Is ‘Cloud Juice’ the Future of Drinking Water?

Rainwater collection picks up as an alternative to wasteful bottles and drought-stricken municipal water.

(Photo: Steve Holt)

Jun 19, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

The next time you reach for a bottle of water or turn on the tap to wash the dishes or fill up a glass, consider this: Almost half the nation is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, with a number of states in the West under severe drought. In California and Texas, drying-up lakes, rivers, and other water sources have communities facing the possibility of running out of water completely. That's led to a rush of drilling—sinking holes into the earth to tap new groundwater resources. In Texas, however, one man is looking to the skies instead.

Richard Heinichen of Dripping Springs, Tex., is the self-declared mayor of Tank Town, where he has been collecting and drinking rainwater on his land outside Austin for 20 years. He discovered that for every inch of rain, 550 gallons of water can be captured for every 1,000 square feet of collection surface. Currently, he’s selling 600 cases of Richard’s Rainwater a week in and around the Texas capital. He also offers fiberglass and metal collection tanks for people interested in harvesting their own "cloud juice," as Heinichen calls rainwater.

“People always say rainwater is so dirty,” says Heinichen, 68. “But it’s always been known as the gold standard because it tastes so good. I’ve got so many people who say they can’t drink anything else.”

For Heinichen, who considers himself a farmer, there's only been one choice for drinking, bathing, and washing dishes since he first put a collection tank on his land two decades ago. The rainfall sure beat the well water he relied on before then, which Heinichen says was hard on his skin and made showers smell like sulfur. With the rainwater, he says his plates and glasses came out of the dishwasher sparkling like never before. When his neighbors tasted the difference between rainwater and well water—and noticed his glassware—they bought a tank for their own land. As more people came to him asking where they could get a rainwater collection system, Heinichen realized he had a pretty nice business concept in the works.

“In the beginning, it was mostly people with off-the-grid mentalities, afraid of the government takeover—a lot of wackos,” he remembers. Today his cloud juice is served at some of Austin's best-known restaurants, including Franklin BBQ.

But when he first built a little bottling plant and initially sought to distribute his water, the state health department told him he couldn’t sell it because rain was not an approved source of drinking water. So he hired an engineering team from Texas A&M University to write up his plans, backed by science, and the state permitted establishment of Richard’s Rainwater as a public water supply and approved its sale. Richard's Rainwater was the first company to legally bottle and sell the rain.

The drought in Central Texas—the likes of which comes along once or twice a century—has “been great for business,” he says. Wells are running dry, and there are fears over the historically low water levels in lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region’s two main municipal water aquifers. However, Heinichen says his tanks are set up to go 300 days without rain, making them, ironically, a more dependable resource in the midst of a drought.

Given the water shortages in many parts of the world, rain collection systems’ humanitarian implications are great: They require far less equipment and financial investment than wells.

But the domestic problems facing water supplies are Heinichen's first priority. He envisions rainwater collection tanks being built all over the country, preventing the need to ship bottled water long distances, especially from Fiji. Two other Austin-area companies—Texas Rain and Pure Rain—have joined Richard’s Rainwater in collecting and bottling cloud juice. Heinichen isn't worried, though; he helped train their operators.

“I’m not afraid of competition,” he says. “The more people who are doing this realize how much sense this makes.”