Entire Southeast needs a new strategy for conserving water

February 9, 2012

I ran across this opinion page article in the 12/22 AJC.  I agree wholeheartedly with the premise that something needs to be done about water supply in the southeast US.  I even agree that some of the proposed water management steps are worth doing.  I do not agree that desalinization is near top of the list for supplying water due to it’s energy intensiveness and high capital cost.  With relatively high rainfalls compared to just about anywhere else in the US, rainwater collection can be a viable water supply.  Estimates show that for Metro Atlanta that if adoption rates are similar to other parts of the world where rainwater collection has been embraced that the impact can be 100 million gallons per day.  That’s equivalent to the amount of water projected to be supplied by proposed new reservoirs.  Capital cost and certainly energy consumption is less than with desalinization.



Bob Drew


By John Kominoski

Twenty-five years ago, environmentalist Marc Reisner published “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water,” which predicted that water resources in the West would be unable to support the growing demand of cities, agriculture and industry.

This book inspired us to explore how water and its infrastructure have transformed the West relative to the East. Our findings have just been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There are many climatic and geographic differences between the Southeast and the Southwest, but where water is concerned we share a common ground.

Like the Southwest, the Southeast does not have sufficient fresh water capacity to meet its needs. Our research finds that reservoirs in the Southeast have a low capacity to store water because of high evaporation losses. Piedmont cities like Atlanta, Charlotte and Birmingham receive less surface water than coastal urban centers with much larger drainage areas.

As the severe water shortages during the droughts in the summers of 2002, 2005 and 2007 made clear, water supply in the Southeast is dependent upon precipitation, which is likely to be more uncertain in the near future.

In Georgia, we have adopted a Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Plan with two basic goals: 1.) protect public health and environmental quality; and 2.) meet future needs while protecting aquifers, in-stream uses and downstream users.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division is attempting to model the availability of water, so that water councils can make decisions on in-stream needs and human use. More water can be made available through technologies and practices that conserve water.

However, two types of infrastructure are being advocated to increase the availability of water: increasing reservoir density and interbasin transfers. We know that reservoirs in the East are inefficient at storing water, as they are small (in volume) and require regular precipitation to replenish water levels.

Reservoirs also threaten the rich fresh water biodiversity in the Southeast, which requires natural flow patterns to survive. So, building more reservoirs is not a viable long-term solution to sustain water needs for people and the environment.

Similarly, interbasin transfers, the movement of water from one basin to another, will prove insufficient to meet water sustainability goals for Georgia and the Southeast for two simple reasons.

First, because steady precipitation is needed to fill our reservoirs, moving water from onedrought-stressed watershed to another drought-stressed watershed will not provide enough water to fill reservoirs to support population demand, especially given the projected increase indrought frequency in the near future.

Second, increasing per capita water withdrawals in the Piedmont will continue to starve downstream communities and ecosystems of fresh water.

In order for Georgia and other Southeastern states to realize the goals of the state water plan, we need to adaptively manage water within river basins and across state lines. We need a new strategy for water management in the U.S. and the Southeast, which includes new technologies and practices in conservation that allow us to get more from the water that we have.

Water shortages are regional problems that require changes in regional and national water policies to ensure sufficient water for humans and the environment.

In the Southeast, demands for municipal and industrial use are much higher than supported by locally generated stream flow. To address our water problem, we need to reduce our consumption.

We recommend several steps: increased urban conservation and water reclamation; increases in municipal and domestic water-use efficiency; adopting water-efficient irrigation methods; growing drought-tolerant crops; and supplementing municipal water with ocean water desalination for coastal metropolitan areas.

The future of fresh water sustainability is further challenged by climate change and population growth. Georgia, Florida and North Carolina are among the top nine states in population growth in the U.S. This growth will place increased stress on limited water resources in the region.

The demands for water also will increase as temperatures rise (more losses due to evaporation). We need to conserve water and use water more wisely in order to avoid crises.

The good news is that we can choose to avoid tragedy by placing a higher value on water. We must view water as a limited, often unreliable resource. We must include the realistic value of healthy fresh water and coastal ecosystems that rely on fresh water to support fisheries and tourism-based economies and other services.

An approach focused on conservation accepts the fact that new water cannot be created, but it certainly can be managed well.

John Kominoski is a postdoctoral research associate in the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.

Also contributing: Tushar Sinha, a postdoctoral scientist at North Carolina State University; William Graf, a professor of Geography at the University of South Carolina; and John Sabo, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences and a Senior Sustainability Scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University.


New reservoirs reckless at best

February 9, 2012

The article below by Jenny Hoffner appeared last week in the Atlanta Journal Constitution editorial section entitled Atlanta Forward.  It appeared along with an article by Kevin Clark who is in favor of new reservoirs and water conservation measures a way to improve Georgia’s and metro Atlanta’s water supply issues.

Jenny’s main point about building new reservoirs is that they put an undue financial burden on municipalities who must pay back the cost of constructing a new large reservoir.  Since estimating future water demand may lead to building a large reservoir that is either too big, or too small, Jenny posits that this risk is too high for municipalities to take on and will affect their credit rating/bond rating.

