Virginia’s Rainwater Warrior
What would you do if you opened your monthly water bill and found an invoice for almost $5,000? For Tyrone Jarvis, owner of Go Green Auto Care in Newport News, Virginia this wasn’t just a thought experiment. Nearly four years ago, he opened his mail expecting to find his typical water bill which generally ran about $59 per month. Instead, he found a four-digit surprise.
Being a reasonable business owner, and knowing that his automobile repair shop, which had been in business for about four years at that point, hadn’t done anything that used more water than usual in the previous month, he called the water utility to let them know that there was a mistake. Unfortunately, he learned that his stratospheric bill was no mistake. As happens all too often to unsuspecting clients, his underground supply line had sprung a leak and had been silently sending a gusher of clean, fluoridated, chlorinated city water into the underground netherworld.
As the crisis was unfolding, and he was wondering where he’d find an extra $5,000 to pay for something he didn’t even use, one of the many people he spoke with made an off-hand suggestion. “Maybe you could just use rain.”
Hmmm. Jarvis is clearly a thinking man, and this got his wheels spinning. As luck would have it, the city had recently given him a 50-gallon rain barrel to capture rain coming from his roof and cut down on stormwater runoff from his largely impervious property. He tested it during a short rainfall and realized that it didn’t take much rain to fill the barrel. He then came across the Virginia Rainwater Harvesting Manual, which had a whole other coincidental connection for him. The manual, as it turns out, was developed by the Cabell Brand Center hundreds of miles away but also the force behind Total Action Against Poverty (now known as Total Action for Progress), an organization that was instrumental in the life of Jarvis’ nephew. Well ahead of its time, the Cabell Brand Center (and Cabell Brand himself) realized the connection between social justice and environmental protection. As Jarvis said to me, Mr. Brand recognized that “minorities don’t need a hand out, just an opportunity!”
Putting Jarvis’ rainwater ideas into action took a few months, but being a handy guy
lightened the load and by April 2015 Jarvis had his system working. The basic idea for Go Green’s system is two 275-gallon storage containers, a filter, an ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and viruses, and a pump. As it turned out, however, setting up the mechanics of the system was the easy part of Jarvis’ journey.
Jarvis, or “Ty” as his friends call him, gave me the blow-by-blow replay of nearly three years
of battle he’s had with Newport News’ water department and code officers. Shortly after celebrating his new system in spring 2015, one of his visitors pointed out that Jarvis’ rainwater harvest system was violating city code. Beginning in June of that year the inspectors and official letters started coming, and on one sweltering 107-degree summer day, Go Green Auto Care was condemned and told to close its doors. It was a tough day for a guy trying to do the right thing.
The next day Ty headed back to his business and began digging a trench to reattach to city water with the code enforcer watching every move. Ty reflected, “It seemed like every code guy in the city stopped by” that day, including the director of code compliance who told him that if he did use rainwater he would have to chlorinate it. Knowing the toxicity and dangers of chlorine, Go Green Auto Care had invested in a state-of-the-art filters and ultraviolet purification as is advised in the state’s rainwater harvest guidelines. The code enforcer seemed to not realize that UV light kills things that can get past chlorine, making it even safer as long as the water is being used relatively shortly after purification. But Ty’s logic fell flat with the code officials.
Finally, Ty decided to go on a “water strike”. Learning from grey-water activists in California, he started hand carrying water from his rain totes to his toilets and refusing to use city water even though he was technically hooked up to it. The news media showed up, and the code officers grew angrier. Someone who had a soft spot for Ty’s predicament gave him a heads-up that he was going to be raided.
Ty, whose primary goal was to use low-impact water and cut back on his bills, wasn’t trying to pick a fight. He called the city saying “Can’t we reach a compromise?” From there, things started to get better though he still had another year-and-a-half of back and forth with the city before they could reach an agreement that would allow him to use rainwater for his toilets and cleaning purposes and keep his business open.
One of the particularly puzzling aspects of all of this is that the city of Newport News actively encourages the use of rain barrels to stem stormwater runoff and has a detailed program to encourage water conservation. Though the region averages 45” of rain per year, in drought years the city, which uses nearby rivers as its water source, depends on customers to get creative with water conservation and water re-use. Newport News has six pages of regulations on what to do if a drought emergency is declared. Apparently, however, the codes and the water works officials need to talk to each other more often.
The story has a double-happy ending. In addition to Go Green Auto Care relying entirely on rain water since April 26th, 2015 and having reached a mutual understanding with the city of Newport News, Jarvis’ efforts have paved the way for people throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia to be able to use rainwater as their primary water supply.
During the peak of his troubles, Jarvis reached out to his elected officials including state delegate David Yancey. This is the same David Yancey who made national news in the fall of 2017 for tying 11,608-to-11,608 in his re-election race against challenger Shelly Simonds, and eventually retaining his seat through a random drawing. Simonds is a customer and good friend of Tyrone Jarvis’, and her campaign signs were prominently displayed at Go Green Auto Care. None-the-less, Yancey leant a hand.
The delegate coached Jarvis in how to document what was happening to him and to more effectively argue his case. He then took it further and worked with Jarvis to craft legislation to open the doors for legal rainwater harvest in Virginia. Assuming that Governor Northam doesn’t veto the bill (and there’s no reason to think he will), it will go into effect on April 10th, 2018.
The bill directs the Virginia Department of Health to develop regulations for rainwater harvest as well as grey water, and to “consider recognizing rainwater as an independent source of freshwater.” This last piece is important to people who want to avoid drilling a well or paying hefty connection fees when building a home or business because, ludicrous as this might sound, current Virginia health codes do not recognize rainwater as an allowable source of fresh water. (My husband and I learned this the hard way when building our second home in the Northern Neck of Virginia, but that’s another story for another day.)
Once the bill is passed, the hard work of updating the codes and regulations will remain. Like most things, citizens who care will need to remain vigilant to ensure the follow through. But for now, Tyrone Jarvis and Go Green Auto Care deserve to be thanked not just for being a green business, but for making it easier for all Virginia businesses and homeowners to lighten their loads on precious surface and groundwater supplies.
And while we’re thanking Ty, he’s thanking those that have helped him. Hanging prominently from in the front of his busy parking lot is a sign that thanks his customers. And just below is a banner blazing the words:
Thank You Delegate Yancey
& VA House & Senate
VA HB 192 Rainwater Harvesting
It really does take a village!