Behind the Hard-won Victory to Legalize Rain Barrels in Colorado

Why was Colorado the second-to-last state to legalize rainwater harvesting?

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop for collection — until this year, when Colorado’s first law legalizing residential rainwater harvesting went into effect in August. After years of advocacy by conservation groups and a bit of compromise with downstream users, Colorado residents can now officially store up to 110 gallons of rainwater to use on their lawns and gardens.

Opponents of rain barrels had been concerned that water rights would be affected. Downstream holders of water rights were worried that if rainwater flowed off of roofs, into rain barrels, and then into landscaping, less water would make it into rivers and streams for their use.

So what changed? Panic Button, a weekly podcast produced out of Colorado State University recently interviewed Drew Beckwith, Water Policy Manager at WRA, along with a few other experts to find out. Check out the highlights of the interview (edited for clarity) below or the full podcast here:

On why legalized rain barrels are a big deal:

Drew: We, in the planning of this bill…were not thinking that this was going to save a bunch of water physically. That fundamentally was not the point of this bill. The larger issue here is that Colorado — if we’re going to double in population and we have climate change — is going to have some really serious water challenges to deal with. And we are not going to be able to make those decisions in a good way unless the public is a little more connected to water.

On why past bills failed and the current bill succeeded:

Host: We were curious to learn why the bill failed before and what changed this time. To dig deeper, we talked to Reagan Waskom, Director of the Colorado Water Institute here at CSU.

Reagan: Harvesting rainwater without a water right is taking water out of priority that belongs to somebody else downstream. And Colorado has a long tradition of fighting for the doctrine of prior appropriation.

Drew: We were wary of bringing the bill back again…but it was literally the only thing that the two prime legislators that ran this bill, Jessie Danielson and Daneya Esgar, heard about from their constituents. Colorado State University, [which houses the Colorado Stormwater Center], did a study showing that there is no difference in the storm water runoff between a home that has rain barrels and one that has none.

Host: Here’s Reagan talking about that study Drew mentioned.

Reagan: What happened was CSU was asked by the interim committee to bring forward an analysis of whether rainwater capture would injure those downstream water rights. And basically came to the conclusion that you would never be able to detect the impact from rainwater harvesting. It was out in the decimal places.

On the changing tide of public opinion in Colorado:

Drew: People are coming to Colorado for the amenities and the natural resources, and the brand of Colorado being an outdoor playground. So those kinds of people who are more interested in the outdoor playground tend to have a different perspective on whether or not water should remain in a river, or if we should be able to take all of the water out of a river and dry it up. People that are enjoying the natural outdoors — that’s just not something that they think is okay anymore.