Slow It, Spread It, Sink It

Anneliese waterproofs school with rain pools

Brad Lancaster teaching water-saving techniques at Anneliese. Photo courtesy of Anneliese Schools.

When it floods, there’s only one thing that should get depressed, even in Laguna Beach, says rainwater-harvesting expert Brad Lancaster, referring not to an emotional state but a concave landscape.


Flooding could be prevented in Laguna Beach without installing uber-expensive storm drains and pipes by landscaping with “depressed” rain pools throughout the flood-prone canyon, says Lancaster.


When a storm occurs, rain pools act as floodwater-retarding basins that slow it, spread it and sink it, much like riparian streams function in nature. Rain pools are level-bottomed basins dug out and filled with compost and mulch and planted with vegetation suited for various water levels, turning them into rain gardens.  The rain gardens sink the water into the soil, where it moves more slowly than on the surface. “Plant the rain before you plant a tree,” the lanky, red-haired and bearded Lancaster advised his audience of 60 during a two-hour talk on rainwater harvesting and drought and flood control last Saturday at City Hall.

The on-site flood-controlling rain pools, also known as “vegetation sponges,” then irrigate vegetable and fruit gardens and provide food all-year round, even in dry months. You can’t get more sustainable than that, said Lancaster, an alliteration punster who says his slow it, sink it, spread it plan is the antidote to pave it, pipe it and pollute it.

Lancaster, author of an award-winning series “Rainwater Harvesting,” is consulting with Anneliese School to install vegetation sponges as flood prevention.  The private school’s Laguna Canyon campus was the first and one of the hardest-hit by a deluge that hit 100-year-flood intensity last Dec. 22. Floodwaters, rising up to three feet, rushed down Laguna Canyon Road, causing $1.3 million in damage to the school alone and wreaking $12 million in total estimated damages to homes and businesses.

“We want to be accountable for where our rainwater run-off goes downstream and how it affects other people,” said Elise Higley, Anneliese’s director of operations. “The more we can keep it on the property, the better.”  Higley plans to make the school a model of rainwater-harvesting for the community.

Laguna Beach Mayor Pro Tem Jane Egly, who attended briefly, likes the idea of following nature’s function.  “If it’s a choice between natural ways to prevent [flooding] and drains and canals, I would prefer the natural but I don’t know that that’s the answer yet,” she said.

Huntington Beach Public Works Commissioner Debbie Cook, who speaks on water and energy conservation, also attended the talk and was in her yard last week “moving things around,” preparing to capture as much rainwater as possible.

“Unfortunately, the incentives are not there for water districts to conserve water,” she said.  “They’re in the business of selling water. Until we can change policies, it’s really up to individuals to embrace what Brad is sharing and hopefully lead by example. It’s basically free water.”

After Lancaster’s morning presentation, he taught 25 participants, including school staff members and volunteers, how to manage a downpour at an afternoon workshop at Anneliese School. They dug berms and swales to feed vegetable and flower gardens.

Rain gardens are speed bumps that slow water flow, he explained, particularly in Laguna Canyon where natural wetlands, which hold and absorb rain overflow, have been replaced with roads and housing, which are non-permeable surfaces. In Germany, Lancaster cited, citizens are taxed for every foot of impervious pavement on their property, which they can offset with rain-absorbing gardens.

“Because you have paved over that square foot, you are now creating more flooding downstream and the water quality is worse,” Lancaster, an expert on gray-water use, explained. “You are causing problems for others.”

Current conservation measures include taxes that can be offset by installing eco-friendly roofs, rain gardens and earthwork sponges.  To combat drought in Australia, for example, new homes must be built with rainwater-harvesting systems, he said.

From Tucson, Ariz., Lancaster described his 15-year experience renovating a dilapidated house in a rundown neighborhood, implementing water-saving measures and creating an oasis. He and his neighbors planted 1,200 trees, many fruit-bearing, reviving the local habitat for native birds and building community along the way. “All that food grown for free, irrigated for free when before it was a sterile strip,” Lancaster commented.


The average residential street drains more than a million gallons of rainfall per mile per year. The roof of a small house spills off an average of 9,000 gallons of water a year, enough to irrigate three full-size native shade trees. “That’s enough water to irrigate over 400 trees per mile or one tree every 25 feet on both sides of the streets if you direct that street water to the tree in an earthworks,” he said.

Lancaster’s presentation was funded by a private donation under the auspices of Seeds Arts and Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating children about land stewardship, such as organic gardening, environmental awareness and conservation.


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