Local Hero: Dick Peterson & Austin's Green Building Program
by Doug Pushard

Austin Key Facts
Area Population: ~1.3 million
Altitude: 615ft/187m
Low/High Temp: 40F/96F or 4C/35C
Average Rainfall: 31.5 inches/80cm

Conservation Program Inception: 1982 for energy and 1984 for water.

Contact Information
City of Austin Green Building Program
811 Barton Springs Road
Austin Texas 78704
Phone: 512.482.5300


Key Programs
Rainbarrel Rebate: Yes
Rainwater Harvesting Rebate: Yes
Low Flush Toilet Rebate: Yes
Xeriscape Rebate: Yes
Low Flow Washing machine Rebate: Yes
Low Flow Dish Washer Rebate: Yes
Watering Restrictions: Yes
Education Programs: Yes
Commercial programs: Yes
Fines: Yes

Austin, the capital of Texas, home of the University of Texas and whose unofficial motto is “Keep Austin Weird”, is the center of the green movement in Texas. Host of the first North America Rainwater Catchment conference and the first Green Building program in the US, Austin is green and growing.

A fast growing city located in the heart of Texas, Austin is blessed with nearly 32 inches of annual rainfall. But the rain comes in buckets, all at once and then nothing for days if not weeks.  With continued population growth projected in Austin and surrounding communities, comes increasing demands on the local water system, putting strains on the local aquifer levels especially for the folks in areas not served by Austin utilities. With continued growth projected the stress on the water ecosystem will only increase.

The Austin Energy Green Building Program started in 1991 and is now the world’s largest with over 200 local members. So it should be of no surprise that rainwater harvesting systems and rain barrels are increasingly common in central Texas.

The city’s recent one day Green by Design Workshop was completely full as was the workshop before it. The seminar was predominantly attended by Austin residents, home owners from surrounding communities, and a few builders and architects. Not suurprisingly, water conservation is one of the key aspects of the Green Building program.

Austin Energy, owned by the citizens of Austin, houses the Green Building Program and in combination with the city’s other conversation programs, Austin has one of the broadest conservation programs in the nation.

Green Builder: Austin's Peterson

Dick Peterson, Environmental Program Coordinator at Austin Energy, has been one of the driving forces behind the rainwater harvesting movement in Austin. 

Peterson became interested in rainwater harvesting systems in the early 1990’s when he attended a seminar given by a local long-time water harvester, Dr. Mike McElveen, at an Austin hospital. In his own words, “I was hooked.” 

At the time Peterson was running his own industrial sales company, but he quickly became active in the community, attending other seminars on Xeriscape and rainwater harvesting and then presenting when other presenters were not available. 

Peterson's avocation  eventually became his vocation, and he joined the City of Austin Water Conservation Program in 1995 as Xeriscape Program Coordinator, supervising their outdoor conservation efforts.

In 2000, he transferred to the Green Building Program, to become the resident expert on landscaping, rainwater harvesting and outdoor water conservation.

“Saving water just make cents,” according to Dick. The programs barrel incentive program started in 2000 and since it’s inception over 6,000 rain barrel rebates or volume purchase discounts have been granted. Dick advises local residents or water conservation as well as giving local conservation seminars and hands on rainwater harvesting seminars. He has also presented to clubs and municipalities around the country on subjects he is very passionate about.

“When installing your system think ahead, storing rainwater is like tools, you can never have too many!”  Many folks think one barrel is enough, but once they see the difference in their plants or taste the difference, they want to capture more water.  Make your system easy to expand it will really pay off.

Peterson sees harvesting rainwater continuing to gain interest in the Austin area:   

  • It’s free water once installed
  • It’s better for the plants
  • It’s good for the environment

 “It’s just the smart thing to do”, concludes Peterson.

Walking the Walk: Peterson's Green Garden

Of course, Peterson's zeal rolls over to his own home. He has installed a pond at his house that is fed by rainwater. This pond is stocked with goldfish and to make the system complete he uses the nutrient rich water from the pond to fertilize his garden, yielding luscious grapes, tomatoes,  peppers and other organic vegetables (for more on Peterson’s garden and system click here).   

He advises first timers to visit some of the local rainwater sites to get some ideas of the types of barrels and tanks available. Another option is to attend a local seminar or organize your own.

Peterson, through the Green Building Program, is available to give presentations to local organizations.  He has made presentations or directed hands-on workshops for several national conferences, botanical societies and municipal organizations. In most cases, these are on a contract basis and done on vacation time, so advance booking is required. Contact him directly for more information .

Take a Tour

Don't take our word for it.


Here are some "green" Austin sites you should visit to see the impact green thinking can have in the community:

·         Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: 4801 La Crosse Ave., Austin 78739

·         American Botanical Council: 6200 Manor Rd., Austin 78723

·         Pickle Elementary School: 1101 Wheatley Ave., Austin 78752

·         Feather and Fur Animal Hospital: 9124 Manchaca Rd., Austin 78748

·         The Natural Gardener: 8648 Old Bee Caves Rd., Austin 78735

·         HEB Grocery: 600 W William Cannon, Austin 78739

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1. How do you harvest rainwater?
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