Before addressing these comments and offer an alternative, I was surprised that Jenny did not mention the possibility of using rainwater collection as an alternate water supply.  As stated previously, rainwater collection systems for individual properties are in fact a form of new reservoir with numerous advantages over the large reservoirs most people think about when thinking about reservoirs.  As an alternative to large reservoirs, rainwater collection offers many financial advantages while taking away many environmental downsides of damming rivers to create water supply.  I would encourage American Rivers to look into rainwater collection and advocate their use before damning reservoirs in general.

One advantage of creating smaller, decentralized water supplies using rainwater collection is that they can be scaled to actual water demand.  as growth occurs, more rainwater collection can be implemented to meet this growth rather than trying to guess what demand will be 20 or 50 years from now.  Rainwater collection is largely financed privately to take away the burden on municipalities to provide all the water supply and treatment needs of a community.

I am however an advocate of using some of the State of Georgia’s water money to encourage building of reservoirs of the type I am talking about.  Financing vehicles exist to have some of the state money used to help finance rainwater collection systems.  If a portion of the $300 million were to be put toward loans or direct investment in rainwater collection, we could learn the total impact on water supply.  The projections show that if we can achieve the same level of adoption rate for rainwater collection as in other developed countries, we could rival the water supply impact of a new large reservoir.  If public funds could be used to jump start this trend the eventual impact on water supply and then conservation could be huge and could be a much wiser use of limited public funds. The effect would be a leveraging of public investment since most of the cost of building rainwater collection reservoirs would be largely privately funded in a way that makes sense financially to the property owner.  This would mean less rather than more government spending on infrastructure by encouraging private property owners to create their own water supply.

Please see my other blog  listing in more detail the benefits of rainwater collection over the traditional large reservoir



Bob Drew



New reservoirs reckless at best

By Jenny Hoffner

Communities across Georgia are concerned with securing reliable supplies of clean water for the future, and they are challenged to find the best way forward. To address these issues, Gov. Nathan Deal intends to spend $300 million in state taxpayer money on reservoirs and speculative reservoir planning. While the governor’s approach may sound proactive at first, let’s not mistake just any action on this issue as a step forward. This path amounts to reckless spending of taxpayer money that will leave us no closer to water security than we are today.

As we face an uncertain future, our communities deserve 21st-century solutions, not ones that rely on outdated models from yesteryear. Reservoirs should be the last solution — not the first — that communities reach for to address their water supply needs effectively.

In the wake of the 2008 credit crisis, communities must be more prudent than ever when planning major investments in infrastructure. Financing expensive projects can be the local government equivalent of buying more house than your family can afford. And when a water utility finds itself going under water with reservoir debt, it is the community’s taxpayers and water ratepayers who take the financial hit with rate or tax increases to cover the debt load.

Once locked in to the significant expense of a reservoir and its associated treatment plants, pipes and pumps, a water system loses its financial flexibility. When drought hits, demand forecasts fall short, population projections don’t pan out or other priorities take center stage; adjusting a reservoir plan to accommodate new scenarios and new information is challenging at best.

Reservoirs are expensive, and their costs are consistently underestimated, resulting in significant cost increases. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in October that the city of Canton is so burdened by debt payments on an incomplete reservoir that it is unable to buy firetrucks or complete necessary street repairs. Costs for the Hickory Log Creek Reservoir have risen to five times the original estimate, nearing now $100 million. One city councilman called the municipal debt for the reservoir “a big rock around our neck.”

Unfortunately, it is just this kind of municipal “money pit” that has emerged with several recent water-supply reservoir projects across the Southeast. The trend is a disturbing one for local residents, businesses and government leaders alike.

Nationwide, in fact, reservoirs are risky investments for the public. Just last week, an ongoing effort to convene nationwide water industry experts and public interest groups (including American Rivers) issued a report, “Charting New Waters,” that points out the increasing sensitivity of investors to hidden risks in water-supply systems. Water utilities, which borrow to finance most major projects, are not immune from examination as the financial markets and credit-rating agencies scrutinize various sectors of the economy for previously unseen credit risks. Maintaining financial health and good credit is more important than ever to protect the taxpayers and ratepayers who fund water systems.

Prudent use of taxpayer money demands an honest and rigorous assessment of the full range of water supply options available to a community, including solutions such as conservation, efficiency and interconnections with other water systems. Committing state taxpayer money and Georgia communities to the pursuit of inflexible and financially risky infrastructure is reckless at best and a boondoggle at worst.

Jenny Hoffner is director of the water supply program for American Rivers, americanrivers.org.

Water Supply,Conservation Vital

February 3, 2012


The article below by Kevin Clark appeared today in the AJC Atlanta Forward editorial page.  Kevin leads Governor Deal’s water supply task force.  You may think that I disagree with what Kevin writes, being the founder of ECOVIE Rainwater Collection Systems and president of SERHSA, a 501C6 non-profit which promotes rainwater collection in Georgia.  On the contrary; I agree with almost everything Kevin states.

