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In Some Locales, Conservation via Rainwater Collection is Illegal

California is in its fourth year of a devastating drought, and Gov. Jerry Brown has imposed mandatory water conservation rules aimed at reducing urban water use in the state by 25 percent. Fortunately for California residents, lawmakers tossed out regulations that made rainwater collection illegal in 2012. In fact, some cities, such as Los Angeles, now give away free rain barrels to homeowners. Nearby states, including Utah and Nevada, have loosened their rain collection restrictions in recent years.

“Laws making rainwater collection illegal go back to the mid-1800s when the issue of water rights first came up in Western states,” said Steven Sweeney, president of Rain Harvesting Supplies, Inc., an online store that markets rain harvesting tanks and components to professional installers and DIY homeowners.

Those early water right laws labeled rain as “public property” and prohibited private collection, even if it fell on your roof.

“Water rights are based on ‘prior appropriation,’ which means that the first people to claim the water – typically farmers – are the ones that legally own it,” he said. “Back in the 1800s, no one imagined an economy that wasn’t based on agriculture or the huge cities we’d have today and the millions of homes that would each need a reliable source of clean water. At the time, there was no problem with making rainwater collection illegal.”

For approximately 160 years, Colorado law has forbidden private rain collection, considering it to be the same as stealing from the water table. A bill that would have permitted collection and storage of up 110 gallons of rain passed the Colorado House in 2015, but it was crushed in the Senate. The bill would have allowed a homeowner to install two 55-gallon rain barrels in order to catch rain from a residential rooftop. Advocates say the typical Colorado residence could collect about 600 gallons per year using rain barrels, although that number seems insignificant considering that the average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water each day.

For years, legal experts have condemned water right laws, arguing that the old rules making rainwater collection illegal should be modified to meet today’s water needs. Both Utah and Nevada have loosened their water rights laws, allowing citizens to collect rainwater for their personal use. However, no one believes Western water rights laws will vanish anytime soon.

“The water rights system worked well when water was scarce and the users were few,” said Sweeney. “Water had to be doled out in an orderly system of permits to those people who would raise crops, work a mine or use it for something else productive. However, the Western United States has been devastated by drought and rapid population growth, so these days encouraging citizens to collect the rain would make more sense. Plus, it would demonstrate that state lawmakers recognize the value of rain and are concerned about conservation and the impact that humans have on water resources.”

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