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.
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.
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.
Activities like watering the lawn and thirsty flower beds don’t require treated water from the tap. Until this week, the state technically could have fined Broderick $500 for his system.
The new law, which takes effect in August, allows homeowners to collect as much as 110 gallons of rain in up to two barrels.
The state hasn’t issued fines in recent years. So why even bother changing the law?
Democratic Rep. Jessie Danielson of Wheatridge says in the face of climate change, drought and a taxed water supply system, rain barrels are an important conservation tool.
“It will tie the consumer to their water usage a lot more closely,” said Danielson.
The bill was first introduced in 2015 but lacked support from the agricultural community and some lawmakers. However, it struck a chord with many homeowners this year. Danielson said as she posted Facebook updates about the bill during the session, those dispatches got more responses than any other posts.
One person was so devoted to the cause they started selling t-shirts.
“They put the words ‘legalize it’ at the top, and instead of it being some marijuana-themed t-shirt it was a picture of a rain barrel,” Danielson said. “This is a fun, important environmental issue that just makes sense to people.”
Drought and water supply concerns have been a catalyst for other state legislatures in Texas, Utah and California to take up rainwater collection.
Some western cities like Los Angeles even offer rebates on equipment.
But in Colorado, where drought is still fresh on many farmers’ minds, getting the bill passed wasn’t easy.
Getting From ‘No’ To ‘Yes’
After the bill was introduced, one of the largest opponents was the Colorado Farm Bureau…
“Rain barrels were kind of looked at as the red-headed step child in a sense,” said Marc Arnusch, a farmer and member of the Colorado Farm Bureau board.
Arnusch said amendments to the 2016 version of the bill guaranteed that rain barrels wouldn’t interfere with farmers’ water rights. The final bill literally says “a rain barrel does not constitute a water right.”
The law will also require the state engineer to track adoption and usage among homeowners. That was a big selling point for Arnusch.
“We need to start preaching heavily about conservation and using water intelligently,” said Arnusch. “And that starts quite frankly in the urban areas of our state.”
Debate and research on rainwater collection stretches back almost a decade in the state. Colorado launched a small-scale study back in 2007. It found that 97 percent of the rainwater in Douglas County is lost to evaporation and vegetation. The study was a catalyst for a 2009 law that gave well owners the right to collect rain water.
In Colorado, the debate may be complicated, but rain barrel owner Aaron Broderick said owning a rain barrel is pretty simple. It takes an afternoon to set up and it can cost under $100. The end result will be a cheaper water bill.
“The thing that’s interesting is that it really isn’t much of an inconvenience,” he said.
The true test will be whether the law causes an inconvenience for water rights holders in the near future. The state engineer’s office is expected to deliver its first report on rain barrels sometime in 2019.
After two years and a downpour of controversy, Coloradans soon will be allowed to use barrels to collect rain that falls from their roofs…
Starting Aug. 10, Coloradans will be allowed to use up to two 55-gallon barrels, which cost about $100 on average.
“They promote education – pay attention to water and how it’s used – and they also promote stewardship,” Hickenlooper said of the barrels, signing the legislation in the backyard of the Governor’s Residence at Boettcher Mansion in Denver.
While the legislation seemed obvious to many observers, it struggled through the Legislature, failing last year, before picking up steam this year.
What held it back was fears that rain barrels would erode the state’s prior appropriations system, which grants water rights to the first person to take water from an aquifer or river, despite residential proximity.
Several amendments this year helped garner support from factions that ardently fight for water rights, including the Colorado Farm Bureau.
The law allows water officials to curtail use of barrels if injury to water rights is found. The law also states that using a rain barrel is not a water right, and requires the state engineer to evaluate if the use of rain barrels impacts water rights across the state.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, helped push the measure along over the past two years by garnering support in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“We don’t want to impact anyone’s water rights. We just want to make sure that we aren’t the only state in the union where this was illegal,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, a co-sponsor of the bill.
Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, added: “It gives urbanites a more personal and intimate connection with the complicated water system in Colorado.”
Rep. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, pointed out that it was remarkable to pass a controversial piece of legislation during a contentious legislative session.
“We keep hearing that there’s this gridlock and that we’re not able to get anything done in a hyper-partisan time,” Danielson said. “This bill is an example of working across the aisle.”
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper this afternoon signed H.B. 1005, a bill legalizing the use of residential rain barrels in Colorado.
Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith and Western Resource Advocates President Jon Goldin-Dubois made the following comments:
This is a victory for Coloradans who care about their state’s incredible rivers, lakes, streams, and waters. Rain barrels are an important educational tool and a great first step toward conservation and increasing awareness about the water challenges facing Colorado. Water conservation is the cheapest, fastest, and most flexible water strategy we have to addressing these challenges. Moving forward, we are ready to work with the Hickenlooper administration, our legislature, and private citizens to implement more water conservation policies, starting with the statewide water conservation goal outlined in last year’s landmark Colorado Water Plan.
Pete Maysmith, Conservation Colorado
On this bright sunny day, we are dancing in the rain!! We applaud Governor Hickenlooper and Representatives Esgar and Danielson and Senator Merrifield for their leadership in passing HB 16-1005, legalizing rain barrels. Now Colorado joins other states across the nation in ensuring everyone can use this common-sense tool to help water their gardens. The entire West is facing water challenges with a growing population, limited water supplies, and a changing climate. We need increased water conservation to help meet these challenges. Someone with a rain barrel develops a better awareness of the water cycle, leading to a needed increased water conservation ethic. We look forward to working with state leaders to build on this step and implement our new Colorado Water Plan. This legislation shows what we can do when we all work together.
Jon Goldin-Dubois, Western Resource Advocates
For more photos and a video of the event, please contact Jessica Goad at email@example.com
“We just want to make sure we’re not the only state in the union where this is illegal. I think that’s why it gained so much national attention, even international attention,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Democrat representing Pueblo.
The new law allows residents to collect and store up to 110 gallons of rainwater as long as you put it back in the ground on your property.
“We thought this was just a good Colorado common sense measure,” said Rep. Jessie Danielson, a Democrat representing Wheat Ridge. “You could take water from the roof, collect it in a barrel and water your tomato plants. Seems straight forward, right? But it wasn’t.”
Danielson’s father is a farmer in Weld County. She said lawmakers initially met resistance from ranchers who worried that allowing people to store water for use when it’s dry would mean less water and runoff downstream.
“We did come to an agreement, one that assures that agriculture and other water users across the state will not have any injury,” said Danielson.
The Colorado Farm Bureau supported the measure. Other supporters say the bill is about conservation and education about the state’s mostprecious natural resource.
“As we move into the implementation of Colorado’s water plan we know that conservation is the cheapest, most effective approach we can do,” said Hickenlooper.
Esgar was one of the first to put the new law into practice, “My wife actually purchased me a rain barrel, although I won’t say it’s been filled yet.”
Sponsors of the bill struck a compromise with farmers and ranchers, adding a provision to the bill that says if there’s any proof rain barrels are hurting downstream users, the state engineer can curtail the usage of them.
[May 2], Denver City Council passed an ordinance that makes Denver the first city in the state to allow the use of gray water for residential, commercial and industrial purposes.
Graywater is defined as the portion of wastewater that is collected from fixtures within residential, commercial, industrial buildings, or institutional facilities for the purpose of being put to beneficial use, and can be collected from bathroom and laundry room sinks, bathtubs, showers, and washing machines. Graywater can be used to flush toilets or urinals, or for subsurface irrigation of non-agricultural crops.
In 2013, the Colorado State Legislature authorized the use of graywater in Colorado, providing local health departments with the ability to monitor and regulate the use and treatment. In 2015, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission adopted 5 CCR § 1002-86 (“Regulation 86”), which permits local governments to adopt an ordinance authorizing the use of graywater.
Denver’s ordinance was developed by Denver’s Department of Environmental Health, in coordination with Community Planning and Development and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. This also marks the completion of one of the commitments announced by the City at last December’s Sustainable Denver Summit.
“Water is a precious resource in Colorado and as Denver’s population grows, water conservation will be of continued importance. We’re excited to be the first to pass a measure that gives our residents and businesses the ability to save resources and money at the same time,” says Mayor Michael B. Hancock.
A graywater program will support the City’s 2020 Community Sustainability Goal for Water Quantity of reducing per capita use of potable water in Denver by 22 percent by providing a new option to conserve water.
Large facilities that have high uses of water from showers and laundry and high water demand for toilet flushing such as hotels, multi-family residential, and dormitories, could realize more significant cost savings.
It is anticipated that the greatest demand for graywater will come from new hotels, multi-family residential facilities, dormitories, and buildings pursuing a green building certification.
The Board of Environmental Health is expected to approve rules and regulations in late summer describing how the program will be implemented. Participation in the program will be completely voluntary.
