Mar 22, 2016 by

CREDIT: shutterstock

In a state where recreational marijuana was legalized two years ago and extreme weather has caused serious concerns, one mundane drought-fighting tool remains illegal: using rain barrels to catch rainwater from roofs for use in gardens.

Despite the fact that the American West is facing serious water shortages — Lake Mead, for example, is at its lowest recorded levels since the 1930s — recent proposals to legalize rain barrels in Colorado have been stalled or defeated.

But this could soon change. A bill to legalize rain barrels is making its way through the Colorado state legislature, which would allow homeowners to possess two 55-gallon rain barrels to be used to collect and store rainwater for use in gardens and yards. The bill overwhelmingly passed the Colorado state House two weeks ago on a 61-3 vote, but faces an uncertain future in the Republican-controlled Senate later this week.

Water advocates say that rain barrels are a good tool for water conservation, but perhaps more importantly, they encourage citizens to think about their water use and make conservation-minded decisions. As Pete Maysmith, Executive Director of Conservation Colorado, which is leading the fight to legalize rain barrels put it, “It makes water policy approachable, not something just for lawyers and insiders.”

And this, water advocates believe, is key to making real, lasting change when it comes to water conservation measures: make environmentally-friendly policies available for consumers to choose to use them.

But, their efforts could face challenges, as anti-water conservation lawmakers could potentially kill the bill. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling, CO), who was responsible for the demise of the rain barrel bill last year, could fight the bill once again.

The reason that Sonnenberg and other legislators have defended this antiquated policy lies in the complicated world of water law in the American West. Opposition to rain barrels is driven by an entrenched agriculture and water lobby, grounded in a strict interpretation of water law.

Colorado is one of many states that operate under a prior appropriation system whereby people with “senior” water rights get access before those with “junior” water rights. In a water-constrained world, they argue, there won’t be enough to go around. And senior water right holders are worried that urban farmers and lawn-lovers will impinge on their allocations by collecting rain off their roofs.

However, supporters of legalizing rain barrels argue that there is no net loss of water, so senior water rights remain unimpeded. Indeed, a study from Colorado State University noted that use of rain barrels would not decrease the amount of surface runoff going to downstream users, thereby negating the argument that opponents of rain barrel legalization have relied on. The study analyzed urban hydrology using Colorado-specific climatic conditions, and found that rain barrel use would not impact runoff, infiltration, or evaporation.

Nevertheless, this argument hasn’t convinced opponents in the past, so lawmakers have taken a different tact this year. Through countless hours of stakeholder meetings and carefully-crafted language that acknowledges prior appropriation and protects senior water rights, supporters have managed to pull together a bipartisan bill that addresses many of the concerns of those in opposition, including Senator Sonnenberg.

The bill will be heard in the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Energy Committee this week. If the bill passes with bipartisan support in committee, it will go to the full Senate for consideration later this year. If it passes, the bill would head to Governor Hickenlooper’s desk for final signature, something he is expected to do.

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