Companies Embrace Rainwater Harvesting Even As U.S. States Go Slow

TD Ameritrade
Along with an abundance of natural lighting, solar-heated hot water, and wind-powered parking lot lights, new Omaha headquarters boasts a rainwater harvesting system that waters the landscaping and flushes the toilets.

Texas approved funding for a $50bn water plan, but left out a tool that has been growing in popularity among corporations

(First published by Guardian Sustainable Business.)

Texas voters last night approved the creation of a water bank expected to fund nearly $30bn in water infrastructure projects in the coming decades. The passage of Proposition 6 means the state will begin putting its 2012 State Water Plan – which calls for more than $50b in spending on new water infrastructure by 2060 – into action.

The project list is heavy on big new pipelines and reservoirs (including a controversial $3.3bn reservoir in East Texas to service the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex 170 miles away), and also features agricultural conservation and municipal water reuse projects.

But advocates of rainwater collection say a key tool for water security is missing from the plan. “Rainwater harvesting was not recommended as a water management strategy to meet needs since the volume of water may not be available during drought conditions,” the plan states.

Rainwater harvesting – one of the most efficient ways of reducing water demand and related infrastructure costs, according to Tamim Younos, president of Virginia’s Cabell Brand Center – has gained popularity in recent years. To protect themselves from water shortage or price increases, some of the world’s largest companies – such as Walmart, Home Depot, and TD Ameritrade – have been installing their own projects.

While Texas offers a number of incentives for rainwater harvesting, including allowing governmental districts to exempt such systems from property taxes, inclusion of the practice in the State Water Plan would have certainly accelerated the trend.

Rainwater collection played a key role in getting several Australian cities through their recent “millennium drought.” But the practice routinely gets overlooked in the United States, as underlined by the Texas plan.

David Crawford, founder of Virginia-based Rainwater Management Solutions, attributes the limited US rollout to resistant utilities, relatively low water costs, a confusing melange of local codes and ignorance about the practice.

“There’s these municipalities that say, ‘Oh, no, we don’t want you to flush our toilets with rainwater because we’ll lose budget money on it,'” Crawford said. “The reality of it is they don’t have the water to sell in many cases.”

Corporate rainwater collection rises

In May, online brokerage TD Ameritrade Holding Corporation consolidated five offices in Omaha, Nebraska, into a single $250m, 12-story tower expected to receive the LEED Platinum certification.

Along with an abundance of natural lighting, solar-heated hot water, and wind-powered parking lot lights, the building boasts a rainwater harvesting system that waters the landscaping and flushes the toilets. All together, the green measures cut building maintenance costs in half, claims spokesperson Kim Hillyer.

“Anytime you move 2,000 people into one location you worry about how many natural resources you’re going to drain, and if we can limit that then we’ve done our job in being a good community partner,” Hillyer said.

Box stores with large roofs and significant landscaping also appear to be a natural fit for rainwater harvesting, which typically involves collecting rainwater from rooftops, storage in large tanks, and filtration and pumping for non-potable needs. The American Water Works Association estimates that 80% of the typical commercial building’s water use goes to non-potable uses, such as flushing toilets, watering landscaping, and for cooling and processing water.

Of the Home Depot’s 2,000 US locations, 81 now have rainwater collection systems, according to press materials provided by company spokesperson Meghan King. By collecting and using rainwater and condensate from their HVAC systems, those stores now each save an average of 500,000 gallons of water each year.

Lowe’s Companies, which won a WaterSense Sustained Excellenceaward from the US Environmental Protection Agency last month for educating consumers about water-efficient products, came to rainwater harvesting from a position of need. Stores in North and South Carolina adopted rainwater harvesting after being faced with severe local water restrictions by the local utilities, according to case studies maintained by Kansas-based rainwater harvesting company BRAE.

Walmart has a number of such systems, including a Sam’s Club store in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that has cut its use of city water by an estimated 1.5m gallons per year, according to the company.

Water rates expected to grow

Those water savings are likely to pay off quickly as utilities raise their rates across the country in response to rising demand due to everything from rising populations in some areas, new EPA stormwater regulations and the replacement of aging infrastructure. Nationally, the EPA expects maintaining existing water services to require $384.2bn – mostly for repairing and replacing transmission and distribution lines, now estimated to be leaking 16% of the water that passes through them.

Water prices have been increasing at an average of 7.7% per year, according to nonprofit news organization Circle of Blue.

Still, a complicated patchwork of local, national, and international plumbing codes, only some of which recognize the practice, can create confusion around rainwater harvesting, according to Jack Holmgreen, president of Texas-based SparkleTap Water Company.

In 2007, when he started a rainwater project for General Data Tech’s data center in Dallas, Texas, the city had no codes regulating the technology. “At the time, we were breaking every code they had,” he said. “They were only going to inspect the pressurized side of the system. They weren’t even interested in the collection side or the storage facility.”

Since then, many cities and towns around the nation have adopted their own codes regarding use of captured rainwater, with Atlanta, Georgia, being one of the few that provide for its use as a source of drinking water. A handful of states – including Arizona, Texas, and Virginia – have created tax credits to reduce system costs.

New national plumbing standards including dated rainwater harvesting guidelines now being finalized will help streamline the regulatory process, Holmgreen said, but a lot of wasteful projects will likely slip by before the potential of rainwater is fully embraced.

“Even if they start now with Prop 6 [in Texas], funding all the projects they can possibly fund, that’s still going to be 10 to 12 years before any of that will put one drop of water put in the pipe,” Holmgreen said. “It’s way long-term. Rainwater comes every time it rains.”