Rainwater Harvesters in Colorado Are No Longer “Outlaws”

Colorado, the state with the dubious distinction as the only one to outlaw rainwater harvesting, corrects course.

After a failed attempt to reverse its stand on rainwater harvesting  last year, the Colorado State legislature revisited the issue during the 2016 legislative session. HB 1005 received the support of the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee by a vote of 6-3, and passed both chambers. Then, Gov. Hickenlooper signed HB 1005 into law on May 12. Residents will now be able to collect and store up to 110 gallons for exterior usage on their property.

So why did it take so long for such a widely accepted practice and common sense conservation technique to gain legal approval? The delay had been due to “prior appropriation,” which is a form of water rights in the state. That gives priority water rights to the first person to make a claim, and some felt the siphoning of water from roofs would negatively affect farmers or ranchers who depended on that water downstream.

While the bill was supported by environmentalists and the Colorado Farm Bureau, it faced resistance from ranchers who were concerned they would receive less water under the State’s century-old water rights system.

Colorado State University provided an unbiased analysis of the potential impacts of rain barrel use on surface runoff. They simulated the amount of runoff that would occur from a typical residential lot in Denver with and without rain barrels and found that the difference was unmeasurable. This was key in refuting opponents’ claims of “injury” to their water rights. In such a claim, the water rights holders must not only identify who is responsible for taking water out of appropriation, but also quantify the amount.

The study concluded that any changes to the water cycle as a whole could not be accurately quantified.

The study was also a point of contention, as Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) called the CSU study “flawed” and questioned the credibility of the educational institution. It’s not often you see a state politician badmouth a university within his borders. Sonnenberg had also suggested rain barrels be registered, so that the Office of the State Engineer, which handles water resources, could effectively curtail the use of rain barrels based on a determination of “injury.” The registration requirement did not make it into the final bill.

The bill goes into effect August 20, 2016.

Here is another article you might like on how building codes are the last barrier to graywater and rainwater recycling.

Photo by Ingo Bartussek