In Colorado, it's illegal for people to collect rainfall, one of the more bizarre quirks of the state's labyrinthine water laws. The water that falls on lawns belongs to downstream water-rights owners.
But attitudes toward collecting rainfall for watering lawns are changing, and two recent pieces of legislation, including one signed by Gov. Bill Ritter on Tuesday , make it easier for people to use rain barrels. Such water collection is considered environmentally friendly and encouraged in many states.
If you live in the city, don't install a barrel under your gutter spout just yet. The legislation lets residents on wells collect rain and establishes 10 pilot projects for new developments. Residents on municipal water still can't legally collect rain, and water suppliers are leery of legislation that would let them.
"All the water was spoken for here in the Arkansas Basin 100 years ago or more," said Kevin Lusk, water supply engineer for Colorado Springs Utilities. "If the water falls as rain, that's water that was going to get to the stream system, and somebody already has dibs on it, and if somebody intercepts that, it's the same as stealing."
State Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, a primary sponsor of both bills, decided to push the issue after hearing last year from a resident upset about not being able to set up a rain barrel.
Utah is the only other state with a ban on rain collecting. While enforcement here is rare, violators could be taken to court.
"If you can just use what's coming out of the sky, it saves energy costs, it saves transportation costs, and ultimately, at the end of the day, it should save us on using forms of water that have to be treated," Looper said.
In April, Ritter signed SB80, which allows residents on wells to collect precipitation from up to 3,000 square feet of rooftop if they get a permit from the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
Looper said most people who qualify are on the plains, where rainwater would evaporate. She plans to install barrels on her property. Residents can begin applying July 1.
The bill that Ritter signed Tuesday, HB1129, directs the state to approve 10 pilot projects, new housing or mixed-use developments designed to include rainwater collection. Officials will study the projects through 2020 to see how viable it is to use rain for household irrigation and what impact it has on stream flows.
Water suppliers agreed to support the bill because developers and residents in the projects must pay for replacement water for every drop collected in the first two years of study.
Residents can then ask a water court to lower the augmentation requirement.
Said Looper, "I was a little frustrated that we had to augment 100 percent of every drop that comes out of the sky, but at the end of the day, to ensure that senior (water-rights owners) were not going to be negatively affected, the sponsors I worked with on the bill were happy with the 100 percent augmentation requirement."
She said she believes the pilot projects will show collection systems don't harm stream flows and hopes the augmentation requirement can drop to 30 percent.
She also would consider legislation to expand rain barrels to city dwellers, if the pilot programs show no harmful impact on water supplies.
"That's a bigger fight, and I thought we would first take those first couple of years and see if it's going to work for Colorado," she said.
Utilities officials would have major concerns about legislation expanding rain barrels to cities, Lusk said.
Colorado Springs Utilities depends on runoff down Fountain Creek, which factors into the water it may draw from elsewhere in the Arkansas River Basin. The utility would have to ensure every collected drop is accounted for, and it lacks the resources to do that, he said.
WANT TO COLLECT?
The Colorado Division of Water Resources will begin accepting applications July 1 for residents who get their water from wells, outside of municipal water systems, to set up their own rain collection systems. For details go to http://water.state.co.us.