Colorado has the most screwed up water rights laws of any state in the Union. Some call them unique, I call them inadequate and based on a concept of when the state was young and had relatively few inhabitants.
The process of acquiring water rights is very expensive, complicated, inefficient and bureaucratic. Water officials have already put too many straws into the glass of coke and not everyone is getting anything to drink. This will get worse unless things change. So, what does this have to do with rainwater harvesting and using rain barrels in Colorado?
A rainwater barrel stores rainwater that lands on your roof. The easiest way to do this is to position the rain barrel under a gutter down spout so the water fills up the barrel. At the base of the barrel is a house attachment so one can use the stored water at a later time to water their plants. This can reduce the amount of water you use and could potentially lower your water bill.
Rainwater harvesting is legal in 49 states. So who’s the black sheep? Colorado!
When the rainwater falls from the sky and lands on your roof, driveway, patio, backyard, front yard or anywhere on your property, you do not have the right to do anything you want with the water in the state of Colorado. You do no own that water. According to the Colorado State Constitution and by law you must not impede, divert or store any rainwater for later use. It doesn’t matter what you use the water for, even if it’s for a good purpose such as landscape irrigation or cleaning your car. The reason for this has to do with the screwy water rights laws of Colorado that predate the early 1900’s.
By diverting or storing the rainwater that collects and drains off your roof, you are affecting the amount of water that could eventually ends up in streams, underground aquifers, and reservoirs “downstream” from your house. Water is a commodity that is sold separately from the land in Colorado and all sources of water are purchased.
When you divert, collect, or impede water on your property, you are affecting how much water eventually ends up in the hands of the rights holder. The water is legally theirs even though it is on your property. A common myth is, you can harvest or collect rainwater as long as you don’t sell it. That is false. You can’t do anything with the water unless you file for water rights then come up with a way to return an equal amount of water back to the rights holder.
So if you live in Colorado, be careful if you are trying to harvest rainwater from your rooftop. If you are caught, it’s a $500 fine for each offense. A second rain barrel equals another $500 fine for a total of $1,000. This is a ridiculous law because the amount of water that runs off a rooftop evaporates long before it enters any stream or underground reservoir. It’s essentially being wasted when it could be focused in select area to irrigate landscapes and lessen drought conditions.
Strangely enough, you can buy a rain barrel from Home Depot and Lowe’s in Colorado, and it’s perfectly legal.
UPDATE: Only folks that are on well water can collect rainwater with the passage of Colorado SB80. This legislation allows residents on wells to collect precipitation from up to 3,000 square feet of rooftop if they get a permit from the Colorado Division of Water Resources. For those on municipal water sources (a residence not connected to a domestic water supply system serving more than 3 single-family dwellings), it is still illegal to harvest rainwater. Since all water arriving in Colorado has been allocated to “senior water right holders” since the 1850s, rainwater prevented from running downstream may not be available to its rightful owner. Therefore, you still cannot “steal” that water from its rightful owner.
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