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States Take a Closer Look at Rainwater Harvesting - USA

States Take a Closer Look at Rainwater Harvesting - USA

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08/12/2010

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 Published on GreenBizSite (http://greenerbuildings.com)
Box of Rain – States Take a Closer Look at RainwaterHarvesting
By Jeff Kray
August 14, 2008While water withdrawals from streams and wells are often closely monitored andcontentious, regulators have historically tended to look the other way when it comes towater captured as rain. But as water becomes more scarce, regulators have begun tomore closely scrutinize the increasingly popular practice of rainwater harvesting —collecting rainwater in barrels, buckets and tanks.Presently, there is little consistency among states in regulating the harvesting of rainwater.Some states, like Colorado, prohibit rainwater harvesting. Other states, like Washington,are considering requiring a permit only for rainwater capture systems above a thresholdamount. In other places — notably Santa Fe, New Mexico — rainwater harvesting isactually required. Systems for rainwater capture must be installed on every new 2,500square foot or larger residential or commercial building in that city. Arizona, Hawaii,Kentucky, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia are all either regulating or considering regulatingrainwater harvesting.
What is Rainwater Harvesting?
 Rainwater harvesting is the collection, storage and conveyance of rain as a water source.As the nation realizes the limits of its existing freshwater resources, attention is returningto rainwater capture to help ensure adequate water supplies. Rainwater harvestingsystems range from a barrel placed under a downspout to multiple tanks with pumps andcontrols. Residential collection systems can range from a 50-gallon rain barrel to cisternsof 30,000 gallons or more. Commercial systems can be much larger. As discussed below,rainwater harvesting can provide several environmental benefits.Catching and storing rain is an age-old practice throughout the world. In China, rainwaterharvesting may date as far back as 6,000 years. In India, the practice dates back over4,000 years and traditionally meant storing water in tanks or reservoirs. "By someestimates, 20,000 villages in India are harvesting their rains," writes Fred Pearce in his2006 book "When Rivers Run Dry."In the United States, water resources are primarily governed by state, rather than federal,government. State and local governments have taken opposing approaches to rainwater.As noted above, for example, Colorado assumes that rainwater contributes to streamflowsand, therefore, prohibits rainwater capture systems. Similarly, local and state buildingcodes, zoning laws and other regulations in Colorado and other states may limit theavailability of rainwater harvesting.
 
Page 1 of 4Box of Rain – States Take a Closer Look at Rainwater Harvesting2/27/2009http://greenerbuildings.com/print/27022
 
 In contrast, the trend in other states is moving towards encouraging rainwater harvesting.In 2005, for instance, the Texas legislature created a committee to evaluate andrecommend minimum water quality guidelines and standards for rainwater use. Texasprovides financial incentives for rainwater capture systems and water utilities in Austin andSan Antonio encourage rainwater harvesting to conserve water. Under such policies,professional companies have installed more than 400 full-scale rainwater harvestingsystems in central Texas and, over the last 10 years, homeowners have installed morethan 6,000 rain barrels through Austin's incentive program. Washington appears to be onthe verge of adopting an approach to rainwater harvesting regulation similar to that ofTexas.
Rainwater Harvesting in Washington State
 Washington law broadly defines water resources as "all water above, upon, or beneath thesurface of the earth, located within the state." Rainwater is, therefore, a state waterresource the use of which through harvesting may require a permit. In the past sevenlegislative sessions, the Washington Legislature has unsuccessfully attempted to definehow much rainwater capture is exempt from the permit requirement. Despite these efforts,existing law still provides no clear guidelines on the issue.The Washington Department of Ecology has created a de facto exemption for certainrainwater harvesting and does not require homeowners to obtain water right permits tocollect and store small rainwater amounts. At the same time, the Department of Ecologyhas not yet provided guidance as to what it considers an amount of water that mighttrigger the need to obtain a permit. As a result, homeowners, businesses, nonprofits andother entities have been capturing rainwater from roofs and other suitable services withoutpermits, but also without certainty that they are free from potential enforcement. TheDepartment of Ecology has now determined to provide further guidance by rule.For water quality purposes, capturing rainwater before it becomes stormwater runoff notonly decreases the amount of stormwater that may need treatment, but it also decreasesthe amount of water that quickly runs off urbanized land into local streams, often carryingpollutants from human activities and scouring gravel from their beds, deepening anddegrading them in the process. In Washington's Puget Sound region and in many otherurban areas, stormwater and wastewater also sometimes share the same sewer line inwhat are called combined sewer systems. Large storm events can create so muchstormwater that it exceeds the combined sewer system's capacity and, as a result, theuntreated excess flows into local lakes, streams, or the Puget Sound in what are called acombined sewer overflows (CSOs). The cumulative effect of many large scale rainwatercollection systems may decrease the frequency of CSOs.Washington has two distinct climates. East of the Cascades typical rainfall averages 10 to20 inches, less for central Washington and more for the Cascade foothills and thenortheast and southeast corners. West of the Cascades, typical rainfall averages 30 to 60inches in the lowlands and double that for the Cascade foothills and the OlympicPeninsula. Similarly, water is most limited on both sides of the state in summer and earlyfall, the time at which the demands are highest.
 