I believe that adding water supply is critical to matching metro Atlanta and Georgia’s growth projections and also that conservation is part of the solution.  I believe that new reservoirs are definitely the way to go to provide needed additional water supply.  Why would I say this?  It’s because rainwater collection for homes and business IS a form of reservoir.  Rainwater collection entails much smaller reservoirs than may be being considered in the state plan, but reservoirs nevertheless.   Rainwater collection has a big advantages over large reservoirs in many aspects including:

  • Rainwater collection can be built with mostly private capital in a way that is attrective to private property owners, both residential and commercial.
  • Rainwater collection can be implemented faster than building new reservoirs with the main challenge being achieving meaningful adoption rate to match supply needs.  This has been achieved elsewhere in places such as Germany and Australia, so why not in Georgia?
  • Rainwater collection at adoption rates achieved in the places mentioned above can match the water supply delivered by new large reservoirs.  the figure I like to use is that with a 30% adoption rate, rainwater collection can reach 100 million gallons  a day water supply within 10 years which matches proposals for new reservoirs which would start construction in about 10 years.
  • Reservoirs have very high water loss due to evaporation.  Rainwater collection eliminates this problem since water is stored in tanks either above or below ground.  As an example, Lake Lanier evaporates an estimated average of 120 million gallons a day which is a much as proposed new reservoirs.  This means that using rainwater collection instead of a traditional large reservoir could actually INCREASE downstream water flows in rivers while providing added water supply upstream.
  • Rainwater collection helps recharge depleting groundwater supplies.  Instead of water running off during storms, it is collected for future use to water landscapes and gardens.  This replenishes ground water versus well drilling which depletes it.  Reservoirs do not have the same effect since much of the storm water runs off to cause flooding and water quality issues.  Since rainwater collection replenishes groundwater, there is an added effect of increasing downstream river flows.
  • The effect of rainwater collection on stormwater runoff in itself is a large advantage over collecting water in large reservoirs.  The same 100 mgd that is supplied is water that does not lead to flooding, runoff, and, diminished water quality in our waterways.  This aspect of rainwater collection is the main reason it is considered a “green” technology.  With combined sewer overflows and unwanted contaminants entering our drinking water supply, rainwater collection helps combat these problems.
  • Rainwater collection encourages water conservation.  Private property owners with their own water supply tend to be more judicious in their water use compared to those who merely write a check (albeit sometimes with a grumble) to the water department each month.  This effect further improves our regional water management.
  • Rainwater collection can be considered an interim step to shore up water supply shortages while new larger reservoirs come on line.  While the necessity of large reservoirs may prove less necessary, I do not want to be seen as competing with the concept of large reservoirs.  It is not necessarily an either/or proposition.

As president of SERHSA, I am working with the state and with local governments on the concept of using the loan and direct investment money Kevin mentions below to help private property owners to finance rainwater collection projects.  We would have local governments apply for state funding which in turn would be used to help property owners build their own personal reservoirs.  there are several ways we may do this, including taking advatage of the provisions of SB 122 which targets reservoirs owned by private owners and using PACE type loans in which loans are paid back as part of annual property taxes.  I will update you on this as the ideas develop.  With long term loans at the interst rate Kevin mentions below, property owners will pay less on their loan than they save on their water bill, making rainwater projects a cash flow positive proposition from the start.  In this way, we may see a flourishing of rainwater collection as a viable water supply, helping solve our very real water supply challenges.


I invite your comments.  Please see www.serhsa.com and www.ecovierain.com




Bob Drew

Water supply, conservation vital



By Kevin Clark

If you have lived in Georgia for long, you have seen our population and economy grow significantly. You have also seen droughts come and go. Hopefully, recent rains are the beginning of the end to our drought conditions.Population growth, economic development and drought place significant demands on our state’s water supply infrastructure. By proactively addressing our water supply issues with new water sources and conservation, we will have enough water to meet the state’s future needs.

With Gov. Nathan Deal’s leadership, Georgia is implementing a plan to ensure we have adequate water supply. The state will support new water supply infrastructure projects, including new and expanded reservoirs, to help capture more of the nearly 50 inches of rain Georgia receives on average each year. Water supply infrastructure projects also include new wells, system interconnections between communities and innovative approaches such as underground aquifers for storage and reuse.

In January 2011, Deal directed the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority to develop the Governor’s Water Supply Program. The purpose of the program is to align and mobilize the state’s resources to assist local governments with developing new water supply sources. With a commitment of $300 million over the next few years, the state will make loans and invest directly in water supply projects, beginning this summer.

But a state plan focused only on water supply infrastructure would be incomplete and ineffective. That’s why we’re pursuing water conservation as well. Conservation efforts have been developed and practiced in the state for many years. Water conservation practices have been required throughout metro Atlanta since 2003.

The Water Stewardship Act of 2010 calls for water conservation efforts by farmers, builders and water systems throughout Georgia. The recently adopted regional water plans outline region-specific water conservation measures as a priority practice for meeting future water needs.

In the past five years, GEFA has provided more than $65 million in low-interest financing for water conservation projects that serve the state’s current and future needs. Recently, we reduced our interest rate for water conservation projects.

