It’s a resource that some regard as more valuable than the gold in Colorado’s mountains – the water that cascades down the rivulets, streams and rivers that drain the state’s high country of cloudbursts in the summer and snowmelt from the winter.
Now a dispute is being renewed over whether homeowners have the right to collect some of the water that runs off their roofs and use it for their gardens.
Amid a record-setting drought across parts of the American West, a move by the legislature last winter to allow water collection was defeated by water interests who argue that legally there is no unclaimed water in the state. Colorado is the headwaters for major drainages such as the Colorado and Platte Rivers, which flow to many other states.
And the state’s water law is very specific: Those who have the oldest claims get their water first.
It’s so strict that for most mountain homes whose owners have no more than a state residential well permit, it’s not even allowed to take a couple of buckets of water outside to wash a vehicle. The well permit requires all water to be returned to an underground system, such as a septic tank and leach field.
The state has a special court system for resolving disputes over water, and individual property owners have been known to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain access to additional water.
But the Durango Herald reports state lawmakers now plan to revisit a proposal that would let homeowners park a rain barrel under a downspout and use the collected water.
The report said the Water Resources Review Committee of the Colorado legislature is moving forward on the idea of legalizing rain barrels.
A plan under consideration would authorize the barrels on several conditions, including that they be registered with the state. Another condition would be that water providers replace water taken from rooftops.
State Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, which is in the middle of vast croplands irrigated by water obtained through rights sometimes well over a century old, opposed last year’s plan to allow the barrels.
This year, he said, the requirement to replace the water is the key.
“This is more about honoring the prior appropriations system and saying, ‘If we’re going to have rain barrels, the right thing to do is to figure out how we replace that water,'” he told the Herald.
Even water that drains from a roof is claimed by the state, as it eventually flows either into a river or an aquifer from which farmers pump water for their crops.
Sonnenberg’s new plan would allow Coloradans to use up to two containers with a maximum capacity of 55 gallons each.
A promoter of the plan, Pete Maysmith of Conservation Colorado, told the Herald: “Numerous studies have consistently shown that rain barrels have no impact on downstream users. Any proposals to put additional red tape and bureaucracy on a rain-barrel program disregard these studies and will only serve to dissuade and burden Coloradans.”
The New York Times reported Colorado is one of the last places where such roof-runoff collection is illegal.
Sonnenberg said the value of water cannot be overestimated to those whose lives and livelihoods depend on it.
“If it’s just a little bit, why wouldn’t we allow everyone [to go] into 7-Eleven and take just one bottle of water, just a little bit?” he said in the Times report.
In Colorado, those who divert water without permission face fines of up to $500 per day.