In many parts of the country, 2010 wrapped up under gray days and record rain and snow totals. Here in California, our cloudy skies unleashed enough water to restock our Sierra snowpack and fill our reservoirs. As I traversed city streets and rural roads the last few weeks, dodging puddles and ducking under an assortment of umbrellas and raincoats, I couldn’t help but think about all that rainwater jettisoned down drains and gutters and flowing helplessly out to sea. And I began to wonder, again, why rainwater harvesting is not more widespread—especially in arid parts of the country like the Southwest and southern California.
Two states are capitalizing on their area’s rainwater catchment possibilities, including expanded permitting and—in some cases—rainwater harvesting requirements. In the last decade, both Texas and Georgia have created manuals designed to encourage widespread use of rainwater catchment systems in homes and businesses.
In Georgia, where border disputes and a year-long drought has severely impacted state water supplies, rainwater harvesting has become par for the course. In 2009, the state published a set rainwater harvesting guidelines that modified international plumbing codes and set about standards designed to “assist all parties involved in the design, construction, inspection, and maintenance of rainwater harvesting systems.”
There is no doubt the guide has helped residents and businesses interested in incorporating rainwater harvesting into their homes and facilities. For example, Canton’s Fire Station No. 2 installed a rooftop rainwater harvesting system that filters and stores up to 1,700 gallons. The water is stored in in-ground cisterns for a variety of non potable uses, including the washing of the fire trucks, flushing the toilets, and irrigating the property.
In Texas, rainwater harvesting is made easy, thanks to education efforts and easily accessible information. In 2005, the state published the Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting, which has morphed into the “go-to” guide for many rainwater catchment agencies across the country. The manual has had a real and measurable impact in Brownwood, TX, where a two-year educational effort has resulted in the development of a rainwater collection system with a capacity of over 100,000 gallons. By education residents on the mechanics of rainwater catchment, the Water Resources Board has increased the area’s harvest capacity by encouraging residential rooftop collection and storage. Officials hope to triple their rainwater harvesting capacity in the next few years by encouraging local industry to join the effort. A two-year educational effort, Brown County Extension agents report that, to date, development of rainwater collection systems in Brown County have a capacity of over 100,000 gallons.
Meanwhile, over in Dallas, a new proposal for city rainwater harvesting permits could make it easier to install small systems by avoiding the stricter oversight required for large-scale systems (which must be approved by building officials before permits can be granted). Currently, no city ordinance exists for rainwater harvesting systems, and so installers were required to navigate a time-consuming zoning process. The new proposal will cut through that red tape, with minimal standards for small systems and more scrutiny for the larger systems.
So what do you think? Are the recent battles over riparian rights and the impacts of rainwater catchment on downstream users fierce enough to destabilize efforts made by states like Texas and Georgia to promote rainwater harvesting? Should there be stricter guidelines for the non potable use of harvested rainwater, or can we rely on building, sewer, and plumbing codes to provide the necessary guidance? And should rainwater harvesting be folded into current stormwater regulations, or should it be allowed to evolve separately under its own auspices as an alternate water source for thirsty communities throughout the country?