Reasoning in the Rain

School with rainwater storage tank, ca 1900. CC licensed image courtesy of Mallala Museum.

School with rainwater storage tank, ca 1900. CC licensed image courtesy of Mallala Museum.


For many thousands of years, humans have captured and stored rainwater. One of the earliest known rainwater capture systems was used in 300 BC to collect water for irrigation of crops. This process of capturing rainwater, known today as rainwater harvesting, is still frequently used but faces a growing number of threats. Rainwater and other naturally occurring sources of water such as aquifers were traditionally considered part of the commons, and the traditional view of human rights includes the concept that everyone has a natural right to access and use resources from the commons. Air and water were commonly viewed to be “unalienable rights” of the sort described by the authors of the Declaration of Independence. They were considered so fundamental and essential to life that no sane person would consider surrendering those rights.

But for people who grow too used to the availability of clean air and water, we sometimes forget how important they are and that leads to a loss of vigilance. There has been frequent talk lately of “privatizing” our water rights, that is, giving them away to big corporations who could then exercise complete control over who gets water and how much they pay for it. For example, the well known video circulating on the Internet in which the CEO of NestlĂ© maintains that all water should be privately owned (by NestlĂ© presumably) and that anyone who thinks they have a natural right to water is an “extremist”.

One of the important roles of government is to protect the commons and rights of citizens to access it. Lewis Hyde describes it this way in his excellent book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership:

“…this is a freedom that depends on the restraint of other freedoms. A commons is a stinted thing; it requires limits. If you want a viable democracy, you cannot sell your vote…If you and your neighbors live over an aquifer, none of you should be allowed to sink a well and sell the water to some thirsty distant metropolis. Each of these is a contraint on some freedoms but at the same time each is the foundation of others; the freedom to live in a democracy; … to enjoy a constant flow of potable water.

Essential resources from the commons could, of course, be very valuable to someone who could enclose (privatize) them. Many thirsty large metropolises these days have exceeded their available water supplies and rely on water bought elsewhere. Industrial processes like fracking use and contaminate massive amounts of water (millions of gallons per well). No sane citizen who lives in a drought-stricken, warming world would willingly allow water from the commons to be used that way. Thus the pressure to privatize water, to enclose the commons. As Hyde mentions in his quote, a functional democracy relies on votes not being a commodity that can be purchased. That’s not always the case today and the massive amounts of money that have been allowed into politics mean outcomes of democratic processes are no longer limited to what sane citizens would do. If an outcome is profitable enough for a corporation, regardless of its long-term sanity, it can sometimes be achieved through the influence of money.

I live in Irving, Texas. We’re in an ongoing multi-year drought. Earlier this year residents were told we’d reached “stage 3″ drought conditions and we can only water our lawns once per week. There’s a long list of other water restrictions that now apply. In an urban area like Irving, a resident is unlikely to have a river or a well on their property. However, rainwater still falls on everyone. Rainwater is one of the last remaining sources of common water in which we can exercise our natural right.

In some states, such as Colorado and Utah, this right to access the commons through collection of rainwater has already been restricted. Even here in Texas, Home Owners Associations, notorious for creating bizarre and draconian rules, have tried to restrict resident’s rights to harvest rainwater but fortunately, in 2003, the Texas constitution was amended to specifically protect the right of residential home owners and forbid HOAs from passing any rule that infringes the right to collect and use rainwater. Further, the awareness of the growing population, limited water supply, and warming climate has led the Texas legislature to enact additional laws. These laws encourage both residential and commercial building owners to harvest rainwater and allow for property tax exemptions as a reward for doing so. This is because when we exercise our right to access the common water, we also reduce the demand on the municipal water supply (as a further benefit, rainwater harvesting also greatly reduces runoff pollution) benefiting every citizen, even those who choose not to harvest rainwater themselves. In 2011, they improved the law further by removing restrictions, allowing harvested rainwater to be used for any indoor or outdoor purpose including potable usage, and allowing private harvesting systems to be interconnected with municipal water supplies (in much the same way that a home solar array can be connected to the municipal electric grid to benefit the entire community).

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was directed to develop a set of recommended rules for rainwater harvesting systems. These rules became Texas law (section C-1) in June of 2013 and can be used as the basis for city governments to create residential and commercial code, defining how an individual citizen can exercise their right to harvest rainwater in a way that is safe and doesn’t interfere with or endanger their neighbors.

This brings our story around to what I’m working on right now. As a member of the Air and Water Committee of Irving’s Green Advisory Board, I’m taking a first shot at drafting some code that protects our local right to harvest rainwater. The committee’s goal is to come up with code that will add no restrictions beyond those required by other existing codes and ordinances (e.g. permitting for plumbing or electrical connections, etc). The draft code we provide is extremely unlikely to be used verbatim as it will have to filter upstream through various departments and legal approval. But our hope is that the goals and intent of the code will survive to some final draft that is incorporated eventually in official City of Irving code.

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