The Colorado Legislature Takes Another Shot At Legalizing Rain Barrels

Feb 23, 2016

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

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Colorado is the only state in the country where it is illegal to capture rainwater for use at a later time. State lawmakers are once again debating whether to allow residents to use rain barrels to collect precipitation that falls from their roofs.

"This is really straightforward," said Representative Jessie Danielson (D-Wheat Ridge), one of the main sponsor's of House Bill 16-1005 [.pdf]. "You could use that water when you see fit, for your tomato plants or flower gardens."

In addition to allowing the collection of up to 110 gallons each year, another goal is to educate people about water and how to conserve it. Drew Beckwith, with the environmental group Western Resource Advocates, hopes that Coloradans will start "to pay attention to how often it rains."

"They begin to understand how much water it takes to water their grass," he said. "It makes visible, what is invisible for a lot of people."

Beckwith testified in support of the bill before the House, Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee. Water experts, including James Ecklund, said that educational component is key. Ecklund, who heads the Colorado Water Conservation Board and spearheaded Colorado's first ever-statewide water plan, said not having rain barrels hurts the state's brand.

"For Colorado to lead the nation in innovative water management, technology and policy, we need to have a better story to tell than the one we tell now," he said. "The bottom line is, we've got to move on, beyond this subject."

In 2015, a similar bipartisan measure passed the House, but failed on the final day of the legislative session in the Senate. In the interim, a committee of lawmakers studied the issue and water experts from Colorado State University modeled the potential impact to downstream users. They found that there would be no impact from rain barrels, but opponents disagree with the findings.

"The reason this model doesn't show that is because it wasn't intended to show that," said Jim Yahn, an engineer who manages the Sterling and Prewitt Reservoirs in northeastern Colorado.

For Yahn, it's inaccurate that rain stored in barrels would otherwise be absorbed in a person's yard. Instead, he thinks those rain barrels prevent some water from flowing out of the yard and to other water users.

"Downstream of Denver there's 200 miles of river. We're not anti-rain barrel we're anti the misuse of the prior-appropriation system."

Representative Jon Becker (R-Fort Morgan) said there's a reason a lot of members from the agriculture community aren't behind it.

"Water in my area is not taken lightly," said Becker. "This is serious to the point where we argue all the time amongst ourselves how this works. This is not something I want to be against, that's for sure."

At this point Becker said he does have to vote no, especially after his amendment didn't make it on the bill. It would have given recourse to people potentially harmed by rain barrels. The measure passed the committee on a 10 to 2 vote and now heads to the full house floor for further debate.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct the spellings of the names of James Eklund and Jim Yahn. We regret the errors.