Rainwater harvesting is one of the world's oldest water supply methods and it is currently enjoying a revival in popularity. Rain has long been valued as a superior quality water because it is soft, free of sodium and chemicals, and is excellent for landscape use. Collecting rain also reduces flooding and can help utilities reduce peak demands during summer months.
Just as people use the sun to generate power for their homes, many homeowners capture rainfall for a variety of uses — from washing dishes to watering gardens during dry spells. But rainwater harvesting, as it is known, can be quite controversial — and in some Western states it is akin to theft.
Opponents of the practice argue that if rain or snowfall is captured, less water will flow to streams and aquifers where it is needed for wells and springs. If enough people hijack precipitation, the thinking goes, it would be cheating downstream users who are legally entitled to the water.
Proponents, meanwhile, see rainwater harvesting as a common sense solution to water shortages and storm water runoff – and find humor in the notion that collecting even small amounts of water is outlawed.
In Colorado, for example, it is illegal for residents to divert rainwater that falls upon land they own unless they have explicit permission to do so. Even collecting rainfall in a backyard barrel can technically violate the law.
“The rain barrel is the bong of the Colorado garden,” wrote a columnist in theThe Gazette of Colorado Springs. “It’s legal to sell one. It’s legal to own one. It’s just not legal to use it for its intended purpose.”
Rainwater Collection Regulations
At present, there are no national standards or regulations for rainwater harvesting systems. In Texas, a lack of state building codes and the absence of clear construction guidelines may be discouraging some homeowners and developers from installing systems. At the local level, potential rainwater collectors may face legal obstacles if they reside in a municipality that has a centralized water supply system. Usually, city codes require that buildings be hooked up. In Bandera, real estate broker Gay Guilott faced fines of $200 per day after she occupied her new office building without hooking up to the municipal system, and she said the dispute illustrated backward thinking on the part of city officials. In response, city officials said the financial health of the utility depended on all residents and businesses paying the minimum monthly fee, and they pointed out that Ms. Guilott still benefits from fire protection services and doing business in a town where central water is available. (6). It is clear that innovative new ideas and strategies are required that will support both rainwater collection and the critical public mission of traditional water purveyors.
Several laws in Texas have been passed in support of rainwater harvesting. In 2003, HB 645 prohibited homeowners' associations from implementing new covenants banning rainwater harvesting installations, but gave them the authority to develop and implement rules requiring homeowners to screen their systems appropriately.
In 2005, the Legislature established the Rainwater Harvesting Evaluation Committee and directed the TWDB and three other agencies to formulate recommendations for minimum water quality standards for potable and non-potable indoor use, treatment methods, conjunctive use with existing municipal water systems, and ways in which the state can further promote rainwater harvesting. In 2006 the Committee released their final report, which included four key findings. They found there is a significant untapped potential to generate additional water supplies, and it can be done safely through the application of appropriate standards and methods. They also found there is a need for educational material, and there is room to improve the professional services capabilities of consultants and contractors. You can see their entire report here.
Record droughts and water-supply worries have spurred state legislatures to consider legislation legalizing the catchment and use of rainwater for use in households and for lawns.
There has been increased interest over the past five years in legislation allowing, defining, and clarifying when rainwater harvesting can occur. Rainwater harvesting is the act of utilizing a collection system to use rainwater for outdoor uses, plumbing, and, in some cases, consumption.
States must ensure water-quality standards and public health concerns are met. In some states, such as Colorado, previous water law stated that all precipitation belonged to existing water-rights owners, and that rain needed to flow to join its rightful water drainage. However, a 2007 study conducted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Douglas County determined that only 3 percent of rain actually reached a stream or the ground. This spurred the Colorado legislature to examine the issue further; two pieces of legislation became law, one allowing certain types of well owners to use rainwater and one authorizing pilot development projects.
Texas and Ohio are among states that have devoted a considerable amount of attention to this issue, and have numerous enacted laws regulating the practice of rainwater harvesting. Texas offers a sales tax exemption on the purchase of rainwater harvesting equipment. Both Texas and Ohio allow the practice even for potable purposes.