Cities and counties can now finance water conservation projects at rates as low as 1.13 percent. GEFA also has $300 million available this year in its water and sewer-financing programs from which water conservation projects can be funded.

A comprehensive solution that includes providing new water supply and practicing conservation is critical to our state. Georgia’s population is projected to grow by an additional 4.6 million people by 2030.

The population increase and the resulting economic development and growth needed to sustain it will place new demands on our water resources. By ensuring adequate supply through new water sources and conservation, we’ll meet Georgia’s water needs.

If we have one, but not the other, then we’ll fail to provide Georgia families and businesses with the water resources they need to thrive.

Kevin Clark is executive director of the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority.


December 15, 2011

The outline below shows how rainwater collection can be part of the governor’s plan to increase water supply in Georgia.

Rainwater Collection Is:
• A form of reservoir that meets all of the criteria outlined in the GWSTF report
• A perfect “intermediate solution” to provide water while we pursue larger reservoirs
• A potential source of 27 mgd water supply by 2016
• A water source that meets the criteria of SB 122 and will be privately owned
• A form of reservoir that offers unique advantages over larger reservoirs
The Southeast Rainwater Harvesting Systems Association (SERHSA) is a newly formed nonprofit 501(C)(6) organization that seeks to educate the region on the benefits of rainwater harvesting, advocate for public policy that encourages its use, and promote the highest professional standards for the equipment and installation companies that provide it to businesses and homeowners. The leadership of SERHSA has thoroughly analyzed Georgia’s looming water crisis for more than a year and concludes that the benefits of rainwater harvesting are essential to helping the region address this issue before it becomes critical. What follows is our analysis:
Everything about rainwater harvesting speaks to the heart of the stated mission that guides the Georgia Water Supply Task Force. To wit:
As outlined on Page 2 of the report: Rainwater harvesting 1) develops new water supplies and presents an effective solution for water resources, 2) can be inexpensively financed with significant investment from the private sector, 3) provides enormous leverage for public support with private investment, and 4) is easily accomplished without cumbersome regulatory requirements.
As detailed on Page 4 of the report: Rainwater harvesting meets all the necessary requirements of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District’s charge to its jurisdictions, i.e. “All affected local governments in the Metro District are required to comply with best practices related to water supply, water conservation, and wastewater and storm water management.”
On Page 6 of the report, the Task Force tags “intermediate solutions” as the best option for addressing the water crisis. However, the “intermediate solutions” it identifies don’t fit the criteria defined. Intermediate is defined in the report as deliverable by 2020 and we’re already past the window that would make new or expanded reservoirs fit that time frame. But rainwater harvesting, which can begin generating new water supply immediately, can provide additional resources that could extend the window of opportunity while new or expanded reservoirs are being planned, permitted and built. The 10-year process identified on Page 7 of the report, acknowledges “political, economic and social competition between neighboring communities, or between cities and counties, often discourages collaboration in development of water supply projects. Established water departments may be resistant to cooperation with adjoining systems or communities.”
Rainwater harvesting dodges almost all these problems with its distributed approach to water consumption. Georgia’s Riparian rights trump any jurisdictional encroachment and capacity is determined by user preference. And it leaves the resources of the shared reservoir more available to all.

Finally, Page 13 of the report detail’s the Water Supply Task Force guiding principles, every one of which rainwater harvesting addresses.
Again, rainwater harvesting meets every single one of the “guiding principles” laid out in the report::
• GWSP should support local governments in their efforts to secure adequate and reliable water supplies. Rainwater harvesting is as intensely local as water supply gets. By supporting the efforts of property owners to capture the water from their own rooftops and use it for grounds irrigation and other non-potable uses, the state makes local public sources of water more available for potable consumption and helps municipal governments control storm water and flooding by reducing runoff.
• The GWSP seeks to use state funds in the most efficient and effective way to maximize water supply. Rainwater harvesting can provide quick, effective water supply benefits in the short term with modest incentives to property owners for installation. The bulk of investment in a rainwater harvesting initiative would be private.
• GWSP should tailor support to unique needs of individual projects instead of pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach. Rainwater harvesting is uniquely designed by property owners to their needs and preferences. They determine size and use with their own investment and in consultation with their professional installers.
• Regional cooperation is the preferred approach to addressing water supply needs. Rainwater harvesting respects and protects shared resources throughout the watershed, making shared resources more available to all and ultimately returning the captured water to the water table.
• State funding sources should be managed in a manner appropriate to promote fund sustainability and to help ensure long-term sustainability of local water resources. By reserving shared water resources for potable uses, rainwater harvesting makes them more sustainable. And by quickly extending the availability of existing supplies, rainwater harvesting offers local governments the time they need to site and build reservoirs for long-term security.

Rainwater harvesting doesn’t eliminate the need for reservoirs, but it creates more time to build them and makes the most effective use of both existing and future resources.

