Let’s Talk Water – What’s Legal And What’s Not

There is so much misinformation regarding water collection and use in the cities of Colorado ( to include Colorado Springs) that it is time to set the record straight.  Many of the rumors are absolutely false; others teeter on the line of falsehood.  I am not saying that you should follow the letter of the law regarding water use in Colorado, but I am suggesting you should know what the laws are so you can make an informed decision regarding your own adherence to the laws or your own civil disobedience.

UPDATE 7/26/26:  Catching rain in rain barrels will be legal for Colorado residents as of 8/10/16.  This is HUGE news for Colorado, as HB 16-1005 was signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper earlier this year.  Read here for the details.  Myth #1 is now no longer relevant!  Hooray!

Myth #1 says that it is now legal to catch rain water in Colorado.  So what’s all the ruckus regarding rain barrels?  Haven’t we determined that rain barrels are legal in Colorado?  Um, no, not really.  Rain barrels are legal in Colorado under very specific circumstances, with a permit and approval, and most Coloradans don’t qualify.  The number one factor that makes rain barrels illegal for the vast majority of Coloradans is this – it is illegal to catch water in a rain barrel or any other catchment system if the household has available water service from a municipal source.  In other words, if you live in a city that provides water to the city (regardless of if you use it or not) you may not collect rain water.  The reason has to do with water rights already appropriated on your behalf (tap water) and catching rain water is not part of that water right.  Catching rain water in the cities is, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, a taking of another person’s water.  There are some lucky ducks inside the city limits that have historic, grand-fathered in wells on their property.  While they can often use the wells (check to make sure your permit is valid) rain water is still prohibited under the municipal water clause.

Myth #2 says if you hold water for less than 72 hours it doesn’t count as catch water.  This rumor has been circulating Colorado Springs for years now.  According to the Ground Water Help Desk at the Colorado Division of Water Resources this rumor was partially taken from a statute that involves the building of sub-divisions, and has been misapplied to catching rain water.  If a developer is building a sub-division within city limits that developer is required to install catch-ponds to catch storm water run-off.  Those ponds, buy law, must be drained within 24 – 72 hours of the rain event to maintain water flows “in time and place.”  This 24 – 72 hour time frame does not apply to rain barrels – not ever.  Rain barrels are illegal if they are used for any period of time inside city limits in the State of Colorado.

Myth #3 says gray water is illegal in Colorado.  Well, it used to be, at least mostly.  However in May of this year the Governor signed HB13-1044 into law.  While gray water was used in a limited manner across the State, this bill allows for more comprehensive gray water use, including gray water use for residences in the cities, something that had long been discouraged.  The bill allows counties and cities to determine how and if they will allow gray water, so right now gray water still isn’t “legal” in the cities but that is expected to change.  A true gray water system will most likely be required (no straight-piping laundry water) and you will most likely need to apply for a permit from your local health department – gee, no surprise there.  By the bye, warm-up water (putting a bucket under your shower as it is warming up) is not covered under gray water or catch water and is legal to use on your landscape.

Myth #4 says you can impede the flow of water and sink the water into your soil, as long as you are not putting it into a barrel.  This is the grayest of the gray areas, and probably the one you might actually get away with.  Here’s the deal – if you put the water to “beneficial use” you are taking a water right from someone else.  I spent some time with Dr. Perry Cabot of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and asked him about this very directly.  I use berms and swales to slow water off of my roof and give it a chance to sink into my dry, hard soil.  So far so good – mitigating storm water run-off and keeping it from flooding my living room.  The potential problem is that I planted fruit trees on the berms.  Now I am putting the water to beneficial use – apples.  This particular form of beneficial use is so minor that chances are no one will ever care, though I suspect that the powers-that-be would care greatly if all of Colorado Springs were to install berms and swales on their residential properties.  If that were to happen very little storm water from the cities would return to “the system” and that my dear reader would be viewed with disapproval.

In the next several decades Colorado is facing a severe water shortage and there is no silver-bullet plan to overcome this shortage.  At the same time Colorado Springs government officials (as well as many other government officials along the Front Range) are forever selling us on the ideas of growing the economy, revitalizing the construction industry, and attracting young professionals and their families.  When is enough enough?  I can’t legally put a bucket under my downspout because the State is so water restricted, yet growth continues to be trotted out for our supposed benefit.  Water is our lifeblood in the arid West, and folks, we are running out.  The rules and regs listed above are meant to keep the water flowing, but even with such strict protocols we are indeed running out.

I am not going to tell you to follow the above laws or conversely to practice civil disobedience – that’s your call.  I will however ask you to consider your water use and find ways to use every drop.  If you are watering your landscape make sure you can eat from your landscape – don’t use water for lush, green Kentucky Blue Grass lawns in Colorado.  Not now, not ever.  Currently in Colorado 86% of our water goes to agriculture, and a proposal to bring more water to the cities is what’s called “buy and dry.”  In other words, buy water rights from the farmers and then divert their water to the cities along the Front Range and dry up the farm land.  This is tragic (really tragic), and possibly one of the only ways to bring additional water into the Front Range cities.  There simply is no more to go around; we are long “out” of unallocated water.  With potential for agricultural lands in the State going out of production we have a responsibility to grow more food in the cities.  Not a right, not an option, but a responsibility to grow more food in the cities.  If the water is going to be funneled away from traditional agricultural regions and into urban areas we damn well better not be wasting it on lawns once it gets here.  And if that means growing apples on berms, well then so be it.


Three water quotes for your consideration:

Food is medicine, water is life.

Whisky’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’.

Water doesn’t flow up-hill or down-hill – water flows toward money. 



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2 Responses to Sustainability Experts Sound Off

  1. Tascha October 31, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

    Christine – what a great question and diverse answers. I’d like to think that the shift in demand is an indicator, but as you know, most of the demand is still through our traditional food sources (big chain grocery with an organics line, fast food with healthier choices). Jury is still out on whether they are truly sourcing from sustainable ag. And as I look around Colorado Springs, yes we have great farmers markets and CSAs, but many of the farmers markets are selling right off the same trucks that come from Mexico to supply grocery stores.

    What I do see is that people are questioning more and more information is getting out there. I also think that as the economy starts to pick up again that more folks will allow their money to follow their values (spending a bit more in order to get sustainably grown food).

    • Christine October 31, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

      Ya’ know, I tend to agree with you, Malik and a few others that the most significant indication of a “shift” is the fact that people are talking about this. Folks are having real conversations about food, agriculture, sustainability, GMOS’s, organic, and humanely raised. This is new and radical, and in my mind it is moving our culture closer to a sustainable food system.

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