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Rainwater Collection Laws Change in Colorado

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The water laws are changing in Colorado. For the first time since territorial days, rain will be "free," as more and more states part ways with one of the most entrenched codes of the West.

Precipitation, every last drop, was assigned ownership from the moment it fell in many Western states, making scofflaws of people who scooped rainfall from their own gutters. In some instances, the rights to that water were assigned a century or more ago.

Now two new laws in Colorado will allow many people to collect rainwater legally. The laws are the latest crack in the rainwater edifice, as other states, driven by population growth, drought, or declining groundwater in their aquifers, have already opened the skies or begun actively encouraging people to collect.

The Colorado laws allow perhaps a quarter-million residents with private wells to begin rainwater harvesting, as well as the setting up of a pilot program for larger scale rain-catching.

Just 75 miles west of there, in Utah, collecting rainwater from the roof is still illegal unless the roof owner also owns water rights on the ground; the same rigid rules, with a few local exceptions, also apply in Washington State. Meanwhile, 20 miles south of there, in New Mexico, rainwater catchment is mandatory for new dwellings in some places like Santa Fe.

State water officials acknowledged that they rarely enforced the old law. With the new laws, the state created a system of fines for rain catchers without a permit; previously the only option was to shut a collector down. But Colorado’s assistant state engineer said enforcement would focus on people who violated water rules on a large scale. “It’s not going to be a situation where we’re sending out people to look in backyards.” 

A study in 2007 proved crucial to convincing Colorado lawmakers that rain catching would not rob water owners of their rights. It found that in an average year, 97 percent of the precipitation that fell in Douglas County, near Denver, never got anywhere near a stream. The water evaporated or was used by plants.

 
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