Can a plastic tub save New York City? The humble rain barrel has a lot to offer- helping residents cut their water bills, keeping raw sewage out of local waterways, and cutting the city’s water consumption.

Managing rainfall more effectively has become a growing focus for New York City. Earlier this month, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and Council Member I. Daneek Miller distributed rain barrels to 200 homeowners in St. Albans, Queens.

The DEP has distributed more than 2,900 rain barrels free of charge since 2008. Participation in the program is by invitation only, says the City. “Rain Barrels will be distributed in an organized fashion by neighborhood over the next three years,” the DEP notes on its website.

The 60-gallon barrels collect water that residents can use for tasks like watering lawns and gardens and washing cars, which helps to lower water bills. The barrels connect directly to a property owner’s downspout in order to capture and store stormwater that falls on the rooftop.

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Rain barrel in action. Photo credit:

As simple as they are, rain barrels are a serious response to a growing problem. If the City’s scientists are correct, we will steadily see more rainfall -and more intense rainfall events- in the five boroughs. They report that between 1900 and 2011, precipitation in Central Park increased about .7 inches every decade.

Saving money, water and more

How much of a difference can re-using rainwater make for a New York City home or building owner? A lot, apparently.

Watering lawns and gardens can account for up to 40 percent of an average household’s water use during the summer months, says the City. Water rates in New York City have nearly tripled in the last 15 years, a terrific series by WNYC recently found.

But rain barrels are about more than helping to cut costs for building owners. Neighborhoods like St. Albans in Queens, and sections of Brooklyn and Staten Island, have been plagued by ongoing flooding because the City did not construct proper storm drainage systems when they were first developed.

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Flooded street in Southeast Queens. Photo credit: Empowered Queens United in Action and Leadership

“My district [southeast Queens] has suffered tremendously from the effects of localized flooding caused by an insufficient drainage system,” observed Council Member Miller in a statement.

By using rain barrels, “local residents are doing their part to help ease flooding conditions and conserve this most precious natural resource,” Miller said.

Absorbing rainwater before it overwhelms local sewers

The barrels are also part of a broader strategy to reduce the amount of stormwater entering storm drains, thus overwhelming local sewers and treatment plants. When this happens, raw sewage must be released into local waterways via combined sewer overflow points.

Between 25 and 30 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater are discharged annually from over four-hundred combined sewage overflows into New York City’s waterways.

The rain barrels being distributed in St. Albans will help to protect the health of Jamaica Bay, says the City, because a number of local combined sewer overflow points release raw sewage directly into the Bay.

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The wetlands of Jamaica Bay seen from the air. New York City’s wetlands are critical for maintaining local biodiversity and can also help protect areas further inland from coastal flooding, but they are threatened by ongoing pollution releases. Photo credit: City Atlas

The DEP also distributed rain barrels this month to 200 Morris Park homeowners in the Bronx. Part of the objective, reiterated the DEP, is to limit combined sewer overflows into the Bronx River and Westchester Creek.

The rain barrel giveaway program is part of the City’s Green Infrastructure Plan that aims to capture stormwater before it can ever enter the sewer system. DEP says it will invest $2.4 billion in green infrastructure projects, such as bioswales on city streets, green roofs and rain gardens, as well as other “source controls”, such as rain barrels.

These investments will “significantly reduce combined sewer overflows” by 2030, says the City.

Green roofs also help to collect rainwater before it enters storm drains. Students at the Bronx Design & Construction Academy in the South Bronx collaborated with Columbia University to build a model “Green Roof Integrated Photovoltaic Canopy” on their school’s green roof. “Students were vital in the construction and continue to be deeply involved in the data collecting process.” Text and photo credit: The Green Schools Alliance

Cutting NYC’s water consumption by 5 percent

Collecting rain water has another goal too– New York City plans to reduce overall water consumption by five percent in advance of a massive drinking water infrastructure project.

The DEP has begun a project to repair leaks in the Delaware Aqueduct which supplies roughly half of the city’s daily drinking water. In order to complete these repairs to the Aqueduct, the tunnel must be temporarily shut down in 2022.

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Map of New York City’s water supply system showing the Delaware Aqueduct which is to be closed for repairs in 2022. Credit: NYC DEP

New York City residents, along with hundreds of thousands of suburban residents, consume over a billion gallons of water per day from the City’s water supply system, which is piped from a series of upstate reservoirs north and west of the city.

Other measures taken by the City to cut water use will include

  • a $23 million High Efficiency Toilet Replacement Program in “select” residential properties (saving 10 million gallons of water daily);
  • the installation of activation buttons on spray showers at 400 playgrounds (saving 1.5 million gallons daily during the summer months); and
  • new, high efficiency fixtures in the bathrooms of 500 City schools (saving nearly 4 million gallons daily during the school year).

The private sector is also getting involved. The Hotel Association of New York City is partnering with DEP to reduce water use at some of its premier hotels by five percent annually. Will we eventually see rain barrels at the Plaza?