Your Watershed: Rainwater collection bill passes House
The Colorado House of Representatives recently approved a bill to lift a statewide ban on rainwater collection, passing almost unanimously, 61-3. This isn’t the first time that the House has voted on the issue — a similar bill passed the Colorado House just last year, but was voted down in Senate committee.
Supporters of the practice argue that this will have very little impact on downstream use, while opponents urge caution that the collection of rainwater constitutes storage without a decree, and such it contradicts the state’s system of prior appropriation.
Colorado’s system of prior appropriation states that the use of water is “first in time, first in right.” That is, the first individual to claim the water has the first right to use that water. Therefore, the use of rain barrels could be equivalent to stealing that water from downstream senior water rights owners.
But utilization of rainwater does not necessarily constitute a consumptive use, and collecting water to later use in domestic gardens is merely delaying the return of the rains to streams and aquifers. Of the 19 states that adhere to the doctrine of prior appropriation, Colorado is the only one that bans the collection of rainwater.
A 2007 study conducted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Douglas County found that, on average, only 3 percent of rainfall that falls on lawns actually returns to a stream or aquifer system. Rainwater is consumed by gardens, lawns and other vegetation, and contributes very little to nearby streams and rivers. A more recent study done this past September by the Urban Water Center at Colorado State University found no measurable difference to stream flows from homes that collect rain water compared with homes that do not.
Under the current bill, collection would be allowed in up to two 55-gallon rain barrels. This year’s legislation has been amended to satisfy several objections. Added amendments address data collection on the water quantity impacts of the practice, clarify that collection does not constitute a water right and provide for a review period.
Fort Morgan Rep. John Becker sponsored an amendment that would ban the practice during times when there is not enough water to go around. Additionally, the state engineer would be responsible for providing information on the appropriate use of rain barrels.
As Colorado faces increased water challenges, an increasing population and a changing climate hinting at a shrinking water supply, an informed public is called upon to find solutions to these challenges. Managing our personal agricultural systems allows us to develop an intimate relationship with the amount of water we use. Residential rain barrels could help citizens better connect to their personal water use.
Can the prior appropriation system be a flexible, adaptive water rights system that allows for the integration of rain barrel collection? This concept may present an opportunity for citizens to do their part to conserve water.
James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the effort could help generate a narrative on water conservation in the West.
“The concept of residential rainwater harvesting aligns with the CWCB’s philosophy of promotion of education and water stewardship at a local level,” he said.
Additionally, when we use rainwater in our gardens, we aren’t using potable water that has been diverted from our streams and run through the intensive municipal treatment process. The practice results in decreased costs and energy use.
We here in Colorado have an opportunity to shape how we will manage water into the future. Rain barrels have the potential to help us gain a greater understanding of how much precipitation we receive and how much water we actually use. Our water is a precious resource, and rain barrels may be one tool that can help us do our part to use less to meet our growing water needs. The more intelligent we are about our water use, the better we can ensure the sustainability of our precious resource.
Dan Ben-Horin is a watershed specialist with the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. His column, Your Watershed, appears on the second Sunday of each month. The council works to evaluate, protect and enhance the health of the Middle Colorado River watershed. To learn more, go to http://www.midcowatershed.org. You can also find them on Facebook at http://facebook.com/midcowatershed.
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