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When It Rains, It Pours New Ideas For Water Use

June 9, 2009 — Fresh ideas were on tap Tuesday for some two dozen residents at a University of the Virgin Islands workshop on how to best utilize the territory's most precious resource — water.
The free webcast workshop — "Rain Water Harvesting and Rain Garden Train-the-Trainer" — was video-conferenced between the St. Thomas and St. Croix campuses. Dale Morton, UVI extension service agent, hosted the St. Thomas workshop.
This program, presented by the North Carolina State University and University of Georgia Cooperative extension services, aimed to improve participants' knowledge of water conservation by demonstrating successful methods. The experts gave instruction on how to site, size, install and maintain residential-sized rain barrels, cisterns and rain gardens.
While the first part of the four-hour session focused on cisterns — sizes, cost, maintenance, — the local audience wanted to know about creating a rain garden. Virgin Islanders are as familiar with cisterns as folks in the states are with their water spigots.
Or they come to be.
Morton, who is from St. Kitts, marveled at the cisterns when he first arrived on St. Thomas as a then-College of the Virgin Islands student 30 years ago. He said St. Kitts has none. "We use water from the rivers," he said, "caught and stored in reservoirs and pumped into the towns, supplemented with ground water."
The group discussed cistern basics: Cisterns are below ground or above. In the Virgin Islands they can be anything from a rain barrel which catches water from a spout, to a fancy outdoor structure, requiring a sophisticated filter system.
Morton, during a break, spoke about problems unique to the territory. Be careful where tress are planted, whose roots can destroy a cistern. Never plant rubber trees or ornamental ficus trees nearby. Also, have a cistern checked every couple years for pollutants. Pay attention to the organic matter in the cistern which can create carcinogenic bacteria.
Rain gardens soak up rain from a roof, driveway, sidewalk or yard. What makes it a rain garden is in how it gets its water and what happens to that water once it arrives in the garden.
The gardens pose a multitude of useful ideas for the Virgin Islands: They prevent storm water from picking up pollution as it washes across yards, driveways and parking lots on the way to the nearest body of water; the plants, roots, soils and sand from your garden cleanse and purify storm water as it soaks into the ground; and they can help recharge drinking water supplies and aquifers.
There are two basic types of rain gardens: under-drained and self-contained. Both improve storm water quality, reduce runoff volumes and facilitate infiltration of cleaned water.
Morton said there are no rain gardens on St. Thomas as yet. However, there is one on St. Croix at the Educational Complex High School. Plans are in the early stages for one on a St. Thomas school campus, he said.
The information was well-received. Sue Higgins, who retired as senior planner from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources a few years ago, was back on island from Peru, where she works with a Christian mission.
"It gave me an idea on how to train people I work with in the Amazon," she said, "as well as members of my own family here. We already do a lot of these things like planting banana trees below the leach pit."
The program was conducted by Wendi Hartup, Kathy Debusk and Mitch Woodward from North Carolina State University.
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