Amid Texas drought, this rain man bottles water

Richard Heinichin at Tank Town.

Drive west on U.S. 290* about 20 miles from Austin, Texas, and turn directly into Richard Heinichen’s driveway. A sign overhead reads, “Tank Town: World Headquarters, rainwater stuff.”

From this 10-acre plant in Dripping Springs, Heinichin installs home rainwater-collection systems for his neighbors in the Hill Country, and sells “bottled cloud juice” to cafes and hotels in Austin.  

Collecting rainwatwer may seem like an unorthodox proposal to address the record water shortages that have gripped the drought-gripped state. Heinichin says it's no problem. "You got enough square footage" on a rooftop"you got it covered."  

He's got the square footage at Tank Town. Two barns have 20,000 square feet of rooftop that rain can run off of. Instead of downspouts, the gutters run to across-spouts, like aqueducts, to 17 above-ground tanks.

Those tanks hold a quarter-million gallons, and they’re full up, even though Heinichin bottles about 37,000 gallons a year.

That’s not enough to keep up with the rainfall, even in a drought.

"It rained 11 inches on Halloween," he says.  "Over 100,000 gallons went out on the highway out there."   

Heinechin says it’s not just the quantity of rainwater that makes it compelling. It’s the quality.

"I didn’t realize rainwater was so good," he says, "till I drilled a well."

That was in the early 1990s, when he moved to the Texas Hill Country. At first, well water— hard and salty-- was the only option.

"Took a bath in it— I smelled like rotten eggs," he recalls. "Almost threw up in the shower. And you try to go to the shower to get clean!"

His clothes stood up by themselves. His coffee tasted awful.

So he decided to give rainwater a try. As a trained blacksmith, and a tinkerer, Heinichin did the work himself, installing the gutters, the aqueducts, and the first tanks.

He liked the result, but he didn’t think of it as a line of work. That came to him.

"My neighbor comes over and says, 'What’s the deal with your dishes? They’re so clear!'" he says.  "And I say, 'I know!' Because before they were foggy and looked like hell.  And he came over and just noticed it, and says, 'I want— I have to have that, too.'"

That neighbor told others, and a business was born.  "Tank Town just grew by itself," says Heinichin, "Bbcause there was such demand for what I did."

The cost — around $15,000 — is comparable to having a well dug.

"People say, ‘When is this damn thing gonna pay me back?’ And I say, ‘First shower.’"  

Heinichin says he does about 30 home systems a year — and he doesn’t want more customers.

"We weed ‘em out," he says. "If we do their system, then they become a Tank Town citizen — one of our people — and we have to take care of them. And some of these — you don’t want to take care of everybody."

However, to start the bottling business, he did need to do some convincing. Just not to customers.

"Government said, 'You can’t do that, because government’s not approved as a source for water,'" he says. "I say, 'OK, where do you get your water?'  They keep thinking, and I get ‘em up to the highland lakes.  ‘OK, so what fills that?’"

The Texas Commision on Environmental Quality eventually certified Tank Town as an approved public source of water.


*CORRECTION: The original version of this story misidentified the highway leading to Richard Heinichen’s home. It is U.S. 290. The text has been corrected.

 

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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