Principles for Changing Policy that allows for, and incentivizes more regenerative practices
The following principles for policy change were derived from and informed by the experiences of David Omick, Pearl Mast, and Brad Lancaster in working with state, county, and city officials to change codes and shape policy (related to passive and active rainwater harvesting, greywater harvesting, and site-built compost toilets) to allow and incentivize safe, effective, low cost, accessible strategies that strive to collaborate with—and strengthen—the health of our household, community, and planetary ecologies and economies.
These principles are a first draft of a work in progress we put together for a workshop at the 2021 Rocky Mountain Natural Building Conference. Feel free to critique and evolve them with your own experiences.
I plan to evolve and edit them over time.
Action is typically at the state level
If state does not allow your action, it is likely that the county or municipality won’t either.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts out minimum standards and leaves it up to the states to guide and enforce those requirements. Each state does it differently.
County implements the rules the state sets.
In South Texas, working on the county level, David Omick got provisional permission for a couple of composting toilet designs at a specific pilot project site, but got no further, in that the designs were not legalized at the state level, so no one else was able to utilize the designs.
Once an overall strategy is legal, aspects can be shifted/evolved on the local level
For example, once greywater harvesting systems were legalized in the state of Arizona; Brad Lancaster, Watershed Management Group, and other activists were able to advocate/lobby for greywater harvesting stub outs to be mandated in new home construction in the City of Tucson.
We also got on the advisory committee to help shape the City’s greywater-harvesting stub out requirement. And we worked with Mayor and Council to pressure the City’s development standards department to revise the requirement when aspects were found not to be working. (The original requirement was made to be convenient for the home builder, not the home occupant; so the stub-out outlets were buried with the sewer line – too deep to be affordable, accessible, or to work with a gravity-fed systems. We again got on the advisory committee—this time to revise the stub out requirement—and those issues have been resolved).
Street runoff-harvesting example.
Through the positive examples of well-maintained guerilla street runoff harvesting installations and community education, activists were able to pressure and inspire the City to mandate street runoff harvesting in new road construction.
Activists such as Brad Lancaster, Watershed Management Group and others were part of the advisory committee shaping rebate.
Activists such as Brad Lancaster, Watershed Management Group and others were part of the advisory committee shaping rebate
Such local efforts can be initiated by approaching and working directly with City/County staff or by working with a City council or county supervisor who supports your efforts and will direct staff to work with you.
Get all your ducks in a row
In approaching people at state level, research what department oversees what you are proposing. It may be dept of environment quality, health, other.
Before approaching officials, get precedent/documentation from other states, countries, and/or organizations that have already led the way on what you are proposing, get documentation on what those states’ specific rules are. If a path has already been forged elsewhere, officials will be more likely to look at and walk down that path.
Keep in mind you are talking to engineers and policy makers – must appeal to them. Keep all woo woo and philosophy out of conversation. They want to see numbers, data, and rules. Give them precedent. Especially from similar climate.
Liability will be a concern.
Present yourself well
Officials are often impressed if you can bring anyone with credentials such as PhD with their name, especially if it relates to the proposed strategy/action.
Though years of experience using, evolving, and teaching systems also gives you credentials.
In Tucson, Arizona, while working on legalizing site-built compost toilets state wide, our local efforts gained substantial credibility on three fronts:
1. We activists had all been daily using, and continuously improving the composting toilet systems we were advocating for. And we had direct experience with similar, though different, composting toilet strategies. Thus, we knew from experience the advantages and disadvantages of these various systems based on the contexts in which they were used.
2. Chuck Gerba, a microbiologist with the University of Arizona, volunteered his time to study the safety of the composting process and finished composted material from composting toilets in the pilot/research project.
3. Non-profit Watershed Management Group (WMG) got an Environmental Education grant focused on desert soil stewardship from EPA to fund the pilot/research project of the site-built compost toilets
EPA gave grant more legitimacy.
Ideally, you can find an ally or allies within the department(s) you are working with to make change. They know the system and can guide you through it.
Working on improving Arizona’s greywater harvesting laws, we worked with Chuck Graf before and after his retirement from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Chuck wrote the pioneering Arizona greywater harvesting law —inspired by research by Water Casa and others—that requires NO inspection, permit, or fee as long as practitioners follow the state’s common sense guidelines.
See Chapter 12 of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 2, 2nd Edition for how the pioneering greywater law was created.
Chuck has also been a great asset as David, myself, and WMG have worked to make dark greywater (kitchen sink drainwater) harvesting simpler, less expensive, and more effective in Arizona. See Appendix 3 in Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 2, 2nd Edition for more on this.
