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Green Building News

In Colorado, Even the Rain Is Spoken For

State law prohibits homeowners from using rain barrels, and efforts to change the law have failed

In all but one Western state, collecting rainwater in a barrel for use in the garden is fine. But Colorado state law prohibits the practice for most residents, and allows for $500 fines for those who are caught.
Image Credit: Joseph Mischyschyn via Wikimedia Commons

Residents in California and other Western states are being encouraged to capture rainfall and use it to water their gardens, relieving municipal supplies and wells from some of the pressure being felt as the region continues to suffer a crippling drought.

When the city of Los Angeles offered 1,000 rain barrels to residents last November, they disappeared in no time.

But not in Colorado. It’s the only state in the country where it remains mostly illegal for homeowners to connect a rain barrel to gutters and downspouts so they can keep lawns and gardens green.

An article in The New York Times reports that the state’s complex water laws strictly regulate who gets what — even when the water falls from the sky.

“Where does it stop?” asked Jason Story, who plans to use a 30-gallon drum to collect rainwater at his Denver home. “Does that mean you own the cloud, too?”

It may not make much sense to those from water-rich states, but Colorado State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg, from a farming and ranching town in northeast Colorado, likened the use of rain barrels to stealing. A barrel of rainwater might not seem like much, he told The Times, but collectively the diversion of a substantial amount of rainwater would be damaging to those living downstream.

Joe Frank, of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, said that the state is typically short of water. “Even in average years, there’s not enough water to go around,” he told the newspaper.

Efforts to revise the law fail

A small number of people were exempted from the rain barrel ban a few years ago, including those who don’t have access to municipal water, but efforts to broaden the exemption to everyone who could get their hands on a rain barrel failed in the state legislature this spring.

The Denver Posts’s website reported in May that the effort to give more people the right to use rain barrels died on the last day of the legislative session.

The bill would have allowed homeowners to collect rainwater from their roofs in two rain barrels as long as certain conditions were met — barrels could have a combined storage capacity of 100 gallons or less, for example, and the water had to be used on the property to irrigate lawns and gardens.

Although the bill rounded up a lot of support, it ultimately failed.

“It’s like growing flowers,” Senator Sonnenberg said at the time. “You can’t go over and pick your neighbors’ flowers just because you’re only picking a few. They’re not your flowers.”

Although the practice may be technically illegal for most state residents, enforcement is said to be lax and scofflaws are in little danger of being fined.

A spokesman for the state’s Department of Natural Resources said he didn’t know of a single instance of a homeowner being fined for having a rain barrel, The Times said. “We simply do not have the ability to monitor rain barrel use,” deputy state engineer Kevin Rein said.


  1. Dana1 | | #1

    The rationale needs to be spelled out.
    Rainwater that would otherwise go into the ground or run off is still going to end up in the same place if used for yard irrigation, and may be displacing more valuable treated potable water that might otherwise be used for those purposes. It is not a true diversion, the way pumping out of a river or diverting stream bed is.

    If the rainwater is being used for other purposes (say, flushing toilets) it still goes into the groundwater on homes with septic systems, but may end up in sewerage treatment pathways rather than replenishing the water table with home on municipal sewer systems.

    Sonnenberg's notion that delaying the introduction of that ground water with a rain barrel is somehow stealing from your neighbor seems flawed on the face of it, and needs a better explanation. It's not the same as diverting a streams flow onto one's property for one's own gain- the water is being used and returned within a few yards of where it fell, not moved any significant distance or sequestered for significant periods of time. There might be a different argument if it's a large scale building that treats & stores large volumes water, to be later disposed of in sewerage, as opposed to a suburban rain barrel for garden irrigation. An outright ban on all water collection is just silly.

    If Sonnenberg can show some science that demonstrates garden-irrigation rain barrels cause substantially more rain water to be lost to evaporation than if it were allowed to simply run off or soak in there may be a case, but that seems like a dubious proposition at best. As a percentage of the total real estate area, roof areas are quite small. Even if the rain barrel delay loses 20% more water to evaporation than the water that fell somewhere other than the part of the roof that feeds the barrel it would be nearly impossible to measure the net-effect on the local water tables or stream flows.

  2. RedDenver | | #2

    drop in the bucket
    The entire notion that the amount of rain that falls on a roof has a noticeable effect on the ground water is laughable. Sonnenberg needs to somehow show that the total roof area is a significant fraction of the total area where rain falls.

  3. CLEAResultBoulder | | #3

    Water Rights Are Regional and Complicated
    I believe Nevada has also made collecting and storing rainwater illegal. What's interesting to me is the lack of limitation on large water uses and the regulation of people storing their own water, which is typically done by those attempting to be water efficient.

    Las Angeles likely hands out rain barrels because they don't reclaim the water that hits the ground, where Las Vegas does to a high degree. Therefore, storing rainwater in Las Angeles makes more sense for the City to save money on infrastructure changes, where Las Vegas loses money to help pay for that infrastructure.

    Considering that Las Angeles has water rights to the Colorado river, Colorado doesn't actually own a lot of water that flows through the state. So you can almost attribute Colorado's strict water policies to Las Angeles's lack of water reclamation and high use.

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