Rainwater harvesting at home given a ‘thumbs up’

Jay Manning’s last official act as director of the Washington Department of Ecology was to announce that a water right will not be required to collect rainwater from the roof of a building.

It has been a bone of contention among some folks that state water law appears to require a water rights permit for the diversion of “water resources,” which is defined as “all waters above, upon, or beneath the surface of the earth, located within the state and over which the state has sole or concurrent jurisdiction.”

But state water law also gives the director of Ecology broad discretion to write regulations in the public interest.

Ecology specifically recognizes that rainwater harvesting can be a tool to manage stormwater. See Ecology’s paper on this subject.

In a one-page statement (PDF 124 kb), Manning declared:

“The on-site storage and/or beneficial use of rooftop or guzzler collected rainwater is not subject to the permit process of RCW 90.03.”

The statement leaves an avenue for the state if officials encounter a situation in which rainwater harvesting could affect stream flows or someone’s existing rights:

“If and when the department determines that rooftop or guzzler rainwater harvesting systems are likely to negatively affect instream values or existing water rights, local restrictions may be set in place to govern subsequent new systems.”

What conditions will apply to prevent possible abuse?

“To qualify as rooftop collected rainwater, the roof collecting the rainwater must be part of a fixed structure above the ground with a primary purpose other than the collection of rainwater for beneficial use. A guzzler is a device used to catch and store rainwater to provide drinking water for wildlife, livestock or birds.”

The statement includes this note:

“This policy supersedes any previous policy/interpretive statement, focus sheet or other stated Ecology viewpoint with which it may conflict.”

Josh Baldi, special assistant to the director of Ecology, said his agency conducted an analysis to measure the potential effects of the new policy. Because of cost, rainwater is not likely to be collected where it would create a problem, he said at a meeting of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Ecosystem Coordination Board.

“Most of the areas where rainwater collection makes economic sense are places where it also makes environmental sense,” he explained.

See also “Rainwater Collection to Augment Water Supply” and “Rainwater Collection as a Sound Investment.”

The agency is working with state plumbing experts to establish a registration program for large rainwater-harvesting systems. Registration would not be required for rain barrels or other small systems. See “Focus on Rainwater Interpretive Policy” (PDF, 152 kb).

8 thoughts on “Rainwater harvesting at home given a ‘thumbs up’

  1. What incredible largesse. Jay Manning has tipped his hat, wiggled his ring finger, and allowed us to water our gardens with the rain that falls on our own rooftops. He is a “god”. I can’t wait until he runs for governor, the handpicked successor of the Honorable Ms. Gregoire. He will save all the little creatures from the disaster of human existence.

  2. Gee Robert, what do you think? Would stormwater runoff decrease? Maybe the pressure placed upon city aquifers would change slightly? Or, maybe the change would be so slight, you could not measure it at all? After all, rain barrels must be installed property and managed in order to be effective in your yard.

  3. No point bashing him for making a sensible change to existing rules. I appreciate anyone lining up official policy with environmental good sense. Rain barrels are good, but I hope people take care that they don’t creating mosquitoes breeding spots. Not sure how to avoid that- maybe they are tightly sealed enough to prevent that. With warming climate and diseases spreading mosquitoes are an even worse idea than they always have been.

  4. Good, now I can continue to collect rain water for the use of my horses and not fear big brother telling me I can not use “State” water for farm use.

  5. This is a sensible policy. But it can be changed by any subsequent Director of Ecology. Manning had to take this approach because of the resistance from Eastside interests to put into rule an exemption for small systems.

  6. 2A and others,

    Manning was using common sense to clear up a particular dispute regarding general laws that were created out of… common sense. It’s reasonable for the law to require water rights to manage vast amounts of water resources. Especially when government dollars fund the various dams, canals, and drainage systems that make those resources usable by industry.

    It’s also reasonable for people to be able to collect rainwater from their rooftops without those rights.

    In the end, this is how government should probably work: common sense in the general checked by common sense in the particular. No reason to bring all the nutcase “big brother” language into such an insignificant dispute…

  7. bzzzz…no one is bashing Ecology, just pointing out a few obvious issues:

    1) Ecology spent way too much time focusing on the potential impacts, and could not meet the burden of proof.
    2) Ecology has not spent enough time looking at the potential for rain barrels to be a conservation tool, such as reducing the stress on municipal water supplies and/or decreasing stormwater runoff. They have small blurbs about the potential for these positive effects on their website, but nothing more, really. Places like Chicago have adopted rain barrels as a stormwater management tool (among other conventional and alternative means).
    3) The most obvious – as stated by MartenLaw in a 2008 review of the rainwater harvesting rule – “For many other actual or potential rainwater harvesting systems, obtaining permits is administratively and economically unfeasible. Few homeowners are likely to engage in Washington’s water right permitting process for a rain barrel, nor is Ecology likely prepared to handle a large volume of such applications. For such smaller systems, the solution is for Washington to clearly define which ones are required to obtain permits and which are not.”

    Finally – about mosquito management. Most folks, like myself, who have barrels are familiar with water in their backyard – e.g., fish ponds, birdbaths etc. We do not want mosquitoes, either. You can purchase tablets (which I use), sonar lights, or screens to control mosquitoes. I would hate to give the impression people who have rain barrels are a bunch of folks who are unconcerned about this issue. We don’t need the state to tell us mosquitoes are annoying.

    Anyway, I am glad its over and now I can finish installing the rain barrels I never was going to permit in the first place.

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