Colorado Legislature Continues To Wrangle Over Rain Barrels

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Originally published on September 17, 2015 9:41 am

Colorado's ban on collecting rain from residential rooftops has been a contentious topic at the statehouse, and a proposed bill for 2016 means it will likely be debated once again.

"Colorado is the only western state where rain barrels are illegal," said Drew Beckwith, a water policy manager with the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates.

"Every other western state that has our water laws has them legal, and it has not caused the Earth to come crashing to a halt."

So why is there so much controversy over collecting rainwater? The sticking point is whether doing so impacts downstream water users.

"If you have a rain barrel, that's less that's going to run into the street," said Senator Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling).

And he believes, less water for farmers and ranchers – which is why Sonneberg opposed the rain barrel bill when it last came up and made sure it was defeated. He's now floating a new measure that would allow rain barrels, if people register them. Then it would be up to water providers to determine how to replace the lost water.

"We're going to bring a bill that does it right and honors the prior appropriation system and Colorado water law," said Sonnenberg. "We need a simple and fair process on how that water should be replaced."

But during a recent hearing at the state capitol, academic water experts from Colorado State University testified that there would be no need for a bill like Sonnenberg's.

"This water doesn't run off any way, and we capture a little of it and we put it on our gardens or we put it on our roses or something," said Dr. Larry Roesner, a civil and environmental engineering professor at CSU.

"It would take a lot of water before it made a significant impact," said Roesner.

Two other CSU experts, along with Roesner, testified before the Water Resources Review committee, which is meeting in the interim to discuss water policy.

"When you have scientists come in and give you the facts I think it's important to incorporate that into your thought process," said Senator Ellen Roberts (R-Durango).

As the chair of the committee, Roberts was frustrated when the previous rain barrel bill didn't pass. She wanted to come back to the topic in between sessions – especially since next session will be during an election year.

"I'm struggling myself to explain to people on the street why this is so controversial. In my district in southwest Colorado, those who want to use rain barrels, use rain barrels today, and a lot of people across party lines were appalled that the legislature was struggling so much with this," said Roberts.

For Drew Beckwith with Western Resource Advocates the measure is mostly about educating the public about water. He said too many people fail to understand where their water comes from, and he said water providers in other states where it is legal say rain barrels help connect people to water policy.

"They find their customers that have rain barrels are the best customers," said Beckwith. "They understand why rates go up, they think positively about their water providers, they participate in conservation programs and are well-rounded citizens. That's something I would like to see in Colorado."

Beckwith would not back Sonnenberg's bill because it creates unnecessary regulation and creates this presumption that there's actually an impact downstream.

Making rain barrels legal has touched off a nerve on the larger issue of water rights, and the competition for every last bit of water. Whether or not some of the science behind rain barrels will help quell the debate next session remains to be seen, but so far opponents do not appear to be changing their minds.

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