Under the provisions of SB 122, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs – which publishes the state guidelines for rainwater harvesting installation – could provide funding to local governments for grants to homeowners and businesses for rainwater harvesting installation. With a contract between the property owner and the government, specific amounts representing a portion of the cost could be provided to offset the initial investment in rainwater harvesting equipment. The contract would be contingent on an application detailing the installation’s adherence to state guidelines and the name and contact information for the installer.
In exchange, the property owner would promise to store rainwater and use it for allowed applications to reduce withdrawals from shared public water resources, as well as to reduce storm water runoff, for a specified period of years. The property owner would agree to maintain the equipment properly. For a relatively modest investment of the governor’s bond proceeds for water infrastructure, these incentives could support the installation of as many as 2,000 residential systems within a year and demonstrate the efficacy of rainwater harvesting as a water-supply resource.
Rainwater harvesting is a proven technology widely accepted and practiced in water stressed regions such as the American Southwest and Australia. Modest incentives, as described above, and heightened public awareness could stimulate enough adoption to produce significant results – as much as 27 MGD – in just five short years.
Finally, rainwater harvesting promotes economic development. In addition to system designers, suppliers and installers, the industry creates jobs for many Georgians hard-hit by the recent economic downturn such as plumbers, electricians and landscapers. And it protects the region’s economic climate, which stands to lose as much as $39 billion annually if demand for water outstrips supply as predicted, according to the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

Making Every Raindrop Count

August 29, 2011
Note that the City of Austin offers a $5000 rebate to install a rainwater collection system.  ECOVIE (www.ecovierain.com) fully supports this type of incentive and is working with local municipalities in the Atlanta area to see what can be done here.  Even though we have lower than average rainfall this year in metro Atlanta, we are on track for about 40″ (about10″ below the 30 year average).  That means the impact of rainwater collection here is much greater than in Austin in terms of water supply potential and controlling stormwater runoff.
The article below from the NY Times which gives a great overview of incorporating rainwater collection and low impact landscaping to improve water management and local landscape beauty.
Please let me know your comments!
Bob Drew, Founder ECOVIE

Stacy Sodolak for The New York Times

Mark Simmons, an ecologist on the Mueller Prairie project. More Photos »

Published: August 24, 2011


WITH 70 days of 100-plus temperatures so far and no rain in sight, Austin is in the grip of its worst one-year drought on record. And gardeners are quickly finding out which plants can survive brutal heat and drought.

Native trees like cedar elms and hackberries are dropping their leaves. Ash junipers in the Hill Country are dying. Shallow-rooted azaleas and crape myrtles are toast, and most lawns are brown, except for those watered by private wells.

Animals are suffering, too. Coyotes and rabbits are showing up in city gardens in search of water and food. Hummingbirds can’t find nectar because many plants aren’t flowering.

The first week of August, when daily temperatures climbed to 107 or so, a bison escaped from a ranch in Manchaca, on the southwest side of the city, and wandered into the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center seven miles away, where it spent several days grazing in the savanna grasslands.

Gardeners are embracing those prairie grasses with equal enthusiasm because of their heat and drought tolerance. These natives can be found in many of the city’s lawns, ornamental gardens and even green roofs. Remarkably, these deep-rooted plants can adjust to shallow soils, helping to cool houses and absorb rain — when there is some.

“If we get a rain, these grasses will all turn green,” said Lars Stanley, 59, an architect and metal artist, standing on a roof planted with natives that covers the studio he built in East Austin with his wife, Lauren Woodward Stanley, 45, an architect. “It reduces our cooling level immensely.”

The grasses (blue grama, curly mesquite, little bluestem and sideoats grama) go dormant in a drought, a survival strategy that keeps their roots alive. But the prickly pear and Texas sedum the Stanleys planted, succulents that store water in their fleshy pads, looked remarkably fine.

A plain black-tar roof can heat up to 170 to 200 degrees, Mr. Stanley noted.

The plants on this roof, rooted in five inches of a stony mix that includes crushed decomposed granite, perlite, lava rock, rice hulls and a dash of compost teeming with micro-organisms, “should knock that temperature down 100 degrees,” he said.

“But they have to be green and evapo-transpiring to do that,” Ms. Stanley added. “We’re not going to water them in the midst of a drought.”

With its reservoirs half-empty and tributaries down to a trickle, the city is rationing water. And the Austin Water Utility is offering rebates of up to $5,000 for installing residential rainwater collection systems.

When it does rain here, it tends to pour, sheeting across hard surfaces and dry lawns to storm sewers. So the more rain that is channeled into tanks or slowed by porous driveways and terraced gardens, the better for the land, as well as the water table, because plants will filter pollutants before sending water on to underground springs and tributaries to the Colorado River.

On the roof over the Stanleys’ studio, rainwater is channeled down a wide gutter that feeds into one of four 1,500-gallon tanks on the two-acre property. “We use the condensate from our air-conditioning also,” Mr. Stanley said. “It fills up a five-gallon bucket every two days, which adds to the tank.”

Other designers, like Christine Ten Eyck, a landscape architect, are replacing asphalt driveways and other hard surfaces with permeable ones, like gravel or crushed granite, and replacing lawn with terraced beds filled with plants that not only can take heat and drought but also absorb and hold water.

