Atlanta’s potable rainwater ordinance could be national model

The City of Atlanta will dip its toes into a potentially controversial issue late Thursday as the Council’s City Utilities Committee holds a public hearing on permitting rainwater harvesting systems designed to provide water inside the home.

The move would give the city a tool to reduce the amount of water residents use, while it would provide builders and renovators with another green feature to offer homeowners concerned about sustainability

proposed ordinance developed by advocates and city officials seeks to establish fees on “potable rainwater catchment systems for residential use.” In other words, it wouldn’t apply to the barrels and tanks that many homeowners have installed over the last decade to supply water for their gardens and lawns. Those systems would remain free from fees and regulation.

Cobb County Water System’s Earnest Earn, Ecovie’s Bob Drew and Jessica Lee Reece, an attorney with Smith Gambrell & Russell spoke at the July 8 Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable on rainwater harvesting. Photo by Ken Edelstein

What the ordinance would do is set up a permitting system to treat rainwater and to use it inside the house for all uses including drinking water.  Using rainwater for indoor non-potable uses such as toilet flushing and laundry is already covered in Georgia State plumbing code. The potentially controversial part regards what happens next: Household water must then be disposed of through the sewers and treated as wastewater, which means there’s a public cost.

In Atlanta, as well as other municipalities in Georgia, potable rainwater systems currently live in a sort of purgatory: They’re not illegal to install, but there’s no permitting system that allows them to be operated.  It is up to local officials to decide whether or not to allow a potable rainwater system.

“There’s nothing saying you can’t do it,” says Bob Drew, the CEO of Ecovie Environmental Inc. and a prime mover behind the proposal. “But the way it stands right now is that if I want to install a system, I need to convince someone in the local jurisdiction that we ought to be allowed to do it.”

Drew is something of an evangelistic for potable rainwater systems. Earlier this month, as a speaker at the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable, he noted that rainwater systems in general have become popular in Australia, Germany and other parts of the world facing tight water supplies. In the Carribean, potable systems are ubiquitous because rainwater is virtually the only source of water.  And, he argued, widespread acceptance of rainwater systems could provide as much water to the metro area as a major reservoir at much less public cost and none of the environmental problems.

Last year, Drew’s company obtained a building permit to install one of its potable systems in an existing Atlanta home with the idea that it would be covered under the pending ordinance.  Mandy Mahoney and Jenah Zweig of the Department of Sustainability, Melinda Langston of Watershed Management, others at City Hall along with Drew and national rainwater experts put together the ordinance to spell out the technical requirements of a well designed and maintained potable rainwater system.

The proposed approach mandates proper treatment and plumbing standards for rainwater if it’s to be used for household purposes, and it protects the city from liability in case the systems aren’t operated correctly. It draws on guidelines already in place in Portland, Oregon, and the state of Texas, but it’s also being heralded as a potential model in its own right.

“Other cities … are referring to this Atlanta City Ordinance as a format for the preparation of similar ordinances in areas across the United States,” EPA microbiologist Dennis J. Lye, who helped to develop the proposal, recently wrote to Utilities Committee Chairwoman Natilyn Archibong.

The fee structure that city officials have come up with as part of the plan already has drawn some criticism, however. At that July 8 Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable meeting, one audience member warned advocates that they’d better hope “the Tea Partiers” don’t hear about the proposed fee.

City officials say they’ve attempted to design a fee structure that would ensure lower sewer rates than most other people pay. Sewer fees typically are assessed based on how much city water a property owner uses, according to the water meter — on the theory that “what comes in goes out,” as Drew puts it. Because metering rainwater would be burdensome administratively and costly, the city has proposed to base sewer fees for potable rainwater systems on the systems’ storage capacity.

Drew admits that he’d rather the city not charge homeowners for sewer service from potable rainwater because the amount money recovered is likely to be small at this point and because those homeowners are investing in something that helps the city with water conservation.

That said he and other advocates say they’re willing to live with the capacity-based system the city has proposed — although Drew is still concerned that under some scenarios homeowners with potable systems could end up paying more for sewage disposal. He expects the fee structure to be the main subject of discussion at tomorrow evening’s meeting.