Colorado is mighty progressive on some issues, but it's the only state in the country with a ban on residential rain barrels. Now, that ban may be on its way out.
In March, the state’s Democrat-controlled House almost unanimously advanced a bill striking down the state’s ban on residential rain barrels. Last week, the Republican-controlled state Senate followed suit by approving the bill in a 27-6 vote, sending it to the desk of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who has said he supports the measure.
Though that Senate vote took place on April Fools’ Day, this ban is no joke.
According to Reagan Waskom, chairman of the Colorado State University Water Center and director of the Colorado Water Institute, Colorado has long taken a “kind of archaic” approach to water laws, in part because of the state’s arid climate and in part because its namesake river plays a major role in providing water to much of the Southwest and Mexico.
“We can find ourselves in trouble pretty quickly with downstream states if they think we’ve expanded our [water] use or violated our compact agreements with them,” Waskom told The Huffington Post. “This is a built-in conservatism that years of interstate squabbles have taught us to do.”
It is for this reason that Colorado has had a complex water rights system in place for more than a century. Built on the principle of “first in time, first in right,” it is a “prior appropriations” system that identifies water rights holders and prioritizes water usage across the state.
That system has traditionally precluded the use of rainwater-collecting barrels. Supporters of the ban, like Republican state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, had feared what residential rainwater collection would mean for water rights holders downstream.
“It’s actually stealing,” Sonnenberg, chairman of the state’s Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, told The New York Times last year. “You might say, it’s a little bit of water, just a barrelful, how much damage could that do to someone downstream?”
Others have expressed concern about whether the use of rain barrels would remove large amounts of water from the system at a time when the Colorado River is facing a water deficit -- one that researchers believe has been exacerbated by climate change. The river has been named the nation's most endangered two of the past three years by the American Waters advocacy group.
But an analysis by CSU appears to have poured water, if you will, on these concerns.
After evaluating average Colorado climate conditions using a stormwater management model, CSU researchers found that residents’ use of rain barrels -- at least at an adoption rate typical of other states that allow them -- would not have a discernible impact on the amount of downstream stormwater runoff.
“We’re challenged, and every drop matters,” Waskom, who participated in the analysis, told HuffPost. “But the way we see it, rain barrels will not hurt the runoff and are a nice water education tool with a little bit of a water conservation flavor.”
Theresa Conley, a water advocate at Conservation Colorado, the advocacy group that pushed the legislation, believes that analysis helped sway critics of the bill. Those critics include the Colorado Farm Bureau, which had opposed an earlier version of the legislation but came around to backing the latest proposal.
Two amendments to the bill -- one making it clear that the rain barrel allowance would not trump the state’s previously established water rights system, and another calling for the effects of barrel usage on runoff to continue to be monitored -- also helped, Conley said.
“We’re really happy with where we’re at on this,” she told HuffPost.
The legislation, which allows households to use up to two 55-gallon barrels to collect water for use on a residential lawn or garden, may seem inconsequential to some, particularly in light of Colorado’s tremendous water challenges.
“There are a lot of people in the west who want to do more to conserve water,” Waskom said, “so this is one really small step in that direction.”
For his part, Sonnenberg, the state senator, remained opposed to the bill, even with the amendments.
But Conley is confident it will help make a lot more Colorado residents aware of the issues of water scarcity and conservation.
“Is this the most impactful legislation to ever be discussed in the halls of the capitol? Probably not,” Conley said. “These won’t solve our water problem, but if this is the gateway drug for people to understand the water crisis and our water needs in the southwest and west, that’s great. This is a bigger issue than rain barrels, and I hope that people will stay engaged.”
Sonnenberg and the Colorado Farm Bureau did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.