Colorado's Ban on Rain Barrels May Be Overturned

For the second time, lawmakers aim to reverse the State's antiquated legislation regarding "prior appropriation" of water.
Mar 30, 2016 7:00 AM ET

Put a bucket under your downspout and collect rain running off your roof to water your garden. You’re an outlaw in Colorado.

Critics have lambasted the state for barring this quaint eco-friendly, urban-farming technique, but to rural Coloradans devoted to prior appropriation, the water rule that the first person to take water secures rights to it into the future, rainwater harvesting should be banned.

While this square state is one of 19 governing water with a prior appropriation doctrine, we’re the only one to ban rainwater collection. The ban is not 100% universal, but pretty close, as this document shows.

James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, doesn’t see harm in the practice. He’s the brains behind Colorado’s state water plan, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s strategy for avoiding a massive water shortage by 2050.

The water plan pushes the state to take a leading role in water usage and conservation, something the anti-rain barrel ban makes a mockery of, as the law’s critics see it.

Second Chance

Last year, an attempt to rid the state of the ban was stalled and eventually defeated by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican who said the changing the law would undermine first-come first-serve water rights for farmers and ranchers in his district.

Rainwater, as proponents of prior appropriation see it, is included under the first-come-first-serve doctrine. Even urban runoff replenishes streams, rivers and aquifers, they say.

For the second time in two years, lawmakers are trying to undo the ban, saying a rigid interpretation of Colorado water laws shouldn’t get in the way of much needed water conservation. Democratic Reps. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge and Daneya Esgar of Pueblo took a bill to strike the law to the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources committee Monday for a first hearing.

Danielson and Esgar brought witnesses to the hearing who championed the bill, saying rainwater would be put to good use in the state’s suburbs and cities. Rainwater harvesting would educate Coloradans about water scarcity and conservation, said the bill’s defenders.

Drew Beckwith of Western Resource Advocates said rain barrels would help inform the public about water issues.

“It makes visible what is invisible,” Beckwith said.

Ag committee member Rep. Jon Becker said the new bill’s proponents had not addressed farmers and ranchers’ concerns that allowing rain barrels would undermine prior appropriation and deprive rural communities of much needed water for livestock and crops.