Atlanta Proposes Charging for Collected Rainwater

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(APN) ATLANTA — A currently proposed City of Atlanta ordinance would begin to charge residents who use rainwater catchment systems, raising concern among some Atlanta citizens who see the ordinance as taxing the water which falls from the sky.

Ordinance #11-O-0740, Potable Rainwater Ordinance for Residential Use, was sent from Mayor Kasim Reed’s office to the City Utilities Committee in early May 2011, and is currently held in Cmte, where it is awaiting a public hearing, which has yet to be scheduled at this time.

“Customers will not be charged for non-potable rain catchment systems, such as rain barrels,” the City of Atlanta’s Office of Sustainability wrote in a Frequently Asked Questions memo issued on June 06, 2011.

“Rain barrels tend to be smaller (most are 55 gallon containers), and used for non-potable tasks such as watering gardens and lawns.  Charges only apply [under the proposal] when residents choose to install potable rainwater catchment systems that ultimately discharge wastewater to the City’s sewage system,” the memo states.

Most Atlanta families and businesses who rely on treated water from the City of Atlanta pay for the treated water they consume, as well as for the used water they return to the system as sewage.

Currently, those who have a potable rainwater catchment system–and use the rainwater for things like showers and washing dishes, for example–do not pay to consume the water [which they collected themselves], but also do not pay for returning used water to the sewer system where it must be treated.

The City argues that while potable rainwater catchment systems already exist, they need to be regulated for health and safety.

“Current City of Atlanta (City) code does not currently allow harvested rainwater to be used for drinking, otherwise known as ‘potable’ use.  The proposed Potable Rainwater Catchment System Ordinance would allow these systems, require health and safety specifications for these systems, and implement an alternate sewer fee structure for users of these systems to ensure their safe use and operation,” the memo states.

“Because potable rainwater is used indoors, it will be discharged to the sewer system and eventually be treated by the Department of Watershed Management’s (DWM) sewage treatment plants.  In order to avoid charging all customers the sewage use of a select group, the ordinance includes a provision to bill for sewer charges,” the memo states.

“This ordinance is important because Access to the public water supply must be carefully monitored to prevent the introduction of contaminants.  Therefore, DWM will be available to recommend a back flow prevention device that will keep the City water supply completely separate from water supplied by rainwater catchment systems.  DWM will issue applicable permits and conduct inspections as necessary.  If DWM determines at any time that a serious threat to the public health exists, the water service will be terminated immediately.  These measures are in place for public safety and protection,” the memo states.

Concerned citizens held a press conference on Monday, June 20, 2011, at 2pm in front of Booker T. Washington High School.

Kwabena “Cubby” Nkromo, a candidate for City Council District 4 who is challenging incumbent City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, questions the public policy rationale of the proposed ordinance.

“The pending Rainwater Catchment system ordinance needs explicit and unambiguous exceptions for all uses other than the indoor potable consumption,” Nkromo said.

Moreover, advocates and participants in the local urban agriculture movement are concerned about possible “legislative creep, which might allow city agencies to harass, tax, or disrupt rainwater catchment intended for urban agricultural irrigation,” Nkromo said in a statement.

Steve Williams was among a small handful of citizens present at the press conference.  Williams installs rainwater systems and has an informational website, TheRainSaver.com, which focuses on rainwater conservation.

Williams is supportive of the legislation overall.  “Legislation is needed, and the proposed ordinance is well-written,” he said.

But he adds, “Kwabena is correct, and the proposed legislation could be more clear regarding what type of systems are included.  Although the intent of the ordinance is not to effect the average person with a rain barrel, unless the ordinance specifies that, there could be a problem down the road.”

Nkromo feels these regulations are excessive.  Williams says “the regulations are reasonable, but the pricing is questionable.”

The pricing for the proposed new charges is explained in a memorandum dated May 31, 2011, sent to Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Units (NPU’s), from Bill Hosken, Interim Director of Sustainability for the City of Atlanta, and Jenah Zweig, Project Manager for the City of Atlanta – Office of Sustainability.

“The billing methodology is a tiered annual permitting fee.  This tiered annual permit fee will be based on the size of the rainwater tank, with a $6.56 base rate for all systems plus $9.74 per 75 gallons of storage capacity per year,” the pricing memo states.

“Since the size of rainwater tanks is correlated with residential rainwater use, this billing methodology is tailored to provide residents with a fair, flat annual fee, while minimizing the City of Atlanta’s administrative costs,” the memo states.

But advocates worry the high fees will be cost prohibitive and will discourage people from capturing and using rainwater, despite the environmental and economic benefits [treatment of water provided by the City of Atlanta requires chemicals, electricity, and money].

“The high fees associated with the new requirements will make it too expensive,” Nkromo said.

“The fee schedule should be revised,” Williams said.  “The proposed pricing is expensive, and our City should look at the billing system for potable rainwater in Orange County in California, which exempts systems which are 3000 gallons or less, and does not have additional administrative charges, which are added in the proposed fee structure.”

“The Watershed Department says that conservation is important, and the City is aware of the damage that storm water has on our infrastructure.  If that is the case, why not charge a reasonable rate, so that more people can afford to conserve?” Williams asks.

“The current price schedule… is based on how large your system is, which will cause people to be charged for sewage, even if the water is for the lawn, which does not use city pipes,” Williams said.

Overall, Williams encourages more Atlanta families and businesses to consider collecting rainwater, both for potable and non-potable uses.

“A basic system can cost some upfront money [from ten thousand dollars on up], but the benefits are tremendous.  The water from a rainwater system, when done properly, has no harsh chemicals, and is much healthier.  How much money do we spend on bottled water, and how much waste are the plastic bottles?  Having a rainwater system will help conserve water, and in the case of a drought, you will have water to drink, and save thousands on lost plants.  The other advantage of a rainwater system is the relief from the damage on our infrastructure, from run off storm water,” Williams said.

Williams believes the effects of climate change may get worse, and the weather is no longer predictable.  Not having a rainwater system is short-sighted, and not fair to our children.  Williams is one of a handful of professionals who provide rainwater harvesting systems, and he hopes these systems will be included in all future home renovations and new construction.

(END / 2011)

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