Here come the rain barrels: Gov. Hickenlooper signs water bill into law in Colorado | TheFencePost.com

Here come the rain barrels: Gov. Hickenlooper signs water bill into law in Colorado

Samantha Fox

It's now legal for residents to collect rain water and use it to water their gardens — something most probably haven't thought twice about.

Before Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a rain barrel bill into law Thursday, only well owners were able to utilize rain barrels legally. A similar bill died in the Legislature last year, but with the governor's signature on House Bill 1005, anyone can collect rainwater in two 55-gallon barrels.

The bill is only a small aspect to the larger picture of water rights in Colorado — which rain barrel owners are not guaranteed.

The bill's passage also means — at least for now — a pause on discussion around major changes to Colorado's water laws. There have only been grumblings and some failed attempts to put water laws to a vote, but the slight change of legalizing of rain barrels is one that puts the conversation to rest — for now.

"For the first time we really have a situation in place where we can account for and make sure water rights are protected," said Marc Arnusch, a farmer in Keenesburg.

Colorado's water laws, in short give water rights to people on a first-come, first-served basis. The priority goes to senior water holders — those who got rights to use the water first. The trickle-down system puts junior rights holders are the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to using and taking water sources. But if the junior water rights holder takes more then their share, the senior holder can hold them responsible for damages to the supply.

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That's where the rain barrel discussion fits in. Even with rain water coming from clouds, Colorado's water supplies rely on runoff water from storms. Rain barrel collections could reduce the amount of runoff water, but only when a large amount of water is collected from rain barrel owners.

Hesitation during the discussion of the bill was to protect the rights of the junior water rights holder. Legislators wanted to make sure junior holders weren't held responsible for less available water due to a diversion into rain barrels.

Colorado State University researchers studied the effect rain barrels collections might have on downstream water from the rain and found there would be little, if any, change. This also plays into how many rain barrels will, realistically, be used. Arnusch said urban residents will most likely use the barrels, and Northern Water's Brian Werner said a good utilization of the barrels would be if 10-15 percent of Colorado residents actually used the barrels. But even that might take time.

The CSU study didn't convince everyone, though. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, was one of three in the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy committee to vote against the bill. His disagreement came from a lack of solutions to make sure the barrels wouldn't take water away from those who own it and how to keep the rights in check. There was talk of a statute that would hold rain barrel owners responsible if there was a deficit from water rights owners, but there was no consensus, as the CSU study said there would be little, if any noticeable change in runoff water.

Even though the study said there wouldn't be much of a change, statutes to hold barrel owners responsible in case of a reduction were rejected.

"If there isn't an impact, why would they be worried about a statue?" Sonnenberg said in March.

But there was a checks and balance system put in place in which state officials can check to see — if rain barrels prevent water owners from getting their full share — how that can be fixed and changed. Werner said the chance for a revisit, along with the results from the CSU study was a large reason why the bill passed this year, unlike past sessions.

"If everyone were to (buy barrels) there are the checks and balances in there so somebody can go back there and look on a regular basis to see if there is, indeed, an impact," Werner said.

The impact comes down to whether there will be enough water when rain barrels are used. With water rights remaining as they are, Arnusch said the bill is a step in the right direction to keep the water rights structure as is.

The biggest overhaul talks have been about switching to a public trust doctrine system. Arnusch is on the Ground Water Commission for the Colorado Division of Water Resources and said talks about the public trust doctrine system would still be priority-based, but the priority would go to wherever need is seen, rather than water ownership. That could mean years with less agricultural priority, which is why farmers and ranchers oppose the system.

"If the public trust doctrine were to go into effect in Colorado, that would be just a catastrophe for agriculture," he said.

While a change to the public trust doctrine isn't favorable to agriculture, Arnusch said it's still important to evaluate and make reasonable changes within the existing water use system. Rain barrels were one of those changes. Now, the micro-storage options have a place in Colorado's complex priority system, he said.

But there is a difference between the use of rain barrels and who owns that water.

"At the end of the day, a rooftop doesn't entitle you to a water right," Arnusch said. ❖

Rain barrel regulations

In Colorado, on residential property, people can now own two 55-gallon rain barrels to gather water.

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