To solve their water woes, Hill Country innovators are looking to the heavens.
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MIKE MCELVEEN isn’t sweating the Drought of ’96, even though the wells all around him in western Travis County are running dry. As one of two million Texans who live too far away from a city or public water supply, he relies on another source for his domestic water needs: rain. Thanks to a rain-collection system he designed and built himself over the past decade, he has 16,000 gallons of water stored, enough that he can withstand another six years of arid conditions. “The lakes will dry up before that happens,” he says with a smile.
You hear a similar story all across Texas these days, but particularly in the Hill Country, which is in the midst of both a record dry spell and a population boom. The tropical downpours of late August helped some, but declining water tables and the insatiable thirst of the city of San Antonio have created a continuing dilemma. As solutions go, the notion of capturing rainwater for drinking and other household uses is hardly novel; in the 1800’s, rain was the preferred water source in much of Texas, as you can tell from the hundred-year-old stone cisterns still in use at farmhouses across the state. But in the early 1900’s, when drilling technology made it possible to dig wells hundreds of feet below the surface, rain collection became obsolescent.
Now, however, it’s back as a viable alternative. Among the Hill Country’s first devotees was McElveen, a doctor who began with a whiskey barrel and has worked his way up to a multitank system. But there have been many recent converts, from individuals like Hays County judge Eddy Etheredge, a former well driller by profession, to institutions like the National Wildflower Research Center, southwest of Austin. The interest has been so intense that it led to the creation of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, which holds its next meeting October 14 in Austin.
Rain collection is not implausible when you consider how basic the equipment is: All you need is a roof with gutters, a storage tank, a pump, filters, pipes, an ultra violet-light-treatment system, and a flow switch. An inch of rain falling on a 2,000-square-foot roof yields 1,200 gallons, more than a two-week supply for a conservation-minded family of four. And there are other benefits: No softener salts are required, and pumps, pipes, and water heaters last longer without the mineral deposits left by city or well water. Also, rainwater is superior for washing hair and dishes and feeding plants. “It’s as clean and pure as the water used for patients on kidney dialysis,” McElveen says.
Granted, the start-up cost of $1 to $2 per gallon of storage capacity is high considering it costs much less to hook up to the city grid. But it’s a onetime expense, and there are no monthly water bills. “Our customers are smart enough to do the economic comparisons,” says Matt Bachardy, a rain-collection system designer in Wimberley. “There’s talk about monitoring wells to regulate how much you can pump, but they can’t tell me I can’t use all the water I collect. This is all about independence.”