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Engineering LibreTexts

5.5: Democracy Unlimited, Eureka, California

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    Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (DUHC) was a local community organizing space in Eureka, California. DUHC hosted monthly pancake breakfasts and helped to launch both the Humboldt Independent Business Alliance and the Humboldt Community Currency project. It also launched Move To Amend, a national campaign to abolish corporate personhood.


    I first met the director of DUHC, David Cobb, at a community meeting I had organized in 2006 to look for community-based solutions for the problems facing our Northern California communities. I was impressed by his clarity and commitment to community action and was not surprised to learn that he had been the 2004 Green Party Presidential candidate. In 2007, I was excited to learn that DUHC wanted a rainwater harvesting system to model resilient community technologies and provide water for their gardens, chickens, and landscaping.


    That year, DUHC became the client for my Engineering 305: Appropriate Technology course, where student Nicole Vincent took on the task of collaboratively designing and building a rainwater harvesting system for the DUHC house. The design was fairly straightforward, as the house had two stories—providing ample head—and already had gutters. The roof area was sufficient to collect enough water to last through a three-month dry season by storing the water in a 2,500-gallon tank.


    The main design constraint became the topography of the site; it was quite flat. Careful analysis showed that there were only three options to get the rainwater from the storage to the gardens and chicken coop. The three options were: to raise the tank so that water could flow by gravity from the roof to the tank and still have enough pressure to reach the end use; to put the tank on the ground in the back yard and use a pump to pressurize the water enough to reach the end use; or to put the tank in the slightly higher front yard.


    Raising the tank provided a significant financial and engineering hurdle, as 2,500 gallons is 20,900 pounds . . . over 10 tons! Additionally, using grid energy to pump the water did not meet the goals of DUHC, and solar power in 2007 was still quite expensive. For those reasons, the front yard became the home for the tank (Figure 5-10).


    Nicole and volunteer helpers constructed the system. With the first rain, the water flowed, the tank started filling, and the piping had enough pressure from gravity for the end use. Unfortunately, we made one large mistake. Without realizing it, the rainwater tank was in violation of the Eureka set-back laws. If we had realized that ahead of time, we could have petitioned—but instead, the city wanted us to take it down. That started a one-year push to change the law of Eureka. We had luck on our side. David Cobb was a trained lawyer and the City of Eureka general plan language was heavily weighted toward supporting this type of gravity-fed, natural, and water-saving technology (Figure 5-11).


    Members of the community center came together to prove that the tank was located in the best space to conserve resources and that a system like this deserved a variance. A local engineer-in-training, Tressie Word, took the lead on-site mapping, enlisting the help of students and community members, and a DUHC leader, Kaitlin Sopoci Belknap, took the lead on language and education. In 2008, a variance was granted through the labor of this collaboration. This variance means that anyone in Eureka can install a rainwater tank wherever it makes the most sense for gravity, regardless of the setback. The next year, Kaitlin and others started teaching rainwater harvesting classes and the local media helped promote the idea (Figure 5-12).


    If it wasn’t for the capacity of the local community—including law, engineering, education, and more—this system would have been decommissioned. Now, ten years later, it has inspired (and continues to inspire) other systems and water conservation education in general. As DUHC’s director said:

    Harvesting rainwater has saved us money, reduced our environmental impact, and helped us to take a small step towards being more sustainable and resilient.”

    ~David Cobb~