Rain on the Roof

Who owns the water that falls on your rooftop? In most of the western United States, it’s not you, and if you try to catch and store that water, you may be interfering with someone else’s water rights. NPR aired a story on the issue this morning, “Water Wars Out West: Keep What You Catch,” about a Colorado law that breaks with the usual legal regime. The law allows water collection by residential property owners who need to dig a well or get their supply trucked in (in other words, if you’re served by what city dwellers think of as a regular water system, it’s still illegal for you to catch and save rainwater and snowmelt in Colorado.)

The links:

An Act: Concerning Limited Exemptions for Water Collected from Certain Residential Rooftops

Southwest Colorado Water Information Program: Understanding Water Rights

U.S. Bureau of Land Management: Western States Water Laws

NPR: “Water Wars Out West: Keep What You Catch!

And also, for generally interesting reading on water rights questions, Aguanomics, a blog from two UC-Berkeley economists.

6 Replies to “Rain on the Roof”

  1. Interesting story. I heard in some western towns you can have a rain barrel, but only one. I’d like to get a rain barrel, but so far I haven’t found one in my price range.

  2. Oh, you can dig a hole in the ground. If you have permission. I was talking about this with a friend about how this shows the difference between the wet eastern half of the country and the dry western half. Most times in the eastern half, you want the water to keep moving. Out here, you want to trap it.

  3. I do wonder if any old houses that were built before these laws went into effect out there have underground cisterns and if they’ve been raided by the authorities. They used to be quite common around here.

  4. I don’t know if anyone’s ever been busted for having an old-time cistern. Here’s a very good story about what’s happening with cisterns now, though: http://tinyurl.com/6qr87h
    In a nutshell: The West is dry and water is scarce. Property owners are allowed to establish rights to a share of the available water. One criterion for establishing rights is seniority — the older your claim on a water resource is, the higher you are in the pecking order to draft water from it. No one is entitled to do anything to impair your water rights, even if they have rights themselves. might say the western way of looking at this is that someone who intercepts water that would flow into a creek that you use to irrigate your field has impaired your right if they’ve reduced the flow to the extent that your irrigation supply, and the supply due to all the other downstream rights holders, has been affected. Clearly, one householder capturing rainwater in a barrel would intercept a trivial amount of water. But the water rights laws were written to answer a situation in which many people simply took the water they needed without regard to the impacts further down the line.
    I still maintain that this is a hard concept for we native Midwesterners to understand. For the most part, we take water for granted, and drought is an exceptional circumstance rather than the annual cycle it is in the West. When people built cisterns in Illinois way back when, it was mostly to guarantee a supply of cheap fresh water in an era before water systems and deep wells.

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