“I’ve done it passively, instead of actively with a cistern,” said Ms. Ten Eyck, 52, standing by the live oaks in front of the 1950s bungalow in West Austin that she shares with her husband, Gary Deaver, 65. “The whole idea was to slow the rainwater down, because we’re about eight feet higher than the street.”

In place of her old driveway and flagstone paving, crushed decomposed granite planted with small blue-green agaves now surrounds the oaks, allowing air and water to reach tree roots. Ms. Ten Eyck also replaced the lawn with natives, including groves of Texas persimmon trees and drifts of Mexican feather grass billowing over Berkeley sedge, mounds of tall joe-pye weed and clumps of Mexican orchid tree, all stepped down the slope.

Giant blue agaves (Agave franzosinii) as big as economy cars greet visitors walking through the front gate. These Mexican natives love the heat, and they don’t need any water.

ON the east side of the city, the same native plants that fill the Stanleys’ green roof are sending down much deeper roots in the Mueller Prairie, a restored 30-acre fragment of the Texas Blackland Prairie, which once sprawled across 15 million acres.

Mark Simmons, a restoration ecologist who orchestrated the seed mix and plantings here, calls it “one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America,” because “there are a few thousand acres, or one-tenth of 1 percent left.”

Mr. Simmons, 50, is the director of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas and is working with RVi, a design and landscape architecture firm here, to bring part of this prairie back to life.

The native grasses, he said, can sequester more carbon than trees: “As the roots die, that organic carbon gets locked up in the soil and can stay tens of thousand of years — a lot longer than the lifetime of a tree trunk, which falls down and rots, releasing carbon into the air.”

Once buried under the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, the land is now one of the public parks in a huge 700-acre mixed-use project being built downtown by the Catellus Development Corporation.

Other projects Mr. Simmons is working on include advising people like the Stanleys on how to use native plants on a green roof, and developing a native turf grass that doesn’t have to be watered or mowed, thus saving energy and reducing the production of greenhouse gases.

“You can have a nice green lawn if you water every two weeks,” he said. “But if you don’t water, it goes dormant and turns brown. It’s not the end of the world.”

Mr. Simmons, who grew up in Cornwall with a lush English lawn, recalls all the time he spent playing behind the verdant hedge. “Why would you want to take that away?” he said. Particularly when there are already “40 million acres of lawn in this country.”

Instead of trying to persuade Americans to rip up their lawns and grow vegetables, Mr. Simmons is proposing a radically different kind of ground cover: a mix of seven native species, including buffalo grass, blue grama, Texas grama and curly mesquite.

Because each grass has different needs and habits, it fills a particular ecological niche, and the right matrix of plants keeps diseases from spreading and shuts out weeds, so pesticides are rarely necessary. Native grass also has roots that go down 30 feet, finding water when there is none to be had aboveground.

He isn’t content with just revolutionizing turf grass, though. He’s out to change our very perceptions of what makes an appealing landscape.

“We have this expectation, left over from the Victorian era, that everything has to be green,” Mr. Simmons said. “But we have savannas here, dark evergreen trees and grass like Africa that turns brown in the dry season. That’s the nature of plants.”

The Mueller prairie was brown — even crispy — that August morning, as Mr. Simmons recalled its rebirth from a parking lot at the old airport.

“When we lifted up the hardscaping in 2008, the rich Blackland clay soil was still there,” he said. “So we stockpiled it while we sculpted the land.”

The compacted soil had to be ripped up, tilled 20 inches down and graded so that the land sloped away from the new houses built across the street to a catchment pond in the middle of the greenway, where storm water is cleansed by native cattails, mallows and other wetland species. The stockpiled prairie soil was then spread over the graded land, with a layer of low-nutrient compost (these plants don’t need extra nitrogen) to encourage germination. Finally, dozens of species of native grasses and wildflowers were hydro-seeded across the plain.

Early pioneer species, like sideoats grama and green sprangletop, began sprouting, enriching the soil and providing a bit of shade for later species, like Indiangrass and big bluestem. But it was a slow, scruffy process, and residents in the new community began to complain.

“People were asking: ‘What are all these weeds? Why aren’t we mowing?’ ” Mr. Simmons said. So he started giving talks to the community, and his team gave tours and handed out educational material.

“Six months later, when we decided to mow, to make the wildflowers show up better in the spring, we got all these calls saying, ‘Why are you mowing down our prairie?’ ” he said.

Bird populations have increased, as grasses and trees provide food and shelter.

“We have a lot of ducks on the pond,” said Janelle Dozier, 58, who moved here with her husband, Don, 64, in 2008. “In the evening, purple martins like to fly over it and catch the bugs.”

Ms. Dozier helped start the Friends of the Prairie, a group of about 70 volunteers who help weed and maintain the area. Such interaction of people and prairie is crucial, Mr. Simmons said.

“Restoring a prairie isn’t just ‘Design a landscape and presto, you’ve got it,’ ” he said. “It’s a long trajectory, and you need people to help guide it along, which isn’t a bad thing, because then they value it.”

