Extension offers fact sheet on how to harvest rainwater under new Colorado rules

Photo via the Colorado Independent
Photo via the Colorado Independent

From Colorado State University (Jim Beers):

Colorado’s longtime ban on residential rain barrels has come to an end. Now most homeowners in the state are allowed to collect precipitation for later outdoor use.

Gov. John Hickenlooper recently signed House Bill 1005, which allows a maximum of two rain barrels — with a combined capacity of 110 gallons — are allowed at each household. The measure is to take effect on Aug. 10.

Rainwater collection, also called rainwater “harvesting,” is the process of capturing, storing and directing rainwater runoff and putting it to use. Water from roof gutter downspouts that is directed onto landscaped areas is not regarded as rainwater harvesting under this legislation.

The Colorado Legislature passed the bill last month after previously rejecting the measure in past sessions over concerns that household rain barrels would take water from the supply available to agriculture and other water-rights holders.

But a study conducted by the Colorado Stormwater Center, housed within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University, showed otherwise. Nearly all of the water would be absorbed in the ground by the downspout or in the ground in the garden, the CSU analysis indicated.

“We do not think any changes to the water cycle could be accurately quantified or measured,” said Chris Olson, a researcher and program manager at the Stormwater Center. “The water is going to be infiltrated or evaporated. The only difference is the timing, a day, maybe two, before the rain barrel is emptied.”

Colorado has been the only state with an outright ban on residential rain barrels and one of just four states that restrict rainwater harvesting.

Water law experts say rain barrels are only technically illegal, because proving they injure the water rights of other users is nearly impossible.

Collection systems

Collected rainwater may be used to irrigate outdoor lawns, plants or gardens. Untreated rainwater collected from roofs is not safe to drink.

Any container capable of collecting the rain shedding from a roof or patio can be used as a rainwater harvesting system. To comply with Colorado water law, the container must be equipped with a sealable lid. Rainwater collection systems vary from simple and inexpensive to complex and costly.

Typically, rooftop rainwater collection systems are simple — gutters, downspouts, and storage containers. Inexpensive rainwater storage systems commonly make use of an above-ground container such as a barrel or plastic tank with a lid to reduce evaporation and bar access for mosquitoes to breed. More sophisticated systems have “first flush” diverters that are recommended to exclude capture of the initial rain that might carry impurities from the roof.

Rain barrel use under HB 1005

There are several restrictions that are important to follow in order to use rain barrels legally in Colorado. These restrictions differ depending on your residential situation.

Under House Bill 1005, rain barrels can only be installed at single-family households and multi-family households with four or fewer units. A maximum of two rain barrels can be used at each household and the combined storage of the two rain barrels cannot exceed 110 gallons. Rain barrels can only be used to capture rainwater from rooftop downspouts and the captured rainwater must be used to water outdoor lawns, plants and/or gardens on the same property from which the rainwater was captured. Rain barrel water cannot be used for drinking or other indoor water uses.

“The capture and use of rainwater using rain barrels does not constitute a water right,” said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute, part of CSU’s Office of Engagement. “HB 1005 includes language that could result in the State Engineer curtailing the use of individual rain barrels if a water-right holder can prove that those rain barrels have impacted their ability to receive the water that they are entitled to by virtue of their water right.”

Colorado State University Extension has created a fact sheet with additional details on rainwater harvesting.

From The Greeley Tribune (Samantha Fox):

It’s now legal for residents to collect rain water and use it to water their gardens — something most probably haven’t thought twice about.

Before Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a rain barrel bill into law Thursday, only well owners were able to utilize rain barrels legally. A similar bill died in the Legislature last year, but with the governor’s signature on House Bill 1005, anyone can collect rainwater in two 55-gallon barrels.

The bill is only a small aspect to the larger picture of water rights in Colorado — which rain barrel owners are not guaranteed.

The bill’s passage also means — at least for now — a pause on discussion around major changes to Colorado’s water laws. There have only been grumblings and some failed attempts to put water laws to a vote, but the slight change of legalizing of rain barrels is one that puts the conversation to rest — for now.

“For the first time we really have a situation in place where we can account for and make sure water rights are protected,” said Marc Arnusch, a farmer in Keenesburg.

Colorado’s water laws, in short give water rights to people on a first-come, first-served basis. The priority goes to senior water holders — those who got rights to use the water first. The trickle-down system puts junior rights holders are the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to using and taking water sources. But if the junior water rights holder takes more then their share, the senior holder can hold them responsible for damages to the supply.

That’s where the rain barrel discussion fits in. Even with rain water coming from clouds, Colorado’s water supplies rely on runoff water from storms. Rain barrel collections could reduce the amount of runoff water, but only when a large amount of water is collected from rain barrel owners.

Hesitation during the discussion of the bill was to protect the rights of the junior water rights holder. Legislators wanted to make sure junior holders weren’t held responsible for less available water due to a diversion into rain barrels.

Colorado State University researchers studied the effect rain barrels collections might have on downstream water from the rain and found there would be little, if any, change. This also plays into how many rain barrels will, realistically, be used. Arnusch said urban residents will most likely use the barrels, and Northern Water’s Brian Werner said a good utilization of the barrels would be if 10-15 percent of Colorado residents actually used the barrels. But even that might take time.

The CSU study didn’t convince everyone, though. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, was one of three in the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy committee to vote against the bill. His disagreement came from a lack of solutions to make sure the barrels wouldn’t take water away from those who own it and how to keep the rights in check. There was talk of a statute that would hold rain barrel owners responsible if there was a deficit from water rights owners, but there was no consensus, as the CSU study said there would be little, if any noticeable change in runoff water.

Even though the study said there wouldn’t be much of a change, statutes to hold barrel owners responsible in case of a reduction were rejected.

“If there isn’t an impact, why would they be worried about a statue?” Sonnenberg said in March.

But there was a checks and balance system put in place in which state officials can check to see — if rain barrels prevent water owners from getting their full share — how that can be fixed and changed. Werner said the chance for a revisit, along with the results from the CSU study was a large reason why the bill passed this year, unlike past sessions.

“If everyone were to (buy barrels) there are the checks and balances in there so somebody can go back there and look on a regular basis to see if there is, indeed, an impact,” Werner said.

The impact comes down to whether there will be enough water when rain barrels are used. With water rights remaining as they are, Arnusch said the bill is a step in the right direction to keep the water rights structure as is.

The biggest overhaul talks have been about switching to a public trust doctrine system. Arnusch is on the Ground Water Commission for the Colorado Division of Water Resources and said talks about the public trust doctrine system would still be priority-based, but the priority would go to wherever need is seen, rather than water ownership. That could mean years with less agricultural priority, which is why farmers and ranchers oppose the system.

“If the public trust doctrine were to go into effect in Colorado, that would be just a catastrophe for agriculture,” he said.

While a change to the public trust doctrine isn’t favorable to agriculture, Arnusch said it’s still important to evaluate and make reasonable changes within the existing water use system. Rain barrels were one of those changes. Now, the micro-storage options have a place in Colorado’s complex priority system, he said.

But there is a difference between the use of rain barrels and who owns that water.

“At the end of the day, a rooftop doesn’t entitle you to a water right,” Arnusch said.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s