Water rights in Colorado are a unique animal that can conjure a range of emotions, ideologies and policy fights – all of which emanate from the state’s central water-related premises: It is in short supply, is carefully allocated, and water rights that predate others take precedence – in practice of course, but more to the point, in theory. This tenet of prior appropriation, or “first in time, first in right,” underlies all policy debates about water use in Colorado and has stymied past efforts to allow residents to collect rainwater for garden and other nonpotable uses. The Colorado House of Representatives on Tuesday passed this year’s rain barrel legislation iteration, and the Senate should follow suit.
House Bill 1005 won bipartisan support in the House, where it passed 61-3. The measure, sponsored by Reps. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, and Jessie Danielson, D-Wheatridge, is simple: Residents of single-family homes or multi-family homes of no more than four units would be allowed to use up to two 55-gallon drums to collect precipitation that falls from above. The moisture must be used on the premises it is collected, for lawn or garden purposes. These are basic, common-sense provisions that would provide Coloradans encouragement to use the state’s limited water more sensibly. Applying rainwater – not just when it falls, but meted out over time – to feed outdoor demand embodies the conservation ethic needed to effectively address the growing gap between water supply and demand in Colorado and throughout the West.
Concern about rainwater collection’s implications on senior water rights holders lies largely in the theoretical and ideological realms – but it has been sufficient to derail past efforts at making rainwater collection legal in Colorado. The potential problem, as critics would have it, is that by capturing rainwater before it falls to the ground, the water table is not being recharged at levels it otherwise would be, thereby ostensibly depriving a downstream – but senior – water user his full allotted amount of water. While perhaps an ideologically sound argument, it is not one likely to manifest in unfulfilled water rights. In fact, a recent Colorado State University study found that rainwater collection to the tune of 100 gallons per household would have a trivial effect on surface water runoff. In other words, water rights would not be affected by the practice.
The Colorado Senate should recognize the innocuous and sensible nature of allowing rainwater collection – particularly those Republicans who jettisoned similar legislation last year based on fears about its impact on prior appropriation. Those fears are simply unfounded, and disallowing a practice that is both common and beneficial does little good for the state as a whole, and its water-conservation efforts in particular.
When the Senate takes up the measure, sponsored in that chamber by Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, it should look to the House’s bipartisanship when it passed the measure overwhelmingly. Collecting rainwater for outdoor use makes sense and should not be illegal – in Colorado or anywhere. The state Senate should send the measure to Gov. John Hickenlooper for final enactment.