Take That, Drought! Hollywood Installing Personal Water Tanks to Catch El Nino Rain

Illustration by: Sam Island

Meanwhile, Ed Begley Jr. has a 10,000-gallon cistern at his home that allows his garden to "make it through that whole dry period" from spring to fall.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Experts say one El Nino, no matter how wet, won't come close to restoring California to predrought levels. In response, forward-thinking property owners are harvesting H2O for their gardens directly from the sky by installing rainwater collection tanks, from 1,500-gallon above-ground rain barrels to underground cisterns that hold tens of thousands of gallons. Most systems work via a mix of gravity and electricity, with rain traveling from rooftops to downspouts to underground pipes to the containers. Once collected, water is fed via pumps to an automated irrigation system.

The amount of water that can be collected, even in semi-arid Calfornia, isn’t insignificant. With the average resident of, say, Beverly Hills, using about 2,250 gallons a month on their garden, a 10,000-gallon cistern can go a long way. One inch of rain falling on the roof of a 2,000-square-foot house can generate 1,200 gallons of water.

Homeowners who buy cisterns often do so for environmental reasons, from reducing polluting run-off to to replenishing aquifers. Plus, "the largest single use of electricity in California," says Andy Lipkis, founder of environmental group TreePeople, "is to pump water [from northern California and the Colorado river system] over the mountains into Los Angeles." He calls the small 50- and 100-gallon rain barrels that have been popular for years "thimbles in terms of water supply."

One well-known film composer recently put in a massive 43,000-gallon cistern at his Pacific Palisades spread, and actor Ed Begley Jr. has a 10,000-gallon cistern at his home in Studio City. "More people are doing it than ever before," says Brian Diamond of Diamond Landscaping, who put in Begley's tank and is working with show-creator couple Justin Adler (CBS' Life in Pieces) and wife Barbie (Freeform's Kevin From Work) on their Toluca Lake property. Begley says his cistern allows his garden to "make it through that whole dry period from the last rain in April or May until the first rain in October or November."

Putting in a below-ground cistern is a substantial outlay. A 10,000-gallon cistern system can easily cost $20,000, with prices rising depending on excavation difficulty. And while the investment could well pay off over time, “you’re not going to save a whole lot of money by putting in a system. Water is cheap,” says Paula Hanson, co-founder of Urban Water Group, which specializes in creating water-smart systems. Some adopters compare it to the early days of solar. "It feels like an opportunity to do the right thing," says Justin Adler, who is planning an initial 5,000-gallon cistern. "And if it works effectively we may expand it. Right now, it's a bit of a leap of faith."

In these days of extreme drought though, penciling out isn’t necessarily the point. For some property owners, cisterns are a form of insurance should California’s drought conditions worsen drastically. In that case, some water providers could well mandate that no water be used for outdoor irrigation. Hard to imagine, perhaps, but it’s exactly what happened when Australia faced its severe drought a decade ago. “If you have a garden set up with drought-tolerant landscaping and drip irrigation and the government says you still have to cut back 25 percent of your water use, there’s no place to go except for rain water,” says Albert Barlow of Rain Water Systems. “When you’re faced with the prospect of losing your garden, the return-on-investment equation totally changes.” (Hey!Tanks L.A. is another local firm that installs cisterns; some of the top design firms specializing in sustainably irrigated gardens in L.A. are Urbafloria, Elysian Landscapes, Comfort Zones Garden Design, Grow Outdoor Design and Mia Lehrer + Associates.

A more affordable option is above-ground rain barrels. Rollman Entertainment animation producer Carrie Wassenaar put in a tank on one side of her North Hollywood house to irrigate fruit trees; it holds about 1,300 gallons (and can cost about $1,300). "I like feeling like I am helping to work toward a solution to the drought," says Wassenaar, who is part of a stormwater project launched late last year by TreePeople and local agencies to make rainwater containers a big part of the L.A. landscape. A number of cities already offer tank rebates, with Santa Monica's the most generous at $2,000 per large cistern. "In Australia, 50 percent of the homes in some cities have rain tanks. If that goes to scale in L.A., we will have created a smart new water system distributed across thousands of properties that could save us from the drought.," says Lipkis. "Right now  For even more inspiration, Soho House members can check out its Jan. 26, event, which features barrels designed by popular California artists.