Who Owns the Rain?

Growing populations, poor city planning and drought conditions mean water rights issues are taking center stage. But when the skies do open up, who owns the rain? Should rain collection be used to conserve water? Well, it depends on where you live.

November 6, 2015
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Water has become a precious resource throughout the arid west. Many parts of the country are feeling the repercussions of building cities and planting huge swaths of farmland in the middle of the desert. This coupled with the impact of a warming planet has meant that water is becoming even more scarce. As a result, doing the rain dance in states like Colorado, California, and Arizona has become more important than ever. But when the skies do open up and provide the moisture that these drought-ravaged areas have been praying for, who actually gets to keep it?

Capturing Rain With Rain Barrels in California

California has been in a major drought. In fact, its driest years on record have been between the years of 2011 and 2014. In an effort to reduce residential water use and conserve the state’s precious resources, the state launched a rain barrel rebate program for homeowners to reuse rainwater at home. The idea is to encourage residents to recapture and reuse rainwater for home gardens rather than turn to the hose. (Although in recent years, the complete lack of rain has made rain barrels somewhat useless. Thus, homeowners are encouraged to go one step further and rip out their water-intensive lawns for another cash rebate.)

Simple catchment systems replenish aquifers and reduce water bills. Not to mention that outdoor water use accounts for30 percent of the average potable water use nationally.

After the Storm In Colorado

While rain barrels are encouraged for conservation purposes in California, rainwater collection is actually illegal in Colorado. Colorado just experienced the wettest May in recorded history, a welcomed event considering the state’s drought issues. But even though the rain actually fell in Colorado, nearly18 other states and even the country of Mexico will get the majority of the water. Colorado is only entitled to one-third of its rainwater and the other two-thirds will flow out of the state. That’s why collecting rainwater using rain barrels is a crime in the state.

This spring Colorado legislators tried to enact a law that would legalize rainwater collection. The law would allow each Colorado resident to collect650 gallons of water per year using two 55 gallon water tanks. To give you a better idea, that’s how much water the average American uses in a week. While the bill had bipartisan support, it ran into problems as a result of century-old water claims. Some ranchers see rain collection as stripping them of the water they’re entitled to downstream. In Colorado, just because water flows through your property via a stream or onto your property through rainfall, it doesn’t mean you own it.

Once it Hits the Ground in Oregon

In Oregon, residents are partially allowed to collect rain.Oregonians can collect water from artificial impervious surfaces including rooftops, parking lots, and barrels, but once rainwater touches the ground, it becomes the property of the state. One man faced 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine for digging three ponds on his property that were used to collect rain. According to state authorities, since the rain actually hit the ground, the state owns it, so building ponds to collect it is, in fact, a form of stealing.

Check With Your Local Water Authorities

At the federal level, rainwater collection is still encouraged, though you should check with your state water authority to make sure it’s legal. Some states like Utah, for example, require that you get a permit to collect water and in some cases, residents are only allowed to collect a certain amount. While it may seem like water that lands on your property is your property, sometimes this isn’t the case. So if you don’t want to end up paying a fine, check your local laws. But once you know it’s legal, consider giving it a try. Rainwater collection is effective even in states that don’t traditionally have drought problems. For example, agricultural states like Georgia, have growing populations that use up water supplies. rainwater can be collected during the rainy season and used when it’s most needed during the hotter, drier months of the year.

When it comes to owning the rain, it depends on where you live. But rain collection is just one more tool in a conservationist’s toolbox. Water reuse should never be used as a substitute for good old fashioned conservation techniques like choosing drought tolerant plants in your backyard and turning lawns into edible gardens.

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