Drought drives rainwater collection across Texas
By David Barer
With no municipal or well-water supply at his home, rainwater harvesting is more than just a way to collect extra water for Billy Kniffen. It’s a way of life. During the drought of 2011, Kniffen and his wife lived off only the rainwater they collected — just 5.5 inches for the year.
And there are more Texans like Kniffen these days, even as the state struggles to pull out of a ongoing drought. Rain may have dwindled around the state, but sales of collection systems are rising.
“It’s interesting that when it’s not raining it drives business and when it rains people lose interest,” said Peyton Shipman, general manager of Spec-All Products Inc., a rainwater tank distributor and consultant.
The consensus among water officials and collection system installers is that sales increased during the drought, though exactly how much is hard to pinpoint. Statewide records aren’t available because permits aren’t required to install a system and the definition of a collection system is loose, said Jorge Arroyo, director of innovative water technologies at the Texas Water Development Board. The water board creates the state water plan, funds water projects around the state and collects water data for the public.
A system can be anything from a 55-gallon barrel stuck beneath a gutter to a full-roof system with pumps and filtration, Arroyo said.
The outlay for a large residential system can top $20,000, similar to the cost of the many water wells drilled within Austin in the past few years. While well drilling relieves strain on municipal reservoirs, it’s not as sustainable as harvesting rainwater, said Kniffen, vice president of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association who lives near Menard.
Those who drill wells want to keep doing what they have been doing, they want to have the large turf landscape,” Kniffen said.
To water an acre of turf landscape with one inch of water requires about 27,000 gallons, Kniffen said. During the 2011 drought, Kniffen and his wife used about 40 gallons of water per day for 12 months. That was enough for spartan daily use and not watering the landscape, Kniffen said.
“People that engage in rainwater harvesting gain a greater appreciation of water as a resource and understand the value of using it wisely,” Arroyo said.
State and local governments promote rainwater collection with rebates and tax breaks. Texas doesn’t collect sales tax on water collection equipment. The City of Austin offers residential rebates of 50 cents for every gallon of non-pressurized storage and $1 for every gallon of a pressurized system up to $5,000, according to their website. Pressurized systems are usually larger and use pumps.
In addition, homeowners associations aren’t allowed to ban the installation of collection systems.
The size of collections systems in Texas could soon grow. The water development board sponsored a study at Texas State University in San Marcos to determine the feasibility of subdivision-sized collection systems. The study, to conclude later this year, will serve as a guide for communities and developers that want to install large-scale harvesting systems, said Sanjeev Kalaswad, rainwater harvesting coordinator for the water board.
The 2012 state water plan identifies water conservation as one of Texas’ more important water management strategies. During the next 50 years, 24 percent of Texas’ water supply will be due to conservation, Arroyo said. That means a likely increase in catchment systems as awareness grows and builders incorporate collection into home design, lowering the overall cost, Arroyo added.
“Rainwater harvesting is part of the Texas fabric,” Arroyo said. “You can find cisterns that were part of very active rainwater harvesting systems from a long time ago.”