Earlier this week, as days with triple-digit temperatures added up to Austin’s hottest summer on record, Mr. Simmons took a measured but optimistic view.

“It’s likely that this is going to happen again. Hot summers aren’t ever going to leave us,” he said. “But if we just search in our local flora for the right plants, we can create drought-resistant, regenerative landscapes.”

Regenerative seems to have replaced sustainable as the new buzzword.

“It means landscapes that give back,” he said. “Which is what green roofs and prairies do.”

Contractors win cut in proposed Atlanta potable rainwater fee

August 24, 2011

A great article by Ken in the Green Business Chronicle… Thanks Ken

Ken Edelstein Aug 15, 2011

City officials have agreed to lower a portion of the proposed fees attached to a landmark ordinance designed to allow single-family homes in Atlanta to install potable rainwater systems.

Potable rainwater treatment system inside the basement of an Atlanta home. Photo courtesy of Bob Drew.

That clears way for the City Council Public Utilities Committee to approve the ordinance at its Aug. 30 meeting. The full Council could approve the legislation as early as September.

The ordinance creates permitting guidelines for potable rainwater systems, which currently have no way to be considered fully legal because they fall outside the permitting guidelines for other plumbing systems.

As opposed to the more common rainwater systems that homeowners use to water lawns and gardens (which will continue not to require permits), potable systems are designed to treat rainwater for use inside homes.

The fees are necessary because potable systems send wastewater that has to be fully treated into the city’s sanitary sewer system. Earlier this year, officials in the city’s Office of Sustainability and Department of Watershed Management proposed annual fees for houses with potable systems, because unlike houses with conventional plumbing, they can’t be billed monthly based on the amount of water they’re drawing from the city.

But rainwater contractors pointed out that some potable system also provide landscape water. So city officials agreed in their new fee schedule to accommodate those dual-purpose systems by giving them a 30 percent discount. That means, for example, that a 3,400-gallon system — about the size that a single-family home might use — would be assessed $306.81 instead of $438.30.

Only a handful of potable rainwater systems have been installed in the Atlanta area. But advocates like Bob Drew of Ecovie Environmental argue widespread potable systems could contribute to increasing Atlanta’s water supply more quickly and cost effectively than reservoirs would. Not widespread in the United States, the systems are fairly common in Australia, Germany and a handful of other countries.

Councilwoman Carla Smith compared the acceptance of potable rainwater systems to compact-florescent bulbs 15 years ago at a recent Utilities Committee meeting, according to those present. Others Council members have urged city officials to seek ways to provide incentives to install the systems.

With the ordinance’s passage, Atlanta would become the first major city to establish its own permitting setup for potable rainwater, although other cities permit such systems via state law.

Drought Back in Atlanta?

July 29, 2011

I just checked year to date rainfall in Atlanta and found that we are around 8″ below average for this time of year.  This means that rainwater collection becomes more important for providing needed water for landscapes as well as continuing to control runoff during those not so infrequent gully washers.  We have about 23″ of rainfall so far from the source I checked versus 31″ normally.  Below is added news from the AJC on Lake Lanier levels

Lake Lanier reported lowest level since 2009

By Associated Press

For the AJC

 The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says Lake Lanier has dropped to a level it hasn’t been at since a two-year drought ended in 2009.Data from the Corps shows the North Georgia reservoir stood at 1,066.87 feet above sea level on Sunday. Summer full pool is 1,071 feet above sea level. Georgia Power reports the lake at 1,066.81 feet early Monday.The last time the lake was reported at a lower elevation was Sept. 20, 2009, when the level was 1,065.55 feet.

The U.S. Drought Monitor says much of Georgia is experiencing severe drought.

Turning Rain into Cash Flow

July 26, 2011

Turning rain into cash flow

5:43 am July 26, 2011, by Henry Unger

Worried about metro Atlanta’s future water supply? Higher water rates?

Two local entrepreneurs have teamed up to do something about it — and make money in the process.

Randy KaukRandy Kauk

Randy Kauk and Bob Drew are collecting and distributing one of Mother Nature’s most precious gifts — rainwater.

Kauk’s Cumming-based firm, RainHarvest Systems, sells the necessary equipment to businesses and homeowners. Drew’s Atlanta-based company, Ecovie, engineers and installs the systems.

Both have seen explosive growth, which they believe is just the beginning for an industry in its infancy.

“We started as a result of the drought,” Kauk, 49, said. “I think we can be a solution to the water crisis.”

Instead of letting rainwater escape after it hits roofs, roads and other hard surfaces, the systems capture, treat and distribute it to reduce usage costs and conserve water.

One customer, the Atlanta Braves, is trying to reduce its $1 million-plus annual water bill.

Bob DrewBob Drew

“It makes financial sense and environmental sense,” said Mike Plant, the team’s executive VP of business operations.

The big expense for the Braves, Plant explained, does not come from watering the field, as I’d thought. Instead, it’s the pressure washing of the seating bowl and plaza area that guzzles the most water.

Starting in May, the Braves experimented with a 1,500-gallon collection tank that is expected to save about 20,000 gallons over the season.

