Aaron Broderick outfitted his rental property and his home outside Boulder with rain barrel collection systems. This one at his rental property in Fort Collins cost under $100.

(Grace Hood/CPR News)

Rain barrel owners are passionate advocates who believe the practice is an essential water conservation tool. 

Rain barrel owners are law breakers who steal water from farmers and other water rights holders. 

These two long-held identities for many rain barrel owners along the Front Range have now been reconciled through a new Colorado law to be signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper on Thursday. It’s brought enthusiasts like Aaron Broderick out from the shadows. 

Broderick’s so passionate about rain barrels that he outfitted his Fort Collins rental property and his home near Boulder with collection systems. As a science teacher, he’s become a bit of an evangelist about saving water.  

"We’re using perfectly good drinking water for so many reasons that we shouldn’t be," Broderick said. "So this is one way to repurpose water."

Activities like watering the lawn and thirsty flower beds don’t require treated water from the tap. Until this week, the state technically could have fined Broderick $500 for his system.    

The new law, which takes effect in August, allows homeowners to collect as much as 110 gallons of rain in up to two barrels. 

‘Legalize It’

The state hasn't issued fines in recent years. So why even bother changing the law?

Democratic Rep. Jessie Danielson of Wheatridge says in the face of climate change, drought and a taxed water supply system, rain barrels are an important conservation tool.

"It will tie the consumer to their water usage a lot more closely," said Danielson.

The bill was first introduced in 2015 but lacked support from the agricultural community and some lawmakers. However, it struck a chord with many homeowners this year. Danielson said as she posted Facebook updates about the bill during the session, those dispatches got more responses than any other posts.

A new Colorado law allows homeowners to collect up to 110 gallons at a time with up to two rain barrels.

(Grace Hood/CPR News)

One person was so devoted to the cause they started selling t-shirts.

"They put the words ‘legalize it’ at the top, and instead of it being some marijuana-themed t-shirt it was a picture of a rain barrel," Danielson said. "This is a fun, important environmental issue that just makes sense to people." 

Drought and water supply concerns have been a catalyst for other state legislatures in Texas, Utah and California to take up rainwater collection.

Some western cities like Los Angeles even offer rebates on equipment.  

But in Colorado, where drought is still fresh on many farmers’ minds, getting the bill passed wasn’t easy.

Getting From ‘No’ To ‘Yes’

After the bill was introduced, one of the largest opponents was the Colorado Farm Bureau. 

Colorado water law is based off a prior appropriation system. That means that water rights holders—senior to junior—have priority and can claim the resource over those who don’t have that seniority. The state tracks water rights not just to the stream, but to rain falling out of the sky—water that falls on homeowner’s roofs.

"Rain barrels were kind of looked at as the red-headed step child in a sense," said Marc Arnusch, a farmer and member of the Colorado Farm Bureau board.

Arnusch said amendments to the 2016 version of the bill guaranteed that rain barrels wouldn't interfere with farmers’ water rights. The final bill literally says "a rain barrel does not constitute a water right."

The law will also require the state engineer to track adoption and usage among homeowners. That was a big selling point for Arnusch.

"We need to start preaching heavily about conservation and using water intelligently," said Arnusch. "And that starts quite frankly in the urban areas of our state."

Debate and research on rainwater collection stretches back almost a decade in the state. Colorado launched a small-scale study back in 2007. It found that 97 percent of the rainwater in Douglas County is lost to evaporation and vegetation. The study was a catalyst for a 2009 law that gave well owners the right to collect rain water.

In Colorado, the debate may be complicated, but rain barrel owner Aaron Broderick said owning a rain barrel is pretty simple. It takes an afternoon to set up and it can cost under $100. The end result will be a cheaper water bill.

"The thing that’s interesting is that it really isn’t much of an inconvenience," he said.

The true test will be whether the law causes an inconvenience for water rights holders in the near future. The state engineer’s office is expected to deliver its first report on rain barrels sometime in 2019.