Cindy Sepucha painted the first rain barrel for the Boulder Barrel Project.

(Nathaniel Minor/CPR News)

Many Western cities have used rebate programs to promote rain barrels as a water conservation tool.  But Boulder is putting its money on artists to draw attention to the catchment devices -- which until recently were illegal in Colorado.. 

The city has recruited 30 artists with the help of the nonprofit Open Studios to create the Boulder Barrel Project. In the coming weeks, each of them will have a plastic rain barrel to decorate, maybe with paint or perhaps even with knitting.

"The basic requirements are that it can’t be too heavy, and it has to serve the purpose that it was designed for: to collect rain water," said Open Studios Executive Director Cindy Sepucha. She's already had one artist ask her about knitting a cover for a rain barrel, an idea she’s approved. One of her rules: the decorations can't get in the way of the barrels performing their essential duties.

Among her recruits are contemporary fine artist Will Day and a Boulder street artist known as Smile.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed legislation last month making the barrels legal. The law goes into effect Aug 10, and that's when Boulder will officially launch the project. Between Aug. 10 and Sept. 10 the barrels will be displayed at Boulder businesses. On Sept. 15, the city is planning a live auction of the barrels at an educational event focused on how they can be used.

"The main goal is to raise awareness and educate the public," said Sepucha, who painted the first rain barrel for the project: a sepia-tone scene of fall Aspen trees.

The project is expected to bring a few surprises as artists develop and reveal their designs. And there could be at least one surprise for Sepucha. She’s never met the street artist Smile, and doesn't know Smile’s identity. 

“I’m really excited about that just because this artist’s identity is a secret at this point,” she said. “I don’t know how we’re going to handle that. But I’m really excited about seeing what they create on their barrel.”

Proceeds from the Sept. 15 auction will go to Open Studios, the water group Center for ReSource Conservation and low-income housing nonprofit Boulder Housing Partners.