“It showed the power of the idea,” Plant said. Now, the team is planning at least 10 more tanks to multiply the savings.

Homeowners can benefit, too. Just last week, the city of Atlanta held a public hearing on whether to establish a permitting process to allow homeowners to drink, wash and bathe with rainwater. Currently, the water can be used for toilets and laundry inside, and anywhere outside. With special treatment and permission, it also can be used for drinking, cooking and bathing.

Drew, 49, estimates that the average homeowner might spend $10,000 to $15,000 on a system, including installation. It could take four to eight years to recoup the investment from lower water bills, he said, not counting the likely increase in the home’s resale value.

But there can be wide variations in the return on investment, Drew said, depending on the scope of the system installed, water usage and rates.

Kauk’s company supplies the four essential products: Holding tanks (from 700 to 50,000 gallons each), filters for cleaning, pumps and pipes for distribution, and the controls to run the system.

He got started in the business after getting frustrated while equipping his Lake Lanier home. He discovered that there was no central supplier for all of the equipment.

“It took 10 companies to find everything I needed,” he said.

That led Kauk to launch his own firm, which he said is now the country’s biggest supplier. From $180,000 in his initial year of 2007, Kauk expects revenue to hit about $5 million this year.

Drew expects his three-year-old company to reach about $750,000 in sales his year.

“The potential for growth is astronomical, given metro Atlanta’s water-supply challenges and high water rates,” he said.

– Henry Unger, The Biz Beat

City considers allowing homeowners to use rainwater

July 21, 2011

ATLANTA NEWS 5:59 p.m. Wednesday, July 20, 2011

By Ernie Suggs

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Mary Stouffer once hated rainy days. They flooded her Virginia-Highland basement and created havoc. Rain works for her now. Rainy days are good days.

Stouffer is one of the few people in metro Atlanta who harvests rainwater for drinking and cooking. She’s a reason the Atlanta City Council will hold a public hearing Thursday seeking feedback for a permit process that would enable any of its 100,000-plus water customers to seek this natural alternative.

“I just didn’t want to be another person soaking up the water when we have so much rainwater,” Stouffer said. “Before, when it rained, I was fearful that I would get flooded. Now I am joyful when it rains, because it fills my tanks.”

Stouffer already has a permit that allows her to collect rainwater for drinking. She had a system installed at her home in February last year after she received special permission from the city to experiment with the process.

If pursued under a wider scope, Atlanta would become the first city nationally to write its own ordinance enabling home owners to use rainwater for drinking, washing and bathing, said Jenah Zweig, Office of Sustainability project manager. Portland, Ore., operates under a rainwater ordinance that was approved by the state.

“There is a worldwide shortage of water and it is just starting to hit the U.S.,”  said Bob Boulware, former president for the American Rainwater Catchment System Association and founder of Design-Aire Engineering in Indianapolis. “I am seeing water be what energy was 30 years ago. … Atlanta, and Georgia, seeing that water shortages are an urgent issue, has gotten out ahead.”

Several cities in California and the Southwest are also looking into similar projects, Boulware said.

In Georgia, rainwater use for irrigation and flushing toilets was allowed by a 2009 amendment to the international plumbing code that didn’t address everything.

“The amendment said nothing about drinking water, so we were in a gray area,” Zweig said. “But if you collect water from the roof of your house, it might not be safe. From a regulatory standpoint, rainwater untreated is not something you want to be drinking.”

A new ordinance would create a permitting and regulating system for Atlanta homeowners who want to harvest their own drinking water and potentially cut down on their water bills.

However, a home water system is not cheap. Stouffer’s cost between $12,000 and $15,000, meaning any actual savings won’t be incurred for another decade.

Stouffer was remodeling her home and backyard while trying to address the constant flooding of her property when she decided to go with her own water system and gained approval.

“We had a lot of runoff and instead of flooding my basement I wanted to capture and use it. … I wanted another choice, so we turned lemons into lemonade,” Stouffer said.

Bob Drew, the founder of EcoVie Environmental, installed the system, which consists of two 1,700-gallon tanks. When it rains, water is collected from Stouffer’s roof through an elaborate system of gutters and pipes.

The first 20 gallons, filled with leaves and bird droppings, are flushed away. The remaining water goes through filters to remove pollen and dirt. Once the water makes it inside the home, it is filtered at least three more times.

“I think it tastes better than city water,” Drew said of his filtered rainwater. “No chlorine. No trace elements. But that is just my opinion. This is a well-designed system. No health risks at all.”

Dennis Lye, a Cincinnati-based research microbiologist with the Environmental Protection Agency, said the federal government now recognizes rainwater as an alternative source of water.

“It is not dangerous at all, as long as you have a treatment process; water collected off the roof is not as contaminated as ground or river water,” Lye said. “It has not been accepted, because there is no history of it. Local and state agencies are ignorant of the process.

“But it is just a matter of education and there is a groundswell of support for it.”

Atlanta’s potable rainwater ordinance could be national model

July 20, 2011

This is from Ken Edelstein of the Green Business Chronicle.  Thanks Ken for a very fine piece.  Updates to this article can be found at:


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.