Grant Recipient

Northern Virginia Rain Barrel Program – Empowering Residents to Improve the Watershed

Residents learn about storm water management practices and prepare to assemble rain barrels during a workshop offered by the Northern Virginia Rain Barrel Program.

About the Northern Virginia Rain Barrel Program

When it rains, most people think galoshes, umbrellas, soggy pant legs and bad hair days.  But for the staff of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (NVSWCD), a rainy day means an opportunity for Northern Virginians to take steps to improve local water quality and generate their own water sources. 

NVSWCD, Arlington County, Falls Church, Alexandria and Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment deliver the Northern Virginia Rain Barrel Program to area residents.  Launched in 2006, the program works to educate Northern Virginians about how they can use low-cost rain barrels as a tool to ensure the protection of the area’s water quality and streams.

According to Lily Whitesell, a watershed specialist with the NVSWCD, when it rains in non-urban areas, there is a natural rise and fall in streams.  However, when it rains in residential areas, large amounts of water flows down our roofs, over our lawns and along our roads, entering the storm drains and ending up in our streams.  When this happens, fertilizer, pesticides, pet waste, motor oil and other chemicals are picked up and funneled directly into tributaries which feed the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, threatening water quality. 

To help make an impact, the Northern Virginia Rain Barrel Program offers two-hour rain barrel workshops throughout Northern Virginia. During the workshops, residents learn about their watershed, how residential rain barrels help protect water quality in the local environment and build and take home a rain barrel for their own use. Program partners also offer distributions of pre-made rain barrels.

The program’s rain barrels – recycled 55-gallon pickle, olive and jalapeño pepper barrels – are connected to the downspout of a house and hold rain runoff that flows from the roof.  The conserved rainwater can then be used to water gardens or wash cars and is gradually absorbed into the ground.

Whitesell notes that the Rain Barrel Program is important for three reasons:

1. It’s a tangible action that people can take to help solve a problem:  Communities can help mitigate the damages that impervious surfaces can have on stream water quality in the area.  “In the D.C. area where it can rain one day, followed by a period of dry conditions, it’s a great way to get more people aware of how to harvest rain water,” Whitesell notes. “Through the impervious surfaces we use every day – our homes, roads, schools, shops and offices, we are all contributing to the water quality problem.  This program allows us to be part of the solution too.” 

2. It’s a vehicle for education:  “It’s a great program for people who want to do the right thing but aren’t sure where to start,” Whitesell said.  “At the workshops, we take a basic look at what we all can do: conservation landscaping in your yard, cut back on fertilizer and pesticide use, install a rain barrel or even a rain garden, or simply adopt your nearest storm drain and make sure nothing goes in it except rain or snow.”

3. It’s a way to help conserve water and money:  “In our area, we are fortunate to have about 3.5 feet of rain per year, but much of the country is not as fortunate.  Reinforcing the message of water conservation is important. Plus, it’s always nice to save money on your water bill,” Whitesell said.

495 Express Lanes Community Grant Support

The Northern Virginia Rain Barrel Program is a self-sustaining program funded through the sale of rain barrels.  NVSWCD and the Fairfax County Stormwater Planning Division, together with local neighborhood association leaders, applied for a grant from Transurban-Flour to offer free rain barrel workshops to residents of neighborhoods in the 495 Express Lanes corridor.

The Rain Barrel Program was able to distribute more barrels in the community through funds from the 495 Express Lanes Community Grant Program, reaching more people and multiplying its impact. 

“Because the barrels were free and part of a community-building event, we reached people who would have otherwise not been reached,” Whitesell said.  “The program educated residents about impervious surfaces and their impact on local stream health and the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed, and empowered individuals to make a difference in storm water management on their own property.”

The Express Lanes team chose to support the Rain Barrel Program because of its commitment to the environment.

“Transurban-Fluor believes in supporting organizations that work to improve their communities,” said Tim Steinhilber, Transurban’s general manager for the 495 Express Lanes Project.  “The Rain Barrel Program provides Northern Virginians with the tools they need to protect the area’s water quality.  We are proud to support an organization that has a mission based on improving the streams of our communities.”

More Information

Northern Virginia residents are invited to attend rain barrel workshops.  For additional information about the Rain Barrel Program or to register for a workshop, visit the rain barrel website at

For additional questions, email