816 North

Olathe North High School students helping people save water a barrel at a time

Susan Thrasher of Olathe gets advice from Aaron Gassen, 16, while they install a spigot on a new rain barrel together.
Susan Thrasher of Olathe gets advice from Aaron Gassen, 16, while they install a spigot on a new rain barrel together. Special to The Star

Giving presentations on rain barrels and water conservation is about more than a grade for juniors in Olathe North High School’s Geoscience Academy. These high school students are using their knowledge to help Johnson County residents improve their water consumption habits — and lower their water bills.

For 2018, Olathe North received a $17,800 grant from Johnson County’s Stormwater Management Program. That helps pay for rain barrels, which are $65 each, as well as the preparations supplies.

Last weekend, five teams of students gave presentations to about 100 residents, showing them how to use a rain barrel and what the environmental impact of using one to collect water for watering a garden could be.

“We talk about water conservation and the drought that seems to be ongoing,”said Marsha Skoczek, facilitator of the Geoscience Academy. “(The students) do water quality monitoring in our neighboring stream, and that ties in why it’s important to reduce runoff and not wash into the stream fertilizers and salt and whatever’s lying on the ground.”

After their presentations, the students prepared barrels for the attendees, drilling holes for spigots and overflow hoses, caulking the spigot area and attaching mosquito netting to the water intake area. Each resident who attended got all these materials for free, courtesy of Johnson County.

Susan Thrasher of Olathe said her 9-year-old son had learned about water conservation and pushed her to get involved.

“He assigned me to some to this (workshop) instead of his soccer game. That’s how serious he is about this,” Thrasher said.

This year, they bought 125 55-gallon barrels to give to county residents. Over the years, the program has already given away at least 900 rain barrels. The plastic barrels, which the school buys from Bridging the Gap, are all food-grade and have previously held food products.

When they washed out the barrels to prepare them for the workshop, the classroom and the adjoining hallway carried the pungent smell of the barrel’s previous cargo — hot peppers, said 17-year-old Samantha Howe.

Carly Brotherton, 17, said learning about water conservation for this project has inspired her to push her family to be more careful about wasting water.

“I really like what it does and how it helps the earth” to have a rain barrel, she said.

If you’re concerned that having a barrel of water in your yard is the same as setting out a welcome mat for mosquitoes, don’t worry.

Mosquito net covers the hole where water flows in via a flexible gutter attachment. Once the water’s inside the barrel, keeping about a quarter of a cup of cooking oil in the barrel coats the surface to prevent the insects from laying eggs.

The spigot is at the bottom of the barrel, so the oil floating on top won’t get in the way when you use the barrel’s water.

“I like the idea of not using the water from my house and using a more natural system,” said Olathe resident Wanda Eby. “It’s always good to see kids involved in the community and finding ways to be more nature-minded.”

Although Skoczek hasn’t heard of anyone having an issue using a rain barrel due to homeowner’s association rules, there are ways to make them blend in aesthetically. Many people paint their barrels with paint leftover from the outside of their houses. Residents can also hook it up to a gutter at the back of the house or hide it behind plants.

In addition to the rain barrel program, the county’s grant also supports an annual rain garden workshop at Olathe North, which was held on May 3 this year. The workshop taught people how to plant in a way that reduces run-off and erosion.