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Omaha Magazine

Make Sure Only Rain Goes Down the Drain: Water Management Tips for Your Yard

Jun 25, 2021 04:16PM ● By Patrick McGee

It’s midsummer, that time of year when Omaha heats up and lawns and gardens begin to dry out. Although running an unattended sprinkler is a temptingly easy way to maintain a green yard, there are more efficient and resourceful ways to feed the flowerbeds.

Steve Rodie, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and part-time instructor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, teaches about green infrastructure and sustainable landscape design and advocates for practices that minimize water waste. 

Andy Szatko, supervisor of the City of Omaha Stormwater Program, said yard runoff, contaminated with lawn chemicals, fertilizer, and other pollutants, causes issues downstream in the watershed. He, likewise, encourages water conservation as well as green infrastructure practices to divert runoff.

The two pros explain a few of the best and simplest tools for water conservation and management in the yard: rain collection barrels, smart irrigation systems, and rain gardens.

Rain Barrels

Building roofs, including residential rooftops, provide vast surface area for rainfall to be captured. Instead of diverting rain via gutters directly to grass lawns or down storm drains, Rodie and other conservationists suggest collecting rain in barrels for later use.

He said 55-gallon barrels work well, but need to be retrofitted to collect water from the downspout of a house. Barrels should be elevated and equipped with a spigot that can accept a hose, and the water should remain covered in order to prevent mosquitos from breeding, Rodie said.

Rain barrels are useful for water collection, and their simple presence helps generate awareness of the ease of residential water conservation. Although they may not capture a lot of water, or save homeowners a big sum on their water bill, they are a visible example of conscientious homeowners wanting to do the right thing, even at the smallest level, Rodie said.

Rodie cautioned against using rain barrels to water garden vegetables due to possible contaminants; however, the water is perfectly safe for lawns and landscapes, he said.

Irrigation

Many homeowners rely on a garden hose or old-fashioned sprinkler to keep their lawn green, but so much of that water fills the gutters, evaporates off the pavement, or simply runs down to the storm sewer. Today’s lawn irrigation systems are a much more efficient means of delivery, Szadko said, especially “smart” systems. 

“Simply put, get [one with] a rain sensor,” Szatko said. Irrigation systems that use rain gauge sensors and evaporation sensors are ideal. Rain gauge sensors measure precipitation to determine when watering is needed and when it’s not. Evaporation sensors do the same, but they also take into account the sun, heat, and evaporation rates to determine when to turn on the sprinklers.

Rodie agreed, saying that golf courses and commercial farms use rain gauge and evaporation sensor technology for a reason—it’s highly efficient and delivers exactly what grasses and crops need. He suggested that if the technology isn’t available on a home system, homeowners should utilize the system’s auto-shutoff feature, at the bare minimum. 

Rain Gardens

Rodie also encouraged designing landscapes to diffuse runoff and minimize erosion by planting rain gardens. These gardens, planted in boggy areas where rain naturally collects, should include moisture-tolerant plants and substrate materials, such as stones or pea gravel, that allow water to drain slowly. Native grasses and perennials that are resilient to moisture are ideal. Planting in groups and utilizing hard edges increase the visual appeal of moisture-tolerant plants, he added.

Szatko agreed, saying that using soil and plants to slow down water helps prevent erosion and other problems downstream. Rain garden designers should consider that while waterways cannot be stopped, they can be managed.

Interested readers can see a rain garden designed by Rodie on the grounds of Omaha Northwest High School at 8204 Crown Pointe Ave. 

Homeowners can and should take simple steps to reduce water runoff from their yard. What goes down the drain ultimately goes into the watershed, so make sure only rain goes down the drain in your neck of the woods. 

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Omaha Home. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.