Texas Dispatch: ‘Cloud Juice’ Is One Man’s Solution to the Drought

BY Saskia de Melker  March 19, 2012 at 12:40 PM EDT

This week, the NewsHour will be looking at water shortages in Texas as part of our new series, Coping with Climate Change. You can watch our report from Texas on Thursday’s NewsHour broadcast, and take a look at our second post: In Texas, Hunt for Water Heads Deeper Underground

Despite it’s name, the city of Dripping Springs is no match for the Texas drought. But Richard Heinichen, the self-described “mayor” of Tank Town — a company that sells and installs rainwater collection systems there — is offering an alternative solution as residents brace for another dry season.

In the rugged Central Texas region known as Hill Country, hundreds rely on rainwater as the sole source of domestic water needs, said Heinichen, who is also Tank Town’s owner. The company was the first-ever licensed in the U.S. to bottle rainwater, or as Heinichen calls it, “cloud juice.”

Rainwater harvesting is simple: When rain falls onto your roof, it gets diverted into special storage tanks before hitting the ground. For every inch of rain on a 1,000-square-foot roof, as much as 550 gallons of water can be captured, Heinichen said, although some water gets lost to evaporation and overflow. Captured water can be stored indefinitely in lightproof fiberglass tanks.

For centuries, long before centralized public water systems were developed, rainwater collection and storage was a common practice in households across Texas. Now there is a renewed interest in the practice as a cheap, reliable water source, particularly in the face of climate uncertainty.

Large portions of Texas are expected to start spring with exceptionally dry conditions as the ongoing drought continues to sap water resources. Hundreds of towns have imposed emergency water restrictions, and many wells have dried up. Just north of Dripping Springs, the 500 homes in the community, Spicewood now rely on a truck to haul in water after it became the first Texas town to run dry. And there is little relief in sight: John Nielson-Gammon, the Texas State Climatologist, said climate models project rising temperatures, and decreasing rainfall in Texas could make already severe droughts even worse.

In order to close the gap between increasingly growing demand and shrinking supply, water planners from the Texas Water Development Board are encouraging unconventional methods like rainwater harvesting. Many Texas municipalities offer tax incentives or other forms of financial incentives for households that install collection systems.

Collecting rainwater might seem like a paradox in the middle of a drought, but Heinichen says all it takes is planning: “It always rains, even in a drought, and the whole point is to be ready to collect it when it rains.”

After all, he adds, “Noah didn’t build the ark when it was raining.”

Do you think about where your water comes from? What concerns do you have about your water source? Share your stories and insights here.