Saving rain: How much is too much?
|July 24, 2008||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Saving rain: How much is too much?
Collecting large amount runs afoul of ‘archaic’ law
None of us made her and all of us need her. So how do we settle competing claims to Earth in general, to rain in particular? One way to share Earth is to recover and share her economic worth. Conflicts such as the one in this 2008 from Seattles Post-Intelligencer of July 21 (herein abbreviated) may move us that way.
By Jennifer Langston, P-I Reporter
Technically, rain that falls on your roof isn’t yours for the taking. It’s a resource of the state, which regulates the use of public waters through an allocation process that can take years to navigate.
Someone collecting rain in larger quantities to irrigate a farm or wash laundry in a new condo building without a state water permit could be breaking the rarely enforced law.
The state has long allowed people to collect a small amount of rain without asking.
Yet a pond to store 150,000 gallons of rain to irrigate garden plots, currently sucking up expensive city water, almost certainly would violate Washington state water law. And so might the rain barrels that cities encourage conservation-minded homeowners to buy.
In urban areas, some cities and developers promoting green building practices simply ignored the law. The rainwater collection system used to flush toilets in Seattle City Hall likely violated state law when it was built five years ago.
The city has continued to promote rainwater collection in new developments, since using rain for irrigation or graywater conserves drinking water. The systems also have potential to filter pollutants from stormwater or keep sewers from overflowing and releasing raw sewage during storms.
But some developers are unwilling to gamble on rainwater collection because of the legal uncertainties. Neighborhood opponents, for instance, theoretically could use the water-right issue to block a project.
That’s why the city of Seattle recently obtained a citywide permit, which makes it legal to collect rain from rooftops in most areas of the city.
But there still are a few neighborhoods — including most areas north of 85th Street — that aren’t covered. That’s because stormwater there drains into creeks and streams and lakes rather than sewer pipes. Builders there would not enjoy the same legal protection.
Although no one wants to police homeowners harvesting a few hundred gallons for a backyard garden, the state hasn’t defined where that regulatory threshold lies. In June, the Washington Department of Ecology started trying to craft new regulations to govern rainwater collection and remove legal uncertainties. Yet it can be politically difficult to propose different sets of rules for urban and rural areas of the state.
Past legislative efforts have died in the buzz saw of statewide water politics. To legalize small-scale rainwater harvesting keeps getting harder as different interest groups — cities, gravel mines, builders — weigh in.
Some large water users would like to see all rainwater collection projects exempt from state permits, unless a downstream water user argues they would be harmed.
Environmental groups and tribes worry that, in dry areas where every drop of water belongs to someone, large-scale, unregulated rainwater collection operations could bleed water from downstream users or siphon off water that’s reserved to provide healthy fish habitat.
But in cities where there’s excess stormwater that drains directly into the Sound, larger rain cisterns make sense.
A project outside Seattle with community gardens, commercial farmers, goats, and bees is a showcase for solar panels, different types of roof gardens, underground water tanks, and a geothermal energy loop for heating and cooling.
It’s also in an area where finding legal water for new farming projects is becoming more urgent. Some growers in King County (surrounding Seattle) without water rights resort to sneaking around with buckets, scooping up ditch water.
For the project, a partial solution is a well small enough to be exempt from state regulation runs on a solar pump, filling a new 5,000-gallon tank designed to irrigate the agricultural fields.
One homeowner says, “We just have some archaic laws that need to be changed, so each home could have a couple of rain barrels to let grandma water her flowers, but everybody’s looking for free water.”
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