Rain barrels in Colorado – what you need to know
“If you don’t lick your roof, don’t put it in your mouth.”
Are you ready for rain barrels?
Next Wednesday, August 10 is the first day that most Colorado residents can legally collect rainwater off their roofs into rain barrels.
Mother Nature doesn’t seem to have taken much note of it – the weather forecast for much of the state calls for hot and sunny weather without a hint of rain.
It’s taken years for this state to get there. Colorado is a “first-in-time, first-in-line” state, which means that the person who claimed the water rights first gets to use what they need, and everyone else gets what’s left. Farmers, ranchers and other water users believe that right extends to even the rain that falls from the skies, because that water drips off roofs, onto the ground and eventually into streams, rivers and underground natural storage, known as aquifers.
After a prolonged debate, water-rights holders agreed to accept the legalization of rain barrels, as long as the law acknowledged senior water rights, and the state committed to rmonitoring rain-barrel usage.
The law says you can have up to two 55-gallon rain barrels. The rain barrel must be sealable to prevent mosquitoes from setting up shop. You can only use rainwater for “outdoor purposes,” such as watering your lawn or garden. The rain barrel must be used for collecting rainwater through a downspout that comes off your roof. Rainwater can be used only on your own property, not your neighbor’s.
You can get rain barrels at Home Depot, or online through a number of stores, such as Lowe’s, Amazon, Ace Hardware or through garden stores. BlueBarrel systems offers a recycled rain barrel option. A group called Tree People demonstrates how to install a rain barrel — something you might want to look at before deciding if a rain barrel is for you.
So, how can you use your collected rainwater?
Washing your car? Sure! Washing your neighbor’s car? Only if your neighbor moves it to your property for washing. Theresa Conley of Conservation Colorado points out that you might have some issues with water pressure.
Washing your outdoor windows or siding? Sure!
Putting water in your dog’s outdoor water bowl? Or maybe putting it in your livestock trough? Maybe not. The law says rainwater isn’t to be used for drinking, although that’s generally viewed as a human consumption issue, not animal.
Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, said there were rainwater bills passed in 2009 that allowed rain barrels for homeowners with domestic well permits, for home use only. Those laws were viewed as not applying to livestock. “The only way you could allow your horse to drink rainwater is if the horse could reach through your window to the sink,” he quipped.
Then there’s the “ick” factor. As Waskom sees it, “if you don’t lick your roof, don’t put it in your mouth.” Meaning, rainwater that comes off a roof isn’t treated and isn’t safe for consumption. Think bird or insect droppings and older roofs with deteriorating shingles that are losing gravel, tar or other bits of debris.
One more thing: Rain barrels will be legal for another portion of Colorado residents – but not for everyone. The law applies to people living in single-family residences or a “multi-family residence of four or fewer units.” According to Conley of Conservation Colorado, the law does not allow rain barrels to be used by schools or for homeowners’ associations that have more than four homes connected by a common wall (think townhouses, or townhouse-style condos, which are common throughout the metro area). That said, HOAs can’t ban rain barrels for single-family homes and townhomes with four or fewer units, says Molly Foley-Healy of the Colorado Homeowners Association, which does legal work on behalf of HOAs. An HOA can impose requirements on what the rain barrel looks like and how it’s placed on the downspout, according to Conley, who helped draft the bill.
Top ten ways you can use rainwater
10. Washing your car;
9. Filling your outdoor koi pond;
8. As water for a slip-and-slide, probably okay;
7. Dust suppression – you could use it to water off the dust on your porches and patios;
6. Filling birdbaths;
5. Washing your dog, as long as you do it outdoors;
4. Cleaning outdoor equipment, such as gardening tools;
3. Using it to put out small fires, like in a fire pit. A reminder, though, fire pits are NOT legal in Denver, although they are legal in other counties;
2. Watering your outdoor garden. CSU Extension Service says 110 gallons, the maximum amount that can be collected in two rain barrels, would provide enough water for about 180 square feet, roughly the size of a 15-foot x 15-foot garden. Waskom says you could also water your indoor plants, if you take them outside to do it;
1. Water your lawn or outdoor landscaping. That’s the heart and intent of the new law – to allow Coloradans to water lawns and gardens.
Top ten ways you can’t or shouldn’t use rainwater.
10. Filling your hot tub. Probably not so good for your hot tub’s filtration system, especially if you have an older roof;
9. Filling your kids’ wading pool;
8. Indoor washing – dishes, laundry, yourself or your pets;
5. Filling the water tanks in your camper or RV, or flushing out the water lines;
4. Bobbing for apples;
3. Filling up your beer buckets for BBQs or other parties;
2. Water balloons for outdoor water fights, squirt guns and other outdoor water toys. Again, kind of an “ick” issue;
1. “Home-Alone”-style stunts, where you could set up a bucket of water on a railing in order for it to fall on somebody. (Yes, someone actually suggested that.)
There will be eyes on Colorado’s new rain barrel law: the state water engineer (yes, we have that) is is required to be involved in the new law. Their biggest job for the August 10 roll-out, according to Deputy Engineer Kevin Rein, was setting up guidelines for rain barrel use, which is now on the Division of Water Resources website.
Under the new law, the state engineer has to determine whether allowing rain barrels has caused injury to those with the first-in-line water claims.
It won’t be easy, according to Rein. The division is currently monitoring a pilot project on rain barrels near Sterling Ranch in Littleton; otherwise, they’re likely to find out about injuries to water users through complaints and other data. “It’s information we’ll pick up,” he told The Colorado Independent Monday. “If someone believes they have been harmed by rain barrel use, we’re counting on them to let us know.”
Even then, Rein said, it will likely be difficult to measure. Rainstorms generate a small amount of runoff from roofs and downspouts, he said, and much will depend on the magnitude of a storm.
If there’s any harm to water users, it’s most likely to come out when the state engineer updates the legislature, but that won’t happen until 2019. The state engineer does have the ability to curtail use of rain barrels if such harm is discovered.
The bottom line on rain barrels: Using two rain barrels to water your garden could save up to 1,200 gallons per year. And Conservation Colorado says it’s a great way to connect to the state’s water supply, because using a rain barrel tunes you into Colorado’s natural rain cycles.
Photo credit: Jennifer C via Creative Commons on Flickr