Best not to drink it, but the rain in Lake County Forest Preserve's cistern is fine to use in toilets or outdoor irrigation.
If you're a regular reader of MPC's Connector, you know that it's been four years (or 12 percent of my life), since MPC started working on modernizing the Illinois Plumbing Code with an eye toward streamlining and standardizing the on-site harvesting, processing, and reuse of various sources of non-potable water. The work continues, and is far from over, but it's worth reflecting on how far we've come.
Four years ago the Lake County Forest Preserve got in touch after they tried to build and install a system to capture rain, clean it up a bit, and then use it to flush toilets at the Ryerson Woods Visitor Center. What they found out was that because the Illinois Plumbing Code, which is managed by the Illinois Dept. of Public Health (IDPH), doesn't include minimum safety standards for those systems, in order to get one approved one must go through a time-consuming process of seeking a variance from IDPH. Over the years, several rainwater harvesting projects eventually got approved — Lake County's, several park and beach facilities in Chicago, a Volvo dealership up in Northbrook, etc.-— but there were many more project ideas that people gave up on. Developers and property owners seeking to recycle graywater (i.e. lightly-used water from showers, laundry, bathroom sinks, etc.) had an even more difficult slog, with increased reticence from IDPH to approve those systems.
To an extent that reticence was understandable. The primary goal of IDPH is there in the final two letters... public health. Reintroducing dirty water like rain from a roof or graywater from a shower into the lives of Illinois residents seems, at least at face value, counter-intuitive to people whose job it is to protect public health. One result was that systems had to be designed to such rigorous public health standards that they became too expensive to contemplate building.
At the same time, MPC and Openlands were wrapping up Before the Wells Run Dry, while the Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Supply Planning Group and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) were putting the final touches on Water 2050. Among other things, both reports concluded that Illinois needed to remove policy barriers impeding communities' abilities to develop new "alternative" water supplies to supplement the ground, lake, and surface waters we currently rely on for potable water. In instances where treated potable water simply isn't necessary — flushing toilets, watering lawns, cooling towers, some industrial processes — there are efficiencies to be gained in not using potable water. Every gallon of potable water used in a shower, captured, cleaned to some degree, and then reused in a toilet, is one gallon of water that doesn't require pumping, treatment, and more pumping. It saves water, energy, and where water rates are high enough, some money as well.
So from a water resource management perspective it makes a lot of sense to develop safety standards for systems to reuse non-potable water. At the same time, those safety standards have be balanced with water resources management goals so as to not drive up the cost of the systems. If the folks in the Yannell House don't plan on drinking reused graywater out of their toilets (and I have it on good authority that they do not), then why force them to treat the water to potable standards at exorbitant costs? Fortunately for Illinois, lots of other states, regulatory bodies, and code development organizations (such as the International Code Council and the International Association of Plumbers and Mechanical Operators) have already figured out how to balance cost, public health, and water conservation.
IDPH has, and always has had, the statutory authority to develop revisions to the Illinois Plumbing Code. However, wading into a revision of the code requires a lot of work, so before starting the process, the department wanted to be sure they had a mandate from the State Legislature ... and so began the four-year process of attempting to pass a bill requiring an update to the code. Illinois Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Highwood) was on board from the beginning, and took the lead in the Senate for four long years. Illinois Rep. Carol Sente (D-Lincolnshire) took up the standard in the House the last two years, and together with MPC, Openlands, CMAP, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Northwest Water Planning Alliance, and many other partners, they got the ball across the goalline this year. Ill. House Bill 4496, which sets a deadline for IDPH to update the state’s plumbing code to be more consistent with leading technologies and methods that promote water conservation and safety, was approved in the House on March 27, and the Senate on May 15. The next step is for Gov. Pat Quinn to sign this bill into law, but even in advance of that IDPH is already starting the process of revising the code. Good thing, because by May 31, 2013, IDPH must submit proposed rules changes to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.
Because one major area of code revision will involve streamlining the approval and accountability of water reuse systems, and because so many stakeholders (e.g. system designers, architects, engineers, public health officials, plumbers, other labor groups, etc.) are involved in the design, installation, operation, maintenance, and oversight of these systems, MPC is facilitating a series of meetings for this broad group of stakeholders to provide IDPH with their combined professional expertise. This is being done in a purely advisory capacity. This stakeholder group will not be writing code language, but instead will provide feedback from a variety of perspectives as IDPH begins drafting code revisions. Through these meetings (and through the formal work of the Illinois Plumbing Code Advisory Council) IDPH will have historically-unique access to and input from a range of professionals working in fields affected by potential code changes. IDPH has agreed to participate in these discussions, provide draft code revisions for review, and to the extent possible and practicable, work stakeholder recommendations into final submissions to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. That in itself is a major step forward.
So stay tuned, because new state plumbing code language is coming, and with it comes the opportunity to create a niche water services industry, cut down on some waste, and give Illinois communities and property owners another tool for sustainable water resources management.