Rooftop water can now be stored in rain barrels

Published: May. 25, 2016 at 10:55 PM MDT
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Until this month, the rain that fell from the sky was not yours to use.

On May 12th, House Bill 16-1005 was signed by Governor John Hickenlooper, allowing residents to drain rooftop water into a barrel. Use of rain barrels will officially be legal on August 10 after a 90-day waiting period.

Heidi Van Calcar is a Master Gardner who moved to Colorado from Idaho, where it was legal to have a rain barrel.

"I was really surprised Colorado, which is a very progressive state on most things, was so behind the times,” Heidi Van Calcar said. "I found out rain barrels were illegal and had to actually send mine back.”

Several proposals in the state legislature over the years have tried unsuccessfully to lift the rain barrel ban.

Hannah Holm, the coordinator of the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, said the proposals have all failed because of concerns related to Colorado water law and possible impacts on farmers.

Holm said the Colorado Constitution states water is owned by Colorado citizens, but water rights are required to use it.

Holm said the history of water rights goes back to when farmers and ranchers first began settling Colorado and a system was needed to keep people from settling upstream and taking too much water, leaving little or none for downstream users.

David Bain depends on irrigation water for his crops at the Mt. Lincoln Peach Co. He pointed to the desert extending out beyond his farm.

"If we didn't have the irrigation water, that's what this all would be,” Bain said.

The Colorado River supplies water to 40 million people in six other downstream states and Mexico.

For years, water rights and worries over supply have prevailed, evaporating hopes of lifting the rain barrel collection ban.

"Some folks were concerned that by taking water from roofs, which would have otherwise made its way to a stream, you're reducing the amount of water in that stream and that could be harmful to downstream water users," Holm said.

According to the state census, 2 million housing units in the state could capture up to 34 billion gallons of water. Since only about 10 percent of the state population lives on the Western Slope, the potential impact on the Colorado River basin would be much smaller.

Holm said the impact rain barrel collection on the river would be minimal, as the average volume of the river is about 4.8 trillion gallons of water.

"Most of the water that runs off of people's roofs either infiltrates into the hot ground or hits a hot sidewalk and it evaporates,” Holm said.

Most of the water used on farms and ranches comes from snowpack in the Rocky Mountains.

“I don’t think that’s [rain barrels] really going to affect farmers or farming to any great degree,” Bain said.

Just in case, the bill has several regulations to keep water flowing into farmer’s fields:

- Residents are allowed to have 110 gallons or two rain barrels on their property.

- Rain barrels must have a lid.

- Someone living under a roof with more than four units attached cannot use a rain barrel.

- Water collection can only be used for outdoor non-profit vegetation.

Now, Van Calcar can water her garden and save a little money.

"I think it's fabulous,” Van Calcar said.

“I think it’s a good idea to try to conserve water like that and eventually it’s going to make it back [to the river] anyway,” Bain said.

Holm said by collecting water people will have a better idea of how much water they actually use.

“The hope is that it will promote more of a conservation ethic overall,” Holm said.

The bill also requires the state engineer to monitor the effects of using rain barrels on the river and report any evidence he finds of injury to water rights downstream. If the impact is substantial rain barrels could once again be banned.