Ask ELi: Rainwater Collection and Use?

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Friday, December 11, 2015, 12:13 am
Alice Dreger

Above: An East Lansing rain barrel at an owner-occupied house.

ASK ELi TO INVESTIGATE is our ongoing series in which we investigate answers to our readers’ questions. Have a question you want to ask? Contact us!

A reader wrote to ask: "What are the local regulations regarding rainwater collection and use? Rain barrels are becoming increasingly popular, and many older homes still have workable cisterns. Since citizens are required to pay both water and sewage fees for water drawn from the city, even when used on lawns, this seems like an activity that should be encouraged.”

For answers, I went to Bob Scheuerman, Engineering Administrator for the City of East Lansing, a veritable font of information on all of the City’s liquid disposal issues.

Personal collection of stormwater and greywater is not regulated: There are no restrictions put on property owners with regard to the collection of stormwater or greywater or on the use of that water on their own properties. (“Greywater” is the term for “the relatively clean waste water from baths, sinks, washing machines, and other kitchen appliances.”)

So homeowners can use cisterns and rain barrels to collect water for use, for example, on landscaping.

Scheuerman tell us that “Capturing and using stormwater by collecting it in rain barrels or cistern is proper and encouraged. However, we have to be careful about greywater. It can not contain any pollutants including soap products. Thus water from washing machines, dishwashers, showers and most sink waters are not able to be discharged onto the ground.”

What can you collect and reuse as greywater? Scheuerman says, “About the only things I can think of that would be safe as greywater would be condensate from air conditioners, or sump pumps. In general, if you can not [safely and legally] discharge it to a storm sewer, you should not dump it on the ground since it has the potential to run off.”

Scheuerman referred us to the City Code Sec 46-202 (b) (1) for the list of exemptions regarding what you can capture in a cistern for reuse. Click here to see that.

Right now there are no City-offered financial incentives offered to do water collection and reuse: As many East Lansing homeowners know, we pay a sewage charge that is based on how much water we draw from the City’s supplies, under the assumption that water we draw will eventually go into the sewage system. Logically, you might expect that if you can prove you’re putting less into the sewer system than you might otherwise do, you might get a break on your water/sewer bill.

But there is currently no break given to property owners for collecting and reusing greywater or rain water. The City also has no programs currently to provide financial assistance to obtain rain barrels or to create other water collection systems.

Scheuerman points out, however, that “the capture of stormwater in rain barrels and cisterns will save property owners money on purchasing water from the City and the subsequent sewer charge that follows.”

The City has a new “Stormwater Management Program” that might create new incentives: This week, Scheuerman presented our new Stormwater Management Program to our City Council; see the presentation here.

According to Scheuerman , “A portion of that program does provide numerous suggestions for reducing the amount of stormwater runoff that leaves a site. These possibilities will incorporate many of the Low Impact development and Green Initiatives that have been recommended by USEPA and MDEQ: green roofs, rain gardens, cisterns, pervious pavements, rain barrels, etc.”

Scheuerman says that, “Hopefully, property owners will see the benefits of incorporating these measures whenever practical as a means of protecting our waterways and environment. We will be working with others in the GLRC [the Greater Lansing Regional Committee for Stormwater Management] to promote a Public Education Program to encourage such responses.” 

The City is formalizing guidance for managing stormwater runoff on newly developed or redeveloped properties of one acre or larger (commercial or residential). Developers of these properties “will be required to incorporate certain measures to reduce the runoff from their proposed developments once the Post Construction Stormwater Ordinance is enacted.”

Says Scheuerman, the City’s forthcoming “Post Construction Stormwater Management Guidance Manual" will consist of three elements: a "Post Construction Stormwater Management Ordinance"; a "Stormwater Policy & Procedures Manual"; and a "Stormwater Design Manual." He says that these documents will be presented to the City Council for review and adoption in the next several months. 


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