The major water bodies around Summit County and throughout most of the state are in strong shape after a slightly above-average winter season. However, the region is far from out of the woods on the matter of water in the West.
That was the thrust of speakers at Summit’s 23rd annual State of the River meeting on Wednesday evening, May 4 at the Silverthorne Pavilion — the first of six such meetings along the Colorado River Basin. With the Western Slope encompassing an average of 28 percent of the state’s water and spanning 15 counties, including Summit, this meeting of water wonks often sets the tone on consumption strategy and planning for rest of the year.
“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth,” Troy Wineland, Summit County’s water commissioner, told the congested room, “there are only crewmembers. We’re all in this together.”
Wineland stressed that despite snowpack totals currently at about 115 percent of average above Dillon Reservoir — and with peak flows still to come around the first or second week of June once meltoff takes hold — circumstances are not as favorable. Other states in the country that also primarily rely on the Colorado River remain at near-critical shortages.
“While things are nice and rosy and wet and looking great here in the county,” he said, “you look throughout the entire Colorado river basin … not quite as rosy. The Lower Basin states right now are facing some very serious problems with access to water and need.”
Both Wineland and Denver Water’s Bob Steger were sure to discuss the present levels at Lake Powell during their respective presentations. Each noted how vital the resource is to every state along the Colorado Basin, even though water has already passed by many of them to arrive to Powell.
Aside from Powell functioning as the chief water supply for drinking, crop irrigation and recreation for 30-to-40 million residents in the region, the Glen Canyon Dam there also provides hydroelectric power. Besides contractual obligations of an annual average of 7.5 million acre-feet at Powell through that basin compact, of course, when water there gets below necessary levels, that has an impact back up to the Upper Basin states with increased electrical bills…
“(Lake Powell) is our bank account against accounts payable to the Lower Basin states,” re-iterated Wineland. “We’re probably within 20 feet of the critical threshold, at which point, Arizona and Nevada are going to have to make some hard decisions and really cut back on their water use.”
Despite the challenges even in what seems a healthy water year locally, all hope is not lost. The overall tenor of the meeting was mostly positive, with emphasis on how collaborative efforts across Colorado, as well as through such multi-state interdependence and agreements, proper attention on this limited resource is increasing.
Steger, Denver Water’s manager of raw water supply, brought encouraging news that the water from snowpack averages just a couple days ago are not only well above both the 20-year average on Dillon Reservoir (14.6 inches), but also ahead of 2015 (16.5 inches) as well. Current measures are 19.5 inches from this winter’s snowfalls.
On top of that, snowpacks on the South Platte River are also above normal for this time of year. That means Denver Water can most likely avoid pulling much water from Dillon Reservoir through one of its primary transmountain water diversion, Roberts Tunnel, this season for the South Platte and Denver’s consumption needs.
In fact, if that happens, that will continue a beneficial trend where 2014 and 2015 were actually the two lowest years within a 50-plus-year span for how much water has had to be removed from Dillon Reservoir through Roberts for the Platte and North Fork rivers.
“I attribute that partly to Mother Nature,” explained Steger to the audience, “because we’ve had good water supplies on the South Platte, but also our customers are doing a better and better job every year I think of conserving water. When our Eastern Slope supplies are good, that means we don’t have to take as much water from the Western Slope to the other side of the divide. That indirectly helps Lake Powell.”
Wineland also discussed how momentous the unveiling of Colorado’s statewide water plan — years in the making — in November is for the general conservation movement. To boot, regional endeavors like the recent $32,000 Colorado Water Conservation Board grant awarded to the Frisco-based High Country Conservation Center (HC3) for development and execution of a countywide water efficiency program are additional steps in the right direction. His parting words were of encouragement and optimism for the Colorado River Basin’s future.
“I just want to bring it back to the bigger picture,” he said. “We have leaders who are putting forth all this legislation and these cooperative efforts. But what we’re lacking are champions, and those champions, really, are you and I — everyone in this room. We need to take this legislation and work to the next level and implement these changes.”
Here’s the release from Denver Water (Stacy Chesney/Travis Thompson):
Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead’s statement in response to Denver City Council’s ordinance to allow graywater use:
“Water conservation has been key to ensuring we meet the needs of future generations, and it’s time that as a city and state we take additional steps to embrace an integrated, sustainable approach to urban water management. Using the right quality water for the right use is a critical step in a sustainable water future for Colorado, and this step by the Denver City Council shows the kind of progressive action we need to be taking to make sure we have enough water to meet our future needs. We applaud the leadership of the city of Denver in taking this important step.”