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 Nestlé maintains that all water should be privately owned (by Nestlé 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.

Going Green

Last night I went to my first meeting of the Irving Green Advisory Board since being appointed. I learned that I’m filling a vacated position (officially “Place 8”) so apparently my first term will be slightly longer than the usual one year. I got to meet most of the 14 other board members and was one of two new members attending the meeting. It was the last board meeting for 2013 and not much actual work was done, it was mostly summing up what had been done in 2013 and listening to a couple of presentations.

The first presentation was about Lady Bird Johnson Middle School, which is a LEED Gold building and the first middle school in the US to be net zero – that is, producing the same amount of energy as it consumes. The building uses photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, geothermal wells, rainwater harvesting, grey water harvesting, xeriscaping, LED lighting, and a variety of other technologies. The presentation included data from the first years of operation, confirming that the building had successfully achieved net zero operation. Check out live telemetry from the school’s systems or read more about the technology.

The other presentation covered a leasing program for residential photovoltaic systems. A resident who had gone through process described the details and costs. She listed the rates three of our local electric utility providers charge for electricity vs what they pay. Two of the three charged twice the rate they paid (e.g. you pay them 10 cents per kWh but they pay you only 5 cents per kWh). Only Green Mountain offered a fair deal (12 cents both ways).

I also got an overview of the topics that we’ll be dealing with in 2014 for the City of Irving and it sounds like fun. It matches up pretty closely with topics I’m interested in anyway. There’s the obvious stuff like air quality, water quality, waste management, and recycling. But we’ll also be working on bicycle lanes, West Nile and mosquito control, urban gardens, fracking, residential solar and wind turbine systems, xeriscaping, bat houses, just to name a few.

The Green Advisory Board has several committees within it where a lot of the work gets done. So the next thing I’ve got to do is pick out which committees I want to be on. I’m also reading through minutes of past meetings so I can get caught up on work that’s already been done. I should be up to speed and ready go when we start meeting again January. It will be interesting to see what we can actually do.

We met in a conference room at Irving City Hall. I brought my notebook computer to take notes and so I could do any quick research if needed. I was quite surprised to find there’s no public WiFi in City Hall. I could see an SSID called COI, obviously a City Of Irving official WiFi. I asked a couple of folks if they knew the login but was told it was for internal use only and that the City’s IT staff refuses to allow public WiFi access within the building because of security fears. As I’ve learned from civic hacking efforts, IT departments can be the biggest impediment to engaging Cities through modern technology. For now I’ll tether from my Nexus 4 phone.