GreenTown Los Altos

Savings From a Rainy Day: GreenTown Designs for the Future at Redwood Grove


Nov 2011


By Peg Champion, GreenTown Los Altos Correspondent

In the final stage of the Redwood Grove rainwater harvesting demonstration project, Sybil Cramer, Sarah Jacobs and Teri Wiss install the connection hose between the two barrels.

On a damp and chilly Saturday afternoon, 20 volunteers gathered in a semicircle around Arnie Thompson, Acterra watershed project director in Los Altos’ Redwood Grove Preserve. “With any luck, we’ll have the installation finished before it starts to rain,” said Thompson.

The volunteers were there to build the first phase of a rainwater harvesting and native gardens demonstration project, a joint effort of GreenTown Los Altos, Acterra and the Los Altos History Museum’s Shaped by Water Exhibit. Four hours later, as the first raindrops began to fall, the catchment at the Caretaker House was complete: the house’s downspout had been modified, two 50-gallon rain barrels were seated on a new brick and wood platform, a first flush diverter had been installed, and a perforated overflow pipe snaked through the open space where the second phase native garden is planned.

Two 50-gallon barrels were transformed for the rainwater harvesting demonstration project; here, Wendy Wu, Los Altos High School Green Team Officer, holds the barrel steady while Arnie Thompson drills the overflow valve opening.

“Stormwater runoff is a severe problem for our local watersheds and the San Francisco Bay,” Kathleen Santora, GreenTown project coordinator, told volunteers. The impervious cover of houses, patios, driveways and roads keeps rainwater from slowly filtering back into the ground after a storm. Runoff becomes “a conduit for pollutants such as heavy metals from automobiles, and toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers from lawn care. Without rainwater harvesting, we’re literally throwing money down the drain,” said Santora.

Sponsored by the GreenTown Water Stewardship Committee and coordinated by Santora and Forrest Linebarger, the education project focuses on two key issues: stormwater management and water conservation. Linebarger, an architect and principal of Vox Design Group, developed the landscape plans for the educational display, including rainwater catchment, a native garden, an interpretive walk with signage and a bioswale – a gently sloping stone drainage course planted with native grasses to slow and absorb stormwater runoff. The design builds on the “Slow It, Spread It, Sink It” principles, endorsed by many water districts in California. Acterra, an environmental non-profit serving Silicon Valley, installed the rain barrels and will maintain the site through its stewardship work at Redwood Grove.

Linebarger says he wants to encourage a “conservation mentality.” Urban centers, agriculture interests, fishermen and environmentalists all vie for California’s precious water resource. The problem is only going to get worse, according to Linebarger, “There’s increasing demand for a shrinking resource.” The Public Policy Institute of California projects the state’s population will grow dramatically by 7 – 11 million, an increase of as much as 29 percent by 2020. The Association of California Water Agencies predicts that, due to climate change, we can expect a 25 percent reduction by 2050 of Sierra mountain snowpack – a key source of California’s water.

Los Altos Hills and Los Altos rank high in residential per capita water use.

“The water that we have isn’t managed well. We purify water to drinking quality levels, then use it to water our lawns and flush our toilets,” says Linebarger. Los Altos and Los Altos Hills rank high in per capita water use (see chart to the right.) A majority is used for irrigation and landscaping: 50 percent in Los Altos and 80 percent in Los Altos Hills.

“Our goal is to create a demonstration model to inspire residents to conserve and offset usage by building their own rainwater catchment and native plant gardens,” says Santora. “We need to learn how to conserve our available water and manage it wisely.”

Los Altos High School Green Team officers Wendy Wu and Sarah Jacobs create a platform using bricks donated by Peninsula Building Materials; Kathleen Santora, GreenTown project coordinator and Junko Bryant (right), Acterra project director, supervise the build.

The Redwood Grove project is an outdoor expansion of the Shaped by Water: Past, Present and Future exhibit, curated by Linda Gass, a Water Stewardship Committee member. The exhibit, at the Los Altos History Museum through April 22, 2012 addresses the history and future of water in the Santa Clara Valley in a fun, interactive, family-friendly format. The demonstration project looks towards the future.

“Most people just don’t know about the serious water problems we’re facing,” says Gass, “But I have hope because of the younger generation, like the kids working here today. Change happens when individuals take action.”

GreenTown and Acterra invite the public to participate in the installation of a bioswale, permeable pathway, and native garden, in phase two of the demonstration project, on Saturday, December 10, from 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM. For more information about this project, or to learn more about stormwater management, visit the Shaped by Water: Past, Present and Future exhibit.

Peg Champion is a member of GreenTown Los Altos and the principal of Champion Organic Communications. Her work focuses on communication and education strategies to encourage sustainable behavior. For more information visit


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