Could this be the year for rain-water barrels in Colorado?

Colorado is the only state in the country that outlaws rainwater collection, a popular conservation technique among urban farmers and gardeners that has some rural farmers and ranchers worried cityfolk would violate first-come-first-serve water rights.

A new bill that would allow Coloradans to collect rainwater runoff from their roofs and protect downstream senior water-users rights is coursing its way through the state Capitol.

Leading negotiations between urban and rural water users: Republican Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan.

Under the 2016 bill, residents could collect rainwater in no more than two 50-gallon rain barrels. The state engineer would be responsible for providing information on the appropriate use of rain barrels, and under a Becker-sponsored amendment, would ban rainwater harvesting in years when there’s not enough to go around.

Becker has opposed rainwater harvesting in the past, twice last year, and once this session, when an earlier version of the bill went through the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee.

Most Republicans at the Capitol have opposed the bill in the past. Were rain barrels to become popular, opponents worry benevolent city slickers would suck up water farmers and ranchers need for their livelihood.

First-come-first-serve water rights, called prior appropriation, are the backbone of Colorado water law. The first person to use a water source secures the rights. Farmers, ranchers and municipal water providers often have first dibs on water that comes from rivers, streams and ditches.

Senior water rights holders worry that during droughts, which Colorado experiences regularly, there would be no way to enforce restrictions on rain water harvesting and that urban dwellers would abuse their rights.

Rainwater harvesting enthusiasts and environmental groups say the practice will help educate urban and suburban Coloradans about the importance of conservation and where their water comes from. This is a compelling argument to rural water users who complain city dwellers are clueless about where their water comes from and fail to understand how precious every drop is.

Collecting rainwater would have a minimal impact, if any, on water rights, according to a recent study from Colorado State University that proponents have used to show the practice would not impact senior water-rights holders.

The Ag Committee amended the rain barrel bill, House Bill 16-1005, to declare water a property right. Under the amendment, the use of rain barrels would be subject to the prior appropriation doctrine. But the declaration doesn’t have the force of law and did not outline how disputes would be addressed, abuses curbed and rules enforced.

Becker and several other committee Republicans still weren’t convinced, and voted against the bill.

After a week of negotiations between Becker and the measure’s sponsors, the bill was ready for the full House debate last week.

“Is there an appropriate path for an injured party to go through in order to curtail the use of rain barrels?” Becker asked the House, suggesting an amendment to clarify that the state engineer could ban rainwater collection when a downstream user with senior rights didn’t have the water they were entitled to. That authority is granted under a 1963 law intended to address a shortage issue when wells pump out too much water. Becker said rain barrels should apply to this rule, too.

Becker’s amendment also asked the state engineer to keep a close eye on rain barrel use. Under the amendment, the state engineer would report back to the House and Senate ag committees on whether rain collection has violated water rights, based on complaints, rainwater collection pilots or any other data. But that report wouldn’t be due until 2022.

Proving that collecting rainwater in a barrel hurts downstream users isn’t so easy and that concern is sure to be a stumbling block when the bill reaches the Republican-controlled Senate. Still, Becker’s amendment was enough to eliminate much of the Republican opposition to the measure.

“It’s a responsible way to look at rain barrels,” Becker told the House. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. The bill’s Democratic sponsors and House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran of Denver all applauded Becker’s work on the bill, which gives it a better chance of surviving the Senate.

As amended, the bill garnered support from 16 more House Republicans than a year ago, including Becker, and it passed the House almost unanimously, 61-3.


Photo credit: Arlington County, Creative Commons, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.