When legalizing water-harvesting street curb cuts in the City of Tucson Brad Lancaster worked with ally Ann Audrey in the City’s sustainability office, along with Frank Souza who was the head of the City’s Stormwater Control department and a supporter of the effort.
Note that officials often seem to prefer working with a non-profit or volunteer group/effort that does not have a profit motive.
Do some of the officials’ homework for them.
Come up with draft or example language so officials don’t have to create the rule from scratch.
You can draw from other states if they’ve already set a precedent.
Research how do other states’/countries’ precedence apply to climate in which you are working.
Research – what are the local concerns/needs.
Example—with making greywater harvesting codes more accessible and effective in Arizona, a primary driver was that the old code was so expensive, cumbersome, and dysfunctional that almost no one applied for permits; yet well over 100,000 people were illegally harvesting greywater without any guidance from the state. The revised greywater law—informed by research on the illegal systems—fixed this, and enabled non-profits and other entities to promote inexpensive and effective greywater harvesting systems—helping the state give guidance to the people.
In the context of composting toilets, a need of the state is to protect groundwater from contamination.
Composting toilets can be a more effective protector of groundwater than septic tanks.
Show how proposed strategy can meet higher performance standards than currently approved systems.
Easy for greywater systems and compost toilets to do better than septic tanks, because there is virtually no blackwater (sewage containing human feces) water going into native soil, just lightly used sink, shower, or laundry drainwater; or in the case of compost toilet—urine.
With septic system ALL waters (including greywater) go to one place where they mix making it ALL blackwater.
Look for those that express interest in the various departments you are working with. They can guide you in working with the system.
Sometimes this takes time. Jeffrey Adams was striving to legalize simpler, less expensive, and more effective greywater harvesting systems in Utah, and just happened to have his kid in the same play group as Orin Rogers of the Southeast Utah Health Department. As a result they found themselves hanging out together watching their kids and it was a great opportunity for Jeff to talk to Orin about how potentially legalizing new systems.
For more of the story see here.
You can also just set up meetings with folks in various departments to see how they respond and if they have ideas of others you should speak to.
In AZ, David Omick initially talked with Larry Hawke at the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality. Larry was more of a policy guy. Others in dept were engineers. Larry sent David to engineers. They felt what David was proposing was fine, then Larry felt OK moving things forward policy wise.
See “Present Yourself Well” principle above for more examples.
Strive for Performance-Based Codes versus Prescriptive Codes
In The Water-Wise Home (a great guide for grey- water harvesting and making policy change), author Laura Allen describes the difference between the two codes as follows,
“Performance-based codes describe health and safety requirements for greywater systems. Systems that meet the requirements are legal: those that don’t are not. Performance-based codes typically don’t require inspections or fees, yet provide legal grounds for a city to take action against a problem system.
For example, “no pooling or runoff” is a common guideline that prevents exposure to greywater, but many codes don’t specify how to meet this requirement. Performance-based codes are written in simple, straightforward language. States and local jurisdictions can provide further guidance, such as how to size a system to avoid pooling and runoff, but the more specific details are left out of the code.
Prescriptive codes specify exactly how to build a greywater system including what materials and parts can be used. Instead of stating, “No pooling or runoff allowed,” they may estimate greywater production based on number of bedrooms in the house (as a means of predicting how many people live in the home and send greywater down the drain) and size the irrigation area based on soil type.”
I typically prefer performance-based codes (such as the ADEQ greywater guidelines adopted in 2001) because I find them more conducive to innovations that continually evolve and improve the systems. Performance-based codes clearly state the performance standards the system must achieve, without limiting your options to one or two prescribed systems. While, prescriptive codes specifying technological standards, materials, and systems often inhibit innovation and lead to more complex—but often more expensive and not necessarily more effective—systems, as was the case in Arizona prior to 2001.
A system is only as good as the user’s engagement with it and awareness of it. So, make your systems simple; convenient to use; and easy to observe, under- stand, and maintain.
Keep your eyes on the prize
Prize is shifting policy – a significant change.
Does not need to be perfect from the get go.
You’ve established relationships in various departments and got the ball rolling even if you don’t get it all.
For example, in California plastic outlet shields (like an upside down planting pot) are currently required to cover greywater pipe outlets in mulched basins (with the intent of lessening human contact with the greywater).
This is unnecessary.
In neighboring Arizona these outlet shields are NOT required and all works fine. The shields consume more plastic, increase costs, and generate more waste.
But in the bigger picture, these plastic outlet shields are no big deal.
The bigger deal is tankless, gravity-fed greywater harvesting systems outletting to mulched and vegetated basins within the landscape have been legalized in California.
Now that that has occurred, folks can work on further evolving and improving the code.