Rainwater harvesting may no longer be outlawed in Colorado

Good news for urban farmers. Colorado may soon lose its dubious distinction as the only state in the country to outlaw collecting rooftop runoff in rain barrels.

Today, the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee voted 6 to 3 to authorize rainwater collection.

House Bill 16-1005 would allow Coloradans to use up to two 55-gallon rain barrels to collect stormwater that rolls off of roofs. That rainwater can only be used to water lawns or gardens, under the bill.

The sticking point that killed the bill last year and held it up for the last week in the Senate: the impact such collection would have on the state’s water supply.

A study from Colorado State University, cited by the bill’s backers, said that rainwater collection wouldn’t impact water supply or long-held water rights.

The concern is centered around the backbone of Colorado water law, a doctrine called prior appropriation, which gives priority water rights to the first person to make a claim.

In the House, the bill’s Democratic sponsors added amendments stating rainwater collection was not intended to interfere with prior appropriation.

When the bill was reviewed by the Senate Ag Committee last week, deputy state engineer Kevin Rein said if people claimed their water rights were being harmed, the state engineer would look first at junior water rights holders and not to rain barrel users.

Rein clarified those views today, pointing out the bill has no mechanism for tracking rain barrel use.

Under the measure, the state engineer would have the authority to curtail rain barrel use, but only if someone can point out which rain barrel is violating prior appropriation.

The bill drew “yes” votes from the committee’s four Democrats and from two Republicans: Sens. Ellen Roberts of Durango and John Cooke of Greeley.

Roberts has long been considered the swing vote on the committee in favor of the rainbarrel bill. She told The Colorado Independent after the vote, rainwater collection will likely have little more than minimal impact on water rights, the issue that halted the bill’s progress last year.

She doubts a flood of Coloradans will rush to buy rain barrels, which aren’t cheap. On the plus side, she said collecting rainwater will be beneficial as an educational tool for conservation.

One of the bill’s biggest backers, Pete Maysmith of the environmental group Conservation Colorado, said today in a statement the bill showed “just how bipartisan conservation issues can be. Both sides came together to craft language that recognizes prior appropriation but also acknowledges the shifting dynamics of water policy in the American West and the need to empower citizens to make change.”

Maysmith also thanked the committee’s chair, Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, for his “thoughtful consideration” and for allowing the bill to come to a vote.

Last year, Sonnenberg held up a committee vote on the 2015 version until the next-to-last day of the session, killing its chances of reaching a full Senate vote.

Sonnenberg was still a “no” vote Wednesday. He told the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Mike Merrifield of Manitou Springs,that he is still concerned that junior water rights holders will be shortchanged by rain barrel enthusiasts.

The bill’s House sponsors, Reps. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge and Daneya Esgar of Pueblo, both Democrats, hugged when they heard the bill passed, according to a Tweet from KUNC reporter Bente Berkeland.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for debate and a possible final vote.

Correction: story corrected to note the other “yes” vote was from John Cooke.

Photo credit: Angel Schatz, 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.