Rain barrels illegal in Colorado, but tide may be changing

  • Published on June 7th, 2009

Every now and then I come across a law that just doesn’t make sense, either from an environmental standpoint or a logical one. For instance, until last year the province of Ontario had a ban on clotheslines in order to ‘preserve the aesthetics of residential areas’. Thankfully this law was overturned several months ago, but similar bans are still in effect in many municipalities across North America.

I came across an equally inane law this past week – the ban on collection of rainwater in the state of Colorado. This law has historical ties, as Colorado long ago developed a system whereby a group of individuals or corporations referred to as ‘downstream water-owners’ had rights to a certain amount of flow from a reservoir, stream, or aquifer. The harvesting of rain by non water-owner Colorado residents is prohibited because it is considered water theft, even when the water is falling on their own property. Basically a rain barrel is depriving a downstream water-owner of the full flow to which they are legally entitled. Kevin Lusk, water supply engineer of Colorado Springs Utilities, explains:

All the water was spoken for here in the Arkansas Basin 100 years ago or more. If the water falls as rain, that’s water that was going to get to the stream system, and somebody already has dibs on it, and if somebody intercepts that, its the same as stealing.

Thankfully this law, which carries with it a $500 fine for an installed residential rain barrel, is rarely enforced. But even if the authorities are looking in the other direction, there would still be a large number of people that are hesitant to install rain barrels for fear of being subject to a fine.

Are rain barrels really that threatening to the delicate water balance of the water cycle in this arid state? A key point is that rain barrels are not a permanent removal of water from the system. Rain barrel owners are not collecting rain water and transporting it out of the watershed for their own personal gain. Barrels are temporary reservoirs where rain water is held before it is used for watering flower beds, gardens, or lawns, after which it will inevitably return to the ground water system.

And what is the alternative to rain barrel use? Colorado residents that do not have a rain barrel will be using water from the municipal water system for landscape maintenance (unless they are on a well). Treated potable water is not necessary for watering lawns and gardens – rain barrels would help to take pressure off of municipal water supplies in a state that suffers from chronic water shortages and increasing demands.

Two new recent pieces of legislation indicate that Colorado may be starting to embrace the rain barrel concept. The laws are restricted to well owners and a number of new residential developments in the state, but they are going to be used to assess the viability of larger-scale rain barrel allowances in the future.

Image: _ES at flickr under a CC License

Stephen Boles is co-founder of Kuzuka, a marketplace website that brings a new level of convenience and confidence to carbon offset customers and provide consulting services to organizations that want to assess and reduce their carbon footprint.

About the Author

Steve Boles doles out thoughtful commentary about all the latest issues, news blips and misconceptions surrounding the growing green movement as a contributor to Red, White, and Blue and his personal blog The Buzz (http://thebuzz.kuzuka.com). Steve spent seven years working as a scientist at one of the world’s leading climate change research centers, the Institute for Earth Oceans and Space (EOS) at the University of New Hampshire. Steve recently moved his family to small-town Ontario, Canada. Steve and his wife, Jenni, recently co-founded a company called Kuzuka. Kuzuka is a marketplace for carbon offsets that will bring a whole new level of convenience and confidence to individuals and businesses choosing to offset their tread on this planet. Kuzuka also provides carbon management services to businesses that are interested in measuring and reducing their corporate carbon footprint.
  • Rick

    I don’t give a rats ass what the law is. That law is an unlawful order in my book. The rain belongs to God and I will use God’s rain to water the plants that God created.

  • I would have been an extreme lawbreaker with two in my back yard.

  • Lots of great information, and quite simple to make your own if you have a few key tools.But unfortunately thanks to Mother Nature, until this past weekend’s glorious soaking, it didn’t do me any good without anything to capture.

  • Rain barrel's work; and http://www.envirosink.com

    fill's it in the dry season.

  • you have to be kidding me.. thats ridiculous

  • mike

    this is why we are in debt and don't know what is going on in COngress… HOW silly is this??

    electric cigarettes

  • Nancy Sharp

    What kind of law is that?

  • Colorado Dave
  • Stephen, thanks for bringing light to this as I am one of those Coloradoans who curses the ridiculous statute still on the books forbidding rainwater collection. One often overlooked dimension of this is that every time a new development is constructed with paved roads and stormwater drainage it does far more damage to the amount of locally available water than rainbarrels ever could. All of the water that was once falling to the ground and absorbing into the local aquifers is instead rolling off of roofs, into gutters, down driveways and into the stormwater processing system or right back into the river. So, not only does this system perpetuate the viability of the ridiculous prior appropriations laws, it dries up local aquifers in the process. A real lose-lose proposition for local water users.

  • The Province of Ontario did not have a ban on clothes lines. Oh goodness not….I would have been an extreme lawbreaker with two in my back yard. Some municipalities had bans on clotheslines for the very reason you stated. (preserve the aesthetics of residential areas) What the province of Ontario did, in order to save time and legal efforts of its citizens, it turned over all of the bans on clotheslines put in effect by municipalities. This took the onus off of citizens trying to "fight city hall". As an Ontarian, I applaud that government for such a step. The province does not intervene often in municipal matters, but in the interest of the environment, I am glad it did this time!

    Thanks for the blog post!

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  • johnny5

    That is a crazy law…

    How about the new one trying to outlaw

    an Electronic Cigarette because its possible for people who dont smoke nicotine to become addicted…. Ummm then why not outlaw real cigs???!!!!