My eco- and money-conscious friends and I have had many discussions about whether you can legally use rain barrels to collect precipitation for watering landscapes in Colorado. Friends that have transplanted from moist regions of the country find it hard to believe that this simple act is against the law. Some have heard that legislation was recently passed to allow rain collection. So, what’s the deal? Are rain barrels illegal?
Colorado is one of only two states (Hawaii is the other) in which all water flows out of the state. Water has always been very important for our state development but it has also been crucial for states downstream. All water that is in – and eventually flows out of – Colorado is already owned by someone else. Welcome to the overwhelmingly complicated web of water rights in our state.
Every drop of rain that falls from the heavens is already accounted for as soon as it hits my barren front yard. Storm water is owned a few times over by junior and senior water rights holders. Going back to 4th grade science, rain congregates and flows into rivers and creeks via the stormwater infrastructure. It all ends up in our major rivers like the Arkansas, which farmers and cities all the way to the Mississippi depend on. Precipitation can also percolate into the groundwater system that supplies wells that many property owners use for drinking water and irrigation. “Rainwater harvesting,” as it’s called, diverts this water out of the normal system by capturing it in barrels for later use. Not too big of a deal if a few people do it, but if everyone collected rain, the rivers could be altered. Therefore, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, rain collection is illegal.
Colorado State University Extension office wants residents to understand that water rights in Colorado are unique compared to other parts of the country. “The use of water in this state and other western states is governed by what is known as the prior appropriation doctrine. This system of water allocation controls who uses how much water, the types of uses allowed, and when those waters can be used.” Water rights are purchased and many senior rights have existed for a century, so taking this liquid gold from water right owners is like stealing.
As water becomes scarcer and low-water landscaping grows in popularity, rainwater harvesting becomes more attractive and logical. The 2009 Colorado legislative session produced a bill that allows limited rain collection for properties supplied by a well. Even then, residents must apply for a permit to do so. The legislation also allows developers to apply for rainwater collection that will be beneficial, but not essential, to a new subdivision. Only 10 developers were approved for this pilot program.
For some reason, Lowe’s and Home Deport are allowed to sell you a rain barrel, but you can’t use it for collecting rain. This is similar to stores selling marijuana paraphernalia but not asking what you’ll be doing with it. Maybe you’ll be using your new rain barrel for orange juice storage – no one will ask.
Many residents argue that the water they store would later be used for watering plants, which would put it back into the system. And water conservationists note that using less water from the tap to water your veggie garden frees up water used by cities and puts it back in the river.
Where does that leave the average city homeowner collecting rainwater? Still a criminal, I guess.