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The state's challenge is to define the permitting requirements for rainwater collection in amanner that differentiates between systems that cause little, if any, hydrologic impact (thevast majority of small systems) and those systems that could impair other water rights,notably in closed basins where the Department of Ecology is not issuing new water rights.For example, 50-gallon rain barrels used to gather water for residential urban gardensmay provide stormwater management benefits without impairing water resources,whereas rainwater collection for consumptive use, such as irrigation, could potentiallyimpair other water rights by limiting water amounts that would otherwise flow intofreshwater streams with their own water rights or streams that supply other water rightholders. The problem is that Washington has never defined the threshold for de minimisrainwater harvesting. As a result, the Department of Ecology will need to draft its proposedrule cautiously to avoid legal challenges asserting that it has exceeded its legal authority.Seattle Public Utilities recently received a regional water right permit from the Departmentof Ecology to capture and put to use approximately 23,000 acre-feet of rainwater that fallson rooftops in areas of the city served by CSOs. Similarly, island residents in San JuanCounty, Wash., anticipate that they will be able to legally continue using rain for theirwater supply under islandwide water permits that the Department of Ecology is expectedto issue in fall 2008. The Department of Ecology's proposed rule would not affect eitherthe regional rainwater permit recently obtained by Seattle, or future islandwide permits inSan Juan County.For many other actual or potential rainwater harvesting systems, obtaining permits isadministratively and economically unfeasible. Few homeowners are likely to engage inWashington's water right permitting process for a rain barrel, nor is the Department ofEcology likely prepared to handle a large volume of such applications. For such smallersystems, the solution is for Washington to clearly define which ones are required to obtainpermits and which are not.
Washington's Rainwater Collection Rule
 The Department of Ecology currently envisions a rule recognizing and clarifying itshistorical permit exception for capturing, storing and using small rainwater amounts.Furthermore, the Department of Ecology plans to create a distinct permit application forindividuals and regional entities that plan to construct rainwater collection systems that donot qualify for the permit exemption, and the rule will authorize priority processing of thoseapplications due to their stormwater management benefits.The proposed rule could include:* Defined threshold limits, below which a water right permit will not be required.* A distinct permit application process for individuals and groups that plan to constructrainwater harvesting systems that do not qualify for the permit exemption.*Authorization for the Department of Ecology to expedite (priority process) rainwaterpermits due to their stormwater management and other environmental benefits.The Department of Ecology is seeking public comment on where it should set thethreshold for requiring a water right for rainwater harvesting. It has not yet set a timetable
Page 3 of 4Box of Rain – States Take a Closer Look at Rainwater Harvesting2/27/2009http://greenerbuildings.com/print/27022

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