A perennial bill that would allow Coloradans to collect rainwater from rooftops in two 55-gallon barrels for watering lawns and gardens was sailing toward the Governor’s desk to be inked into law. But the measure stalled out in the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
Just like last year, Eastern Plains Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg said he worried rainwater harvesting would shortchange rural senior water-rights holders from what they were due, and the state would have no way to stop the harvesters from hoarding what the law states is not theirs.
Rainwater harvesting enthusiasts are now asking if anything could convince Sonnenberg that two 55-gallon rain barrels attached to downspouts per household would not put a significant dent into his rural constituents’ water rights.
In Colorado, whoever lays first claim to a water right, in a river, stream or ditch, gets their water first. Everyone else takes a back seat, and may get less water, especially in times of drought. This is the backbone of state water law, a doctrine called prior appropriation.
Sonnenberg and other rural lawmakers fear rainwater collection would impact those senior water rights. And those fears were not put to rest with testimony from the Department of Natural Resources.
Sonnenberg questioned Kevin Rein, the deputy state engineer, about how the department would shut down rain barrel use when someone with senior water rights claims they’re losing their rightful water supply. Rein noted the bill grants the state engineer, who monitors water usage, the authority to ensure everybody complies with Colorado water law.
That applies to rain barrel use, too. Just how that would work, however, wasn’t clear.
Rein pointed to a study from Colorado State University that claimed there would be little or no impact from rain barrel use.
That didn’t sway Sonnenberg, who suggested a hypothetical: What if the city of Greeley is losing 40 acre-feet of water, and believes it’s due to rain barrel use in Denver? How would the state engineer determine which rainwater harvesters were to blame, which barrels were holding what was due downstream?
That’s where things got messy. Rein said the first place he would look was not at rain barrels, but at water used by someone with a lower priority claim to the water. Crawling around through people’s alleys and backyards isn’t likely a workable way to figure out if that’s where the loss is coming from, Rein said.
When the bill was in the House, its sponsors, Democrats Reps. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge and Daneya Esgar of Pueblo, worked with rural lawmakers, such as Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan, to add language that said rain barrel use was not intended to harm senior water rights.
“It worries the heck out of me when the state engineer says when water is short,” if that shortage could be attributable to rain barrels, the person who pays for it instead is the junior water rights holder, Sonnenberg said. “That says the amendments put on in the House are lip service and not enforceable.”
Last year, Sonnenberg did exactly the same thing. He allowed testimony on the bill, which was heard in the Senate Ag Committee on April 16, then put it on hold until the day before the 2015 session ended, in effect killing the bill.
It’s not like there aren’t the votes in the Senate to pass it. The bill is supported by one of Sonnenberg’s Ag Committee colleagues, Senate President Pro Tem Ellen Roberts, a Durango Republican. Her vote, along with the committee’s Democrats, are enough to get the bill out of the Ag Committee. But only if the bill is allowed to come to a vote.
Those who advocated for the bill point to its popularity with Coloradans. Theresa Conley of Conservation Colorado told The Colorado Independent Thursday they’re encouraged by the bill’s broad support, which she noted included representatives from Greeley Water and the Colorado Farm Bureau. Both organizations opposed the bill in 2015.
It’s not always clear where to lay the blame when someone’s water rights are injured, said Conley. She vowed to sit down with Sonnenberg to figure out a way to address his concerns.
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Democrat Mike Merrifield of Manitou Springs, said he is confident the bill will eventually clear the committee and make it through the Senate.
“Citizens of Colorado want to be able to do this,” Merrifield told reporters Thursday. “Rain barrels are an efficient way to learn about water policy in Colorado.”
Photo credit: Photo credit: Krzysztof Lis, Creative Commons, Flickr.