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News and Resources

Rain barrels keep runoff out of the bay - September 29, 2011

Two weeks ago, in our column "Did the Recent Storms Hurt Our Waterways?," our education coordinator explained that while we can easily see the negative effects of mismanaged stormwater on land by looking at closed roads, damaged houses and eroding shorelines, the detrimental effects upon our waterways are significant as well, if not as readily apparent.

The clean water and living resources within our coastal bays are a great economic asset to Ocean City and the surrounding area for a number of reasons, perhaps the most obvious being that much of the tourism in the area is based around outdoor recreational activities. Even if you are not a waterman or outdoors enthusiast, the value of clean water ripples throughout all of our lives.

With all of the rain we have been having, this is a good time to remind people about their personal ability to contribute to better water quality.

An increasingly popular way to be part of the solution is to install a rain barrel. Before getting into how rain barrels work let's quickly refresh our minds as to why improperly managed stormwater is a problem.

Historically this area was covered with saltmarsh, wet forests and creeks with wide floodplains. That environmental infrastructure was an effective sponge, readily soaking up water and mitigating flood problems. As the area was developed, much of that infrastructure was traded for other needs such as roads, parking lots and buildings.

These types of infrastructure are known collectively as impervious surfaces, meaning they don't absorb water but instead cause it to pool and run off of the land at roughly ten times the rate of vegetated ground. The more water you have the faster it flows. Even our rivers and creeks, in this flat terrain, evince this.

Water moving at a faster pace will scour the surfaces it passes over more intensely causing petrol products, sediment and bacteria (to name a few pollutants) to flow quickly into our water bodies without time for the ground, a natural filter, to do its job.

The effects of this are well documented and include algal blooms, unsafe swimming water and the loss of economically important fish and shellfish habitat.

Compared to some of our other large-scale environmental problems, stormwater management is a problem that grassroots efforts can directly put a significant dent in. Also, at home stormwater mitigation methods can provide benefits to those who choose to adopt them and so now we are back to rain barrels.

There are many videos online that can teach you how to build a rain barrel as an easy weekend project and local organizations such as Grow Berlin Green sell them at a heavily discounted price (about $30 for a barrel that comes ready for connection to your downspout).

In the simplest sense, that is all a rain barrel is: a drum attached to your rainspout which collects water for release at a later time via a spigot at the bottom of the barrel.

Most rain barrels hold 55 gallons but you can connect additional barrels to hold as much water as you care to.

This water can later be used for a variety of purposes like washing your car or watering your lawn and garden. A garden hose or soaker hose can be attached to the spigot for more convenient use of your captured water and the entire barrel system can be put on top of cinderblocks or some other sturdy platform in order to increase the water pressure in your hose.

If you are concerned about the aesthetics of a 55 gallon barrel in front of your house keep in mind that you can paint your barrel to match your home. Also, please consider using a rain barrel even if you can't think of a use for the water you collect.

Just opening the spigot and allowing the barrel to empty on a hot day or during a dry spell is better than having that same water be part of the flood rushing into waterways during a heavy rain event.

For more information regarding the benefits of stormwater management on the household or community scale visit, check out our Home Owner's Guide at: or email

Bill Mahoney is the education intern at the Maryland Coastal Bays Program 

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