Rain barrel bill draws mixed feeling and predictions from lawmakers and stakeholders
April 13, 2015
Although a number of Republicans joined Democrats in passing a bill in the House that could end Colorado's ban on rain barrels, the legislation now awaits its first Senate committee hearing, where some Republicans remain wary of its possible long-term effects.
The Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Energy Committee will hold a hearing for House Bill 1259 on April 16.
The bill passed out of the House with an easy bipartisan majority, 45-20, on March 23. It could have become a partisan issue, as no Democrats voted against it. But more than 10 Republicans cast a yes vote, with some calling it common sense legislation and saying rain water will go back into the ground anyway.
Many Republicans did not support the bill, which some say could cause issues with Colorado's law of prior appropriation and potentially hurt water rights holders, such as farmers to whom they say the rainwater belongs.
“You know, it looks like it’s a pretty innocuous bill. Most people might say ‘hey,w why can’t we collect water off our own roof?’”
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But, some House Republicans who supported the bill represent counties with substantial agricultural interests, such as Weld County's Rep. Steve Humphrey, R-Severance, and Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono.
Similarly, farmers and other professional and experts connected to water issues in Colorado have expressed views ranging from concern to support of the bill.
Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, a member of the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Energy Committee, hasn't made up his mind about the bill yet, but he said Thursday he feels leery of voting for it and has not heard much from his constituents yet.
"You know, it looks like it's a pretty innocuous bill," he said. "Most people might say 'hey why can't we collect water off our own roof?'"
But if everyone took advantage of what the bill would allow and 50,000 homes in the Greeley and Evans areas started collecting rainwater, it could hurt the already over-appropriated South Platte River, Cooke said. Hurting the river could mean people with water rights do not get the water they are entitled too, he said.
"I'm not saying I'm opposed to the bill yet; I want to hear the testimony," Cooke said.
Currently people cannot collect and store rainwater from roofs in Colorado. The bill would allow someone to collect and keep rain from his or her roofs in up to two 55-gallon barrels. Rainwater collected this way could only be used for outdoor purposes, such as lawn irrigation and gardening.
"The data we were given indicates that 97 percent of the water that comes off of roof tops never actually makes its way into the basins," Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, said Wednesday. "I thought it made good sense."
If most rooftop rainwater does not make its way into the system as it is now, Young said he would need to see data that showed how rain barrels negatively affect someone's prior appropriation before he sees the bill as harmful to water rights owners.
Most of the northern Colorado legislators supported it the bill, he said, and of Weld County's House representatives, only Rep. Perry Buck, R-Windsor, voted against the bill.
"I struggled with that bill," Buck said Friday. She had concerns about the legality of letting people collect rainwater and how that could affect agriculture.
Although some people say most of the rainwater from roofs does not go into water basins, she said allowing all houses to collect and store their rainwater could negatively affect water rights owners.
Experts in the field have expressed concerns about broadly allowing all houses to collect their rainwater.
"My concern is this bill could result in injury to vested senior water rights," said Robert Longenbaugh, a retired assistant state engineer and ground water specialist. Without requiring rain barrels to receive site-specific consideration, "I believe the potential is there for injury."
Colorado has more demand for water than ever before, and a rain barrel takes away water, he said.
Glen Fritzler, a farmer who works near Gilcrest, thinks the bill could probably hurt farmers.
"It just seems like taking from the end users," Fritzler said.
Not all farmers feel the same way. LaSalle farmer Harry Strohauer said the bill seems like common sense to him. Letting residents collect rainwater in insignificant amounts means they can put it to good use and avoid using other water sources.
"I don't see a downside to that," he said.
Conservation Colorado has also come out in support of the legislation, claiming the bill will raise awareness of Colorado's water challenges and the need for water conservation polices.
The bill could set a nasty precedence, Cooke said, and if it does pass it could be hard to change it back. It would take hard work with stakeholders to find a different version to satisfy everyone, he said. ❖