Washington clarifies muddy rain collection law




Posted on October 21, 2009 at 10:12 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 21 at 10:22 AM

Did you know when rain falls in Washington—it's technically property of the state?  But the state is loosening its grip when it comes to collecting that rain.

The state's water resources law dates back to 1917.  It defines water resources "as all the water above, upon, or beneath the surface of the earth located within the state."  

The City of Seattle has encouraged its residents to harvest rain for many years, but the state policy has been a little muddy. 

Washington Department of Ecology has just re-written its policy to make it more clear:  You do not need a permit to collect rainwater off your rooftops and builders no longer need difficult-to-get permits to include rain-harvesting systems in their building plans.

"I think it's really going to help people feel confident about collecting water onsite," said Laila Suidan, an environmental educator at Seattle Tilth

Suidan thinks rain barrels are good for beginners.

"It can help people to save a little bit of water and also get in touch with what it means to use water off their sites," she said.

Even better, she suggests staring a rain garden—a depression in your landscape that catches more rainwater—filtering it back into the water table instead of storm drains.  They are little things that, together, add up to better management of water and runoff.  And water collection can be helpful to combat the effects of development.

"Traditionally in this region water flowed into the groundwater table and in through the interflow which is the water flowing right below the surface.  So there was a little bit of runoff on the surface," said Suidan. 

But the explosion of development brings more impermeable surfaces to interupt that natural flow.  The more concrete and rooftops there are, the fewer natural places the water has to flow.

"We've seen a drastic shift in water cycling where we have tons and tons of water running off the surface into storm drains," said Suidan.  "In peak storm events [runoff] sends untreated water, including sewage, into our streams in the Puget Sound."

The new policy will have the most impact on builders who want to include rain collection in their developments.  In the past, they'd need to apply for a "surface water right permit" in order to collect water.  

One person in the industry joked that he would never have lived long enough to get one of those.  

The new policy still gives the Department of Ecology the right to pull rank.  They can stop people from harvesting rainwater if it becomes so widely used that it could harm stream flows or existing water rights.