Did You Know That the Rain That Falls on Your Property May Not Be Yours?
Just because rain lands on your property doesn’t necessarily mean you can collect and use it. In fact, it’s only been a little over a year that collecting water in rain barrels has been legal in Denver. And even that comes with a list of restrictions.
Water Rights History
You might logically think that the laws and regulations have to do with environmental issues, but that’s not the case. It actually dates back to the 1860s when miners in Colorado began experiencing water shortages and developed rules to control access to water based on a system of priorities.
This idea spread to other states in the western U.S., where water can be scarce and growth made it as valuable as the gold it was used to mine with. And anything that valuable inevitably brings politics and competing interests into play. It even inspired a movie, Chinatown, that showed how nasty things could get.
Today, nine western states have laws restricting the collection of rainwater, and only recently have they been looked at with a fresh eye. The catalyst was the 2012 arrest of an Oregon man for illegally “harvesting” rainwater. News of his arrest and 30-day jail sentence went viral and people started wanting to know why such an action should be illegal.
The answer was often, “well, it’s complicated.”
How Are Water Rights Determined?
Water rights are usually determined at the state level, either by legislation or, as in Colorado’s case, by the state’s constitution. Each state has its own set of needs and laws that address them. Specifics can be found on the website for the agency that regulates water for that state.
In Colorado, the state legislature recently passed two bills that allowed for limited harvesting of rainwater by property owners. One, House Bill 16-1005, allows households of four or fewer units to have up to two rain barrels with a combined capacity of up to 110 gallons. The water must be collected from rooftop drain spouts and must be used on the same property for outdoor landscape use only. Senate Bill 09-080 addresses special circumstances in rural area. A detailed explanation of each bill and the uses permitted can be found on the Colorado State University Extension website. It should be noted that these allowed uses do not grant any water rights.
Who Has What Rights in Colorado?
Because of our climate, every drop of water counts, and rights holders are entitled to use of that water without interference. In Colorado, water rights are determined by what is known as the prior appropriation doctrine. It’s basically a first-come, first-served rule that’s been in effect for over a hundred years and means that “upstream” users can’t deprive a rights holder of the water they’re entitled to by law.
That’s why the rain that falls on your property isn’t yours to do with what you want. Downstream users depend on that water to be collected by streams and rivers that feed their property. If you trap it, they don’t get it.
Rain Gardens as an Alternative to Storing Rainwater
A rain garden diverts rainwater and snow melt directly into a planted area where it’s absorbed by roots or filtered through the soil before entering the runoff system. Rain gardens are inexpensive and easy to build and are not subject to the water use restrictions set on rain barrels.
For information on designing and building a rain garden, take a look at this article on the Donovan Arborists Treeology blog. If a rain garden seems like a solution for you, Colorado State University Extension has a detailed brochure on building a rain garden in Colorado. You can download it as a PDF file here.
If you need a helping hand, Donovan Arborists offers a complete landscape maintenance package for property in the Denver area that includes care of trees, shrubs and turf.
We use environmentally friendly practices and a holistic approach, focusing on the greater picture of the plants, their surroundings, soil, water, climate and light exposure to create optimal outdoor environments for your landscape to thrive.
We’re always happy to give free estimates to homeowners and property managers for any services they may need.