It's Illegal to Have a Rain Barrel in Colorado, but That's About to Change

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A rain barrel is an easy way for homeowners to conserve and reuse water. Colorado is revisiting the decision to make it illegal for residents to have their own barrels. Denise Lett/Shutterstock

There's a saying in Colorado that "whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting." For a long time, state Rep. Jessie Danielson and several of her legislative colleagues have been fighting for water — or, more specifically, fighting for the right of homeowners to conserve rainwater in rain barrels. It's a fight they're about to win.

Colorado is the only state in the nation where it's illegal to have a residential rain barrel.

Danielson of Wheat Ridge and state Rep. Daneya Esgar of Pueblo sponsored a bill in the Colorado Legislature, House Bill 16-1005 (pdf), that would allow homeowners to collect rain from a residential rooftop. The bill passed the state House with overwhelming bipartisan support on Feb. 29, and passed the state Senate 27-6 on April 1. It's now waiting for Gov. John Hickenloope to sign it into law. The bill has several key restrictions. One would limit homeowners to two rain barrels with a combined capacity of 110 gallons. Another specifies that the collected water would have to be used for outdoor irrigation on the homeowner's property.

"My farming family has been stewards of Colorado water for generations, and the science shows rain barrels are a common sense way for homeowners to conserve water," said Danielson. The House approved the same bill last year, and the Senate's Agriculture Committee sent it to the Senate floor. However, it died on the calendar there without coming to a floor vote.

This year, Danielson and Esgar have worked with former opponents of the bill to assure them the intent is not to infringe on anyone's water rights. "The water laws of Colorado are complicated," Danielson said. "We just want people to be able to have a couple of rain barrels to water their tomatoes. This bill makes sense to them."

So why was Danielson optimistic the rain barrel effort would finally succeed this year?

"We have worked with the Colorado Farm Bureau, agricultural organizations and House members who were concerned that the bill would compromise the water rights laws that we have in Colorado," Danielson said. Those efforts produced two critical amendments that provide most skeptics with an assurance that the bill, if it becomes law, would not infringe on anyone's water rights. The amendments helped break the logjam of opposition to the rain barrel efforts. Most of those who opposed the legislation are now in support of the rain barrel bill."

Once the governor signs the bill, it will likely be August before Colorado homeowners could join the rest of the nation in attaching rain barrels to their downspouts.

If you're interested in the outcome of the legislation, you can follow the progress of the bill through Colorado's legislation tracker.

A rain barrel collects water in a garden
State and local regulations regarding rainwater harvesting vary, so check with your state's laws before setting one up at your house. dmitrymoi/Shutterstock

Rainwater in other states

Colorado isn't the only state with laws that address rainwater harvesting. Record droughts and a host of other water-supply worries have prompted numerous other states to enact laws that impact the use of rain barrels, according to Katie Meehan, a research analyst with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a non-partisan group that monitors the nation’s state law-making bodies.

States in which legislatures have passed statutes affecting rain water harvesting are Arkansas, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

As of July 15, 2015, no other states have laws or regulations about harvesting rainwater, Meehan said.

Texas and Ohio are among states that have devoted a considerable amount of attention to rainwater harvesting and have enacted laws regulating the practice, Meehan said. Texas offers a sales tax exemption on the purchase of rainwater harvesting equipment, she added, pointing out that both Texas and Ohio allow the practice for potable purposes, something other states frequently exclude from their laws and regulations. Oklahoma passed the Water for 2060 Act in 2012 to promote pilot projects for rainwater and gray water use, among other water saving techniques. Some states even promote rainwater harvesting with tax incentives, Meehan pointed out.

If a rain barrel is on your to-do list, though, it's always a good idea to check into whether your community might have regulations about rainwater capture. After all, what conservation-minded homeowners think is the right thing to do for the environment may not be the right thing according to local ordinances when it comes to harvesting rainwater.