Logic seems absent from Colorado rainwater law

By: Dave Philipps
July 18, 2007
TO OUR READERS: This is the fifth in a monthly series on vegetable gardening for the beginner, featuring second-year gardener Dave Philipps. “Gardening with Dave” appears the third Thursday of the month through the growing season, with updates at gazettegarden.blogspot.com.
The rain barrel is the bong of the Colorado garden. It’s legal to sell one. It’s legal to own one. It’s just not legal to use it for its intended purpose. This is one of the many things I found out the hard way in my ongoing quest to have a small vegetable garden that provides maximum pleasure and produce with minimal time and resources. I decided last summer, after looking at my water bill, that part of that whole saving resources thing should include capturing water off my roof. It just makes sense. After all, you know how rainfall is in Colorado. As the Hopi tribe of Arizona says, there are two kinds of rain: “male rain” — short, violent summer cloud bursts — and “female rain” — gentle, long overcast drizzles. If that’s the case, most of what falls during the summer in Colorado Springs is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of rain. It bursts in, drops a quick inch of rain in a fury of wind, lightning and hail. The gutters flood. Cars stall in knee-deep water at intersections. And with a menacing “I’ll be back,” the storm disappears. Then no rain falls for at least a week. So we water. And water. And water. During the summer, about 60 percent of the city water supply goes to sprinkling lawns and gardens. Meanwhile, when rain does fall, the torrential flood caused by water running off a few thousand acres of roofs, roads and parking lots erodes downstream ranches, undercuts city sewer pipes and really makes Pueblo mad. It’s gotten so bad that the city is taxing us all — excuse me, feeing us all — to pay for $295 million in stormwater projects. So wouldn’t it make sense to save a little rain when it falls, keep it from barreling down Fountain Creek, and use it when needed? Of course it would. But sense doesn’t always figure into the law. And Colorado water law makes it clear, no matter how illogical, that the rain that falls on your roof doesn’t belong to you. In fact, you can’t even borrow it. It has to go downstream to the person who owns the water rights, who could live in Fountain or as far away as Kansas. I didn’t know any of this when I started building a rain barrel to water my little garden. I just knew that an inch of rain on a 1,000-square-foot roof yields 623 gallons of water. I only planned to catch half the rain from my roof, but that still meant a 10-minute afternoon shower was more than enough to fill my 80-gallon barrel. The barrel was easy to make. I found a survivalist living up near Woodland Park who was selling a big plastic container on Craigslist.org. Apparently, post-Y2K he decided society had stabilized somewhat and he could use the $10 more than emergency water storage. From there I just followed one of dozens of online rainbarrel plans that agencies in other states use to encourage citizens to conserve water. I cut a hole in the top for the rain spout, drilled another at the foot and screwed in a faucet, and added one more hole near the brim for an overflow. Then I waited for rain. One afternoon downpour later, the barrel was full, and I was recycling stormwater on my garden. Plus I was keeping water from eroding Fountain Creek. I figured it was winwin. Then I called the Master Gardeners, just to quell a suspicion that the whole thing wasn’t quite kosher. Sure enough, Jerry Prisk at CSU extension said “even though you divert it only a few inches, technically, if you really want to get down to the nitty gritty, strictly speaking, it’s illegal. You might get away with it for a while but . . . I’d be careful.” What could I do? I was caught between doing what I felt made sense and following the law. For a moment I felt a surge of rebellious righteousness, similar to when Huckleberry Finn realized that even though society was telling him to turn in a runaway slave, he couldn’t bring himself to betray Jim, and he said, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” But then I remembered, this isn’t slavery. This is a barrel of water. You can only be so self-righteous. So I decided to dismantle it but keep it around, and if, years from now, my kids ever ask, I’ll say it was just a wild part of my youth. Sure, I had a rain barrel, but I never inhaled.
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