Rain Catchment-22

State slow-rolls its rooftop-rain law

So, what’s the catch with rain-catchment systems?

In the face of a relentless drought and dire warnings that the state is going to run out of water, oh, next year, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) recently cranked up residential water-use restrictions designed to get Californians to conserve more and waste less. Meanwhile, the state passed a bill in 2012 to permit residential rainwater-catchment systems—but hasn’t done a whole lot to encourage Californians to install them. Why not?

The recent move by the SWRCB gave localities and municipalities more leverage to crack down on water wasters. George Kostyrko, public affairs director at the board, says the move follows on 2014 restrictions that “saved enough water for about 2 million people.”

The new restrictions compel municipalities to turn in water wasters to the state. In the extreme, the state can shut off a customer’s flow, “to make a point that they shouldn’t be wasting water,” says Kostryko. There are fines, too, that are part of the new punitive regime.

But where’s the part of the story where people are encouraged to conserve water by collecting it in rain-catchment systems? The American West has historically been averse to rain-catchment because of water-management rules designed to spread the resource around. But given the scope and intensity of the drought, the Legislature passed a law to allow for the use of residential rain-catchment systems. Given the scope and intensity of the drought, why isn’t it doing more to encourage their installation?

Los Angeles gave away a bunch of rain barrels as soon the 2012 state law passed, but it was quickly deemed a waste of time and money in a well-traveled UC Davis study, and there hasn’t been much buy-in at the residential or municipal level beyond that gesture.

The state didn’t follow up—no state tax credit has been offered for the purchase of rain-catchment systems, for example. It’s about a $3,000 investment, says Chad Griffith, a manager at Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastopol.

“I do believe we encourage it,” says SWRCB spokesman Timothy Moran, “if not financially.”

Moran points out that the water board doesn’t work with individuals, and that it’s in no position to offer a tax credit, which would have to be enacted by the Legislature.

But he says, there’s more that could be done: “I believe we could work through local agencies, like county departments of public health or public works, to offer financial help in the form of a low interest loan or grant. The local agency would have to act as a go-between for individual projects.”

Griffith says that the drought has brought with it greater interest in rain-catchment systems, but that the up-front investment remains a disincentive. And, he notes, water’s still pretty cheap, despite the fact that California’s running out of it.

Trathen Heckman, a pioneering activist at the organization Daily Acts, ran with the new state law and helped push Sonoma County to write its rain-catchment regulations. He has a 1,500-gallon tank in his Petaluma backyard that still has rainwater in it from winter storms.

“We’re not getting a lot of rain, but I still have water in the tank,” he says, and he’s using it to hand-water his beets, garlic and kale. The industry standard average for rain-catchment is that an inch or rain on a 1,000-square-foot roof equals about 600 gallons of water.

That’s better than a drop in a bucket—and the drought, says Griffith, has ramped up interest among homeowners in harvesting every last drop. Going back five years, says Griffith, he’d get one or two people a year asking about rainwater-catchment systems. Now it’s more like five people a week.

People want a practical return on the investment, he says, which just wasn’t there before the drought. Now that it is, where’s the state to encourage people to install these systems? How about that tax credit?

“I think certainly that could help, and with the right sort of lobbying, I think it could be done,” says Griffith, “but you’d have to lobby and get the Legislature, and push on the right people. And enough people have to want to do it.

“There is a ton of value in doing this,” he adds, “just to see how valuable water is.”

Heckman says he supports the new mandates but that the greater issue is in reducing an individual’s “water footprint” beyond adhering to state rules about lawn watering. Get rid of the lawn altogether, says Heckman, and in an ideal universe, fully integrated home ecosystems such as his would be encouraged to use more water, given the benefit of carbon sequestration and general sustainability that comes along with growing your own food and dispensing with the lawn mower.

But Heckman is a pioneer in a progressive county. His entire home yard is given over to growing things, raising chickens, managing honey bees, and reducing his water footprint by reusing graywater and leaning on that big watertank.

Heckman has done the groundwork and offers a model to others through Daily Acts. He gets big props from Ann DuBay at the Sonoma County Water Agency, who notes that “the big barriers to rainwater-catchment systems are that it requires a little bit of capital to put them in, and it requires a little bit of technical skill.

“Anytime the state can provide rebates or provide funding to local agencies to provide rebate programs, or help people pay for this—that’s a good thing.”

DuBay notes that the state has made available, through grant programs, monies dedicated to lawn- and toilet-replacement systems, all in the service of water conservation. Healdsburg, she notes, got $1 million from the state for exactly that. “That’s one example of how the state can really help, and they can do the same thing for rainwater catchment,” she says.

Moran explains that “from the funding side, we are pushing for larger scale projects that capture rainwater and percolate it into the groundwater.” He notes that last year’s water-focused Proposition 1 has funding to incentivize those projects.

“As for rain barrels at [the] home level, they are not very cost-efficient. It is much better and cheaper to direct your storm runoff onto your lawn or flower beds and let it soak in.”

The state is now saying it is looking closely at Australia for tips on how next to confront the drought. Australia mandated that catchment systems be installed in new-home constructions, just sayin’. The state might also look to arid Arizona, which offers a one-time tax credit of up to $1,000 for installing graywater or rainwater-catchment systems.

Sonoma County Library