Will Colorado Finally Legalize Rain Barrels?

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The Colorado legislature, at long last some would say, is hearing a bill to legalize rain barrels. Yes. Rain barrels. Up to this point, it has been illegal to connect your downspout to a rain barrel, except in limited circumstances not typically found in urban environments. For those of you living outside of Colorado, your eyes did not deceive you. Under Colorado state law, possessing a small quantity of marijuana is legal, while possessing a rain barrel is not (technically, the illegal part is the connection to the downspout and collection of rainwater).

The reason for the illegality of rain barrels to date stems from Colorado’s strict adherence to the doctrine of prior appropriation for water rights. The logic maintains that rainwater falling on private property would eventually find its way into surface water either directly or via groundwater. Thus, any rain falling on your property would be subject to a senior water rights holder downstream via the transitive property of rain on property equals groundwater equals surface water equals water subject to someone else’s water right. (Note - other prior appropriation states allow the use of rain barrels. Check out The Water Values Podcast, session 41 with Brad Lancaster, for a more in-depth discussion of various rainwater harvesting techniques).

The bill stands at only five pages. It’s simple and concise (as legislation goes). Here’s a link to the introduced version of the bill, HB 15-1259. The bill caps the number of rain barrels per single-family residential home (or multi-family residential building with four or fewer units) at two and prescribes a maximum combined storage limit of 100 gallons. Homeowners’ associations are prohibited from banning rain barrels under the bill, as well. Finally, the legislation provides for the Department of Public Health and the Environment to publish best practices in the use of rain barrels.

Here’s a great longer piece on the legislation by Bob Berwyn of The Colorado Independent. The article identifies several interesting points. First, Becky Long of Conservation Colorado is quoted as describing rain barrels “as a ‘gateway drug’ for water awareness and conservation.” Essentially, the rain barrel will stand as a physical reminder that water is not an inexhaustible resource and that water needs to be conserved.

Another interesting point concerns the amount of water rain barrels might collect in the state’s most populous city, Denver. The article cites a Western Resource Advocates (WRA) calculation figuring that if half of Denver Water’s residential customers used rain barrels, about 90 million gallons per year might be collected. According to the article, that translates to enough water for about 275 average households per year.

The article reports no opposition to the bill. My government relations friends tell me otherwise. Perhaps there is no vocal opposition at this point, but I’m told those in the hallways of the capitol, especially those representing water users, are none too happy with the bill. This will shape up to be very interesting as Denver Water’s CEO, Jim Lochhead, is quoted in the article as stating, “Denver Water supports innovative ways to maximize the use of local water supplies and use water more efficiently,” and “This legislation reflects the type of thinking we will need to make our cities more resilient.”

Mr. Lochhead’s statements are carefully worded (he is a lawyer in case you didn’t know) - he is not expressing direct support of HB 15-1259. His statements, however, do express support for re-thinking certain aspects about water, and I agree with him. Detractors of new (to Colorado) water ideas cannot simply shout out “No - against Colorado water law” in reactionary fashion - that will not solve our water problems. So, let the debate on HB 15-1259 proceed - the future of the bill will be interesting to watch as the remainder of the legislative session unfolds.

I’ve never used a rain barrel, but I’m thinking that if this bill passes, the time will have come. How about you?

UPDATE: The Denver Post published an opinion on March 15, 2015, endorsing the passage of HB 15-1259 here.

UPDATE #2: HB 15-1259 died when a committee chair refused to allow a vote on it. The Denver Post reports more here.

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