Colo. rainwater collectors come out of the closet

The New York Times reported yesterday on Colorado’s evolving rainwater collecting laws. The topic gave Times writer Kirk Johnson an opportunity to deliver some high-desert exotic news into the drawing rooms of Manhattan.

“Who owns the sky, anyway?” he writes, dateline Durango, Colo. “In most of the country, that is a question for philosophy class or bad poetry. In the West, lawyers parse it with straight faces and serious intent.”

It is a serious business. The new laws mean the state’s shadowy rain harvesters can at last come out of the closet and that a lot of valuable rainwater isn’t allowed to simply evaporate because of unexamined laws.

[Two new] 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.


The old law created a kind of wink-and-nod shadow economy. Rain equipment could be legally sold, but retailers said they knew better than to ask what the buyer intended to do with the product.

“It’s like being able to sell things like smoking paraphernalia even though smoking pot is illegal,” said Laurie E. Dickson, who for years sold barrel-and-hose systems from a shop in downtown Durango.


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.

But the deeper questions about rain are what really gnawed at rain harvesters like Todd S. Anderson, a small-scale farmer just east of Durango. Mr. Anderson said catching rain was not just thrifty — he is so water conscious that he has not washed his truck in five years — but also morally correct because it used water that would otherwise have to be pumped from the ground.

The 2007 study is called “Holistic Approach to Sustainable Water Management in Northwest Douglas County.” It was prepared by a team of engineers and is available as a pdf file at the link.

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