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.  

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. 



About Christine

Backyard farming rocks!

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15 Responses to Let’s Talk Water – What’s Legal And What’s Not

  1. Fred August 23, 2013 at 10:50 am #

    Good stuff, Christine!

    If you run our current water (mis)use trends out to their likely conclusion, we are on a frightening path, Here’s the money quote: “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.”

    No kidding. And, it’s later than we think!

    • Christine August 23, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

      I agree – it is later than most of us think regarding water (and many other resources). Why the elected officials keep talking about “growth” is beyond me. Actually, that’s not true. The reason the elected officials keep talking about growth is because that’s what most of us want to hear. We want to hear that the economy will be booming once again – something that requires the use of natural resources to include water. And if we hear what we want then the politicians get re-elected. We are doing this to ourselves…

  2. Kip August 28, 2013 at 10:23 pm #

    I know this may fall into the gray area for what’s legal here but what are your thoughts on doing a hugelkultur with heavy mulching for water retention?

    • Christine August 29, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

      ‘Love huglekultur! And, it is a gray area. I am guessing it is less gray than berms and swales, but probably similarly along those lines. If you are putting the water off of your roof to beneficial use, technically that is prohibited. The reality here is that instead of impeding the flow of water (berms and swales) you are creating an atmosphere in which the water more naturally soaks into the ground. The likelihood that your practices would ever be challenged are really, really low. I wouldn’t call it legal per se, but I wouldn’t call it criminal either.

      • Kip September 6, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

        Thanks for the response Christine. It does seem like a workable solution for this area, especially with the low amount of organic material in our soil. In my limited study of permaculture I find that any efforts to harvest rain water in a region using swales, berms, ponds and huglekultur no only increases local water availability but also availability down stream. I wish the powers that be could see this. Thanks again.

        • Christine September 6, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

          I agree Kip – a paradigm shift is required and those are often met with resistance.

  3. Karen September 6, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

    Thanks Christine. A very good article which gave me a better understanding of Colorado water laws. We had lived in Arizona where we were encouraged to collect rain water in barrels and to use gray water. Guess the difference is – buying water rights (Arizona) and selling water rights (Colorado).

    • Christine September 7, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

      What a great insight Karen – upstream versus downstream. That makes so much sense in that context!

  4. Bob September 9, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    So I live in Black Forest (county) my house burnt down and I was thinking of ways to retain water for the dry months. I am on a well is it legal for me to catch water.

    • Christine September 11, 2013 at 11:36 am #

      Bob, so sorry to hear about your house. :( That was a fierce wild fire. How badly burned is your soil? Is there any vegetation left on the property? Answers to those questions will inform your approach. I have pasted a link to a publication from the Extension Office – Soil Erosion Control After Wildfire. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/natres/06308.html I hope it is helpful to you. Berms and swales are probably your best bet. As long as you don’t get hung-up in the “putting water to beneficial use” I think you would be okay. Double check with the Colorado Foundation for Water Education – they are a great resource as well. http://waterinfo.org/colorado-foundation-for-water-education

  5. Bob September 9, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

    Sorry I meant when I rebuild I want to be smart and build to retain water.

  6. Mike March 29, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    I do not live in Colorado but find it interesting that the state or any government can tell people they cannot ‘catch’ water falling from the sky onto their property. In your reply to Bob you mentioned as ‘long as he ‘don’t get hung-up in the “putting water to beneficial use” you think he would be okay. Does that mean a person that catches water for a garden can’t do that? I must be kind of slow, as I just do not understand how you can get into trouble for ‘catching’ water for your garden on your property. Thanks for reading my comment. I am going to try and find more information about this as I was actually contemplating a move to Colorado and this could affect my decision. Thank you again.

    • Christine March 30, 2014 at 8:22 am #

      Hey Mike! Yes, putting water in your garden that you caught from your roof would be considered putting the water to beneficial use. That being said, I know folks in the city that have caught water for years with no problem. I also know folks who were catching water in the city, and were ordered to removed their barrels or face a $500 fine. How the law is enforced is not clear, but I suspect it has something to do with neighbors turning people in. I have also heard rumblings of a backing-off from this law, but I will believe it when I see it.

  7. Bev April 21, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    So glad to read this article! I suspect most residents do not realize how serious future water shortage in Colorado is likely to get. and some want fracking in Colorado!

    I’m available to help anyone with their back yard gardens this summer – in exchange for some fresh veggies when they’re ready! I can help provide mulching materials if you like, coffee grounds and potato peel kind of things. I’m also available to help weeding and working, even planting. e-mail me if you know anyone who wants help. I live on the east side now (Cimmaron Hills) so close to home would mean I’d be available more often. (I’m early retired so have plenty of time right now)

    Please e-mail me at bevm1663@yahoo.com and put “garden help” in subject line if you want help – or know of someone who wants help!


    • Christine April 21, 2014 at 4:22 pm #

      Thanks Bev – very generous offer. :)

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