As winter rains approach, Imperial Beach hopes rain barrels will lighten the load
Imperial Beach wants more residents to start using rain barrels.
That’s the goal behind a new set of guidelines adopted by the city last week, which officials hope will ultimately help shore up the city’s aging infrastructure against rising sea levels.
Rain barrels are tanks that collect and store rainwater for future use. They can help users conserve drinking water and save money on irrigation. They also have the added advantage of reducing the amount of rainfall that flows into the city’s stormwater collection system.
That benefit is why city officials view rain barrels as a promising way to battle the challenges brought on by rising sea levels.
“I'm a big fan of rain barrels,” Imperial Beach City Councilmember Carol Seabury said during the meeting. “Hopefully more people will get on board.”
Imperial Beach faces some of the most severe risks in the county from rising tides fueled by climate change. The small, largely working class city sits directly on the coastline, just to the north of the Tijuana River Estuary.
While parts of San Diego and other cities are shielded from the force of the ocean by sandbars or peninsulas, or are elevated above the sea, Imperial Beach often experiences crashing waves and flooding during storms and high tides.
Rising sea levels are also causing more flooding problems inland away from the coast. As the sea rises, it moves underneath the city and pushes freshwater upwards — forcing it through cracks in the city’s aging stormwater pipes and raises the risk of flooding.
If more residents start using rain barrels, researchers at San Diego State University say it will relieve pressure on the city’s aging stormwater system by absorbing rainfall during storms.
“Now, with climate change, we get more amounts of rain in a shorter period of time,” said Associate Professor Hassan Davani, who is leading a National Science Foundation-funded study on rain barrels and other climate adaptation options in Imperial Beach. “Residents can capture some part of this rain so the system has more capacity to drain it.”
Davani’s team predicts citywide adoption of rain barrels could absorb up to 65 million gallons of water every year and would noticeably reduce flooding.
In a survey, many Imperial Beach residents told researchers they would be open to installing their own rain barrels. Home and business owners said they were particularly interested in the technology.
But residents said they were confused about the rules for renters, who make up nearly 70% of the city. Some also worried that all the containers of standing water would send mosquito populations soaring.
City staff hope the new guidelines will answer some of those questions. The guidelines note you can install most rain barrels without a permit and require any openings be covered with a screen to prevent mosquitoes from getting inside.
Davani said the new guidelines are likely to encourage more residents to start using the rainwater collection devices.
“That's a very good, important first step,” he said.
Imperial Beach’s push to boost rain barrel adoption comes amid predictions that much of California is likely to see another wet winter, although the forecast for the San Diego region is slightly less clear.
One thing Imperial Beach’s new guidelines do not include, is a rebate for rain barrels, which many large cities have. The city of San Diego, for example, gives residents a rebate of up to $400, depending on the amount of water their barrels can store.
One city staff member told KPBS that Imperial Beach is talking with its water provider, California American Water, about starting a similar program.
Imperial Beach residents can view the new rain barrel guidelines on the city’s website.