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Politics

Colorado's Move To Legalize Rain Barrels Is Again Underwater In Committee

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Colorado General Assembly
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Update 5.13.2016: Gov. John Hickenlooper has signed legislation finally legalizing rain barrels. Our original story continues below.

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A bill that would allow people to collect rain that falls from their rooftops is hung up in the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, after the chair said he wasn't comfortable with the measure. It's not clear when the committee will vote on it.

The same thing happened during the 2015 legislative session when the rain barrel bill vote was delayed. While the bill eventually cleared the committee over the objections of the Republican chair, it failed on the final day of the session when time ran out.

"I didn't plan on today being Groundhog Day, I anticipated that the bill would pass," said state Sen. Michael Merrifield (D-Colorado Springs), sponsor of House Bill 16-1005 [.pdf].

"Citizens of Colorado want to be able to do this," Merrifield said. "A rain barrel is an efficient way for people to learn about water policy in Colorado."

Opponents worry rain barrels would prevent some water from reaching downstream users. The bill already passed in the House where Democrats added changes to bring Republican opponents on board. One amendment would give the state water engineer the ability to shut down rain barrels if they are determined to impact downstream users. Another clarifies that having a rain barrel is not a water right.

"Say the town of Greeley looks like they get shorted 40 acre-feet and it can be attributed to rain barrel usage in the city and county of Denver. How would you deal with that specific type of instance?"

"I indeed had high hopes that those were helpful," said Senator Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling), chair of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Like many inside the capitol, he's tired of having the rain barrel debate.

"I want to be done with this, but right now I'm not comfortable," he said.

Sonnenberg disputes a study from Colorado State University water experts that found rain barrels would not hurt other water users, because that water would otherwise be absorbed in the grass and shrubs. Sonnenberg posed a hypothetical scenario.

"Say the town of Greeley looks like they get shorted 40 acre-feet and it can be attributed to rain barrel usage in the city and county of Denver," Sonnenberg said. "How would you deal with that specific type of instance? You obviously can't walk up and down alleys and see who has rain barrels to curtail them."

Bill supporters say that scenario would never happen because rain barrels have no impact, but Sonnenberg still wants more information before voting. Colorado is the only state in the country that doesn't allow rain barrels. Water experts say the measure's time has come, and they want to move beyond this debate and start focusing on substantive policy changes to deal with projected long term water shortages.

Despite the hurdle in the committee hearing, Sonnenberg and others don't think there will be a repeat of the bill's 2015 fate; they expect something to pass before the session ends. 

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