wet season and tapping the source during a drought—a system known as conjunctive use. Learn more about the initiative here.


Cisterns are not cheap 

The biggest barrier to installing a cistern for most people is cost, Love says. The price on Sinoway’s was $3,700, including the downspouts, installing the proper filters, and all of the other equipment, he says.

The Soquel Creek Water District has the best rebate offers for cisterns—up to $750, Love says.

According to Sherry Bryan, a senior program specialist at Ecology Action and the co-chair of the Central Coast Graywater Alliance, the price range on a home cistern is between $2,500 gallon and $4,000 if the homeowner does most of the legwork. With a contractor, she says the price can be closer to $15,000, a percentage of which is permitting.

Bryan advises that people consider a cistern only after they have done everything they can at home to dial in water efficiency. That means utilizing grey water, retrofitting the washing machine, using toilets that flush with 1.28 gallons or less, and showers heads that flow 1.5 gallons per minute or less—all of which are much cheaper upgrades than cisterns.

“Those measures for indoor water efficiency are huge,” she says. “The second step should be incorporating alternate water sources.”

Bryan thinks of cisterns as a viable step for the kinds of hand-on people who like taking matters into their own hands.

“What it means is that you are running your own water system, it’s not the city taking care of it for you. The quality of the water is your responsibility—you’re it. It’s very much so a hands-on task and a system that requires ongoing inspections. It’s great for the type of person who is invested in their own water security.”


Storm runoff: a potential disaster?

Most houses direct their downspouts to flow rainwater runoff onto the roads, mostly to avoid standing water on the property. However, this causes dangerous amount of water to flood streets and wash large quantities of pollution directly into the ocean.

A mantra for preventing this kind of overwhelming, flood-inducing  runoff is “Slow it, Spread it, Sink it.”

“These impervious surfaces are preventing water from reaching our aquifers and sending all the oils, chemicals, and pollution from our automobiles right into our ocean waters,” Love says. “Directing those downspout back into the soil allows the water to be purified by natural biological activity and is stored for future use by plants.”



To learn more about converting your home into a rainwater-harvesting resource, creating a water neutral landscape, and grey water conversions, register for Golden Love’s water security class at Cabrillo College. The class takes place on Saturday Nov. 7, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Building 600, Room 609. Bring photos and a scale drawing or plans of your garden for discussion and creation of action steps. Cost: $25. Learn more here.

For information about Golden Love’s work, visit

unnamed-2The City of Santa Cruz is hosting a free El Niño Storm Preparedness Workshop on Saturday, Nov. 21, from 12-4 p.m. at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St. City departments and key community agencies will host booths where residents can learn how to best prepare their families and properties for heavy rains.


To learn more about water catchment, visit the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association.

Joel Hersch

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