Uncategorized Rain Barrel.  Photo by Becky Striepe

Published on March 25th, 2009 | by Zachary Shahan


Who Owns the Rain?

A rain barrel or two may seem like the perfect solution for watering the garden without waste and without adding to your water bill. Before you build your rainwater harvesting system, though, you might want to make sure that it’s legal to do so. There are three states that say the water that falls from the sky belongs to them, not to just anyone.



Homeowners who want to use rainwater in Utah have to purchase a water right through the state, but Utah Senator Scott Jenkins wants to change all that. He’s planning to sponsor a bill that would allow residents to collect up to 2500 gallons of water in their home systems. I wasn’t able to find any stories about this that were more current than December. Anyone from Utah want to give us an update on how the bill is progressing?

As in the other two states where rainbarrels are against the law, the Utah law is rarely enforced.



Rainbarrels are illegal in Colorado. From the EPA handbook on rainwater harvesting:

Colorado law, for instance has assumed that all rainfall eventually reaches groundwater or surface waters and is therefore appropriated. In the dry regions of the state, however, a study has found that the majority of rainfall on undeveloped lands is lost to evaporation and transpiration and only a small fraction actually reaches surface waters. [emphasis mine]

The law is a pretty vague as far as penalties, and the state rarely enforces it. The Colorado water laws strikes me as especially fishy, because they seem to love giving water away for free to private interests. According to the Wall Street Journal, this includes:

oil companies, ski resorts, fire districts and breweries. The international food conglomerate Nestlé has applied for a permit to draw water from a Colorado aquifer and sell it in plastic bottles under its Arrowhead brand.

Yet it’s technically illegal for state residents to collect a barrel or two to water their gardens! State Representative Marsha Looper is working on a couple of bills that would allow some folks in Colorado to harvest rainwater. Even if both bills pass, though, most residents would still be breaking the law by setting up a simple rainbarrel.



Yes, it’s illegal to have a large rainwater harvesting setup in the state of Washington. It is, however, legal in Seattle. Wait, what? Check it. This is from the EPA rainwater harvesting guide:

The City of Seattle, however, obtained a citywide water-right permit to ensure the legality of water harvesting efforts.

The state’s Department of Ecology claims the reasoning behind this is that catching the water before it hits the ground robs water rights holders. They call it “impairment.” The Department of Ecology does clarify that “a traditional residential rain barrel” is legal in the state of Washington, but larger cisterns require a special permit.

From what I’ve been reading, it sounds like rainwater harvesting laws can vary by municipality in other places, too. Is rainwater harvesting allowed where you live?

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About the Author

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy since 2009. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the founder and director of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.

15 Responses to Who Owns the Rain?

  1. codymc says:

    My understanding of this is that water rights (and mineral and other such things) are sold separately from the land — and in these cases the owners of the land are different from the water rights holders.

    It goes back a long way — you should call my grandma and ask her about it — she grew up in Colorado and has dealt with this issue on a fairly large scale. Also i think it’s mainly aimed at keeping people from diverting rivers and creeks that feed other areas — regardless it’s always been a hot button item.

  2. codymc says:

    Here’s some good links that at least talk about water rights/usage in Colorado

    Guide to Well Permits, Water Rights, and Water Administration (pdf) http://water.state.co.us/pubs/wellpermitguide.pdf

    There’s lots more information on Colorado’s ground water site: http://water.state.co.us/groundwater/groundwater.asp

    And just to illustrate how long this has been going on — some hisotory on the water usage and the Colorado river from the University of Arizon. http://ag.arizona.edu/AZWATER/arroyo/101comm.html

  3. Robert Lamb says:

    Stillsuits are BANNED in Utah FWIW.


  4. codymc says:

    okay — one more — this one is pretty succinct and gives a little more to the theory behind the madness


    I’m not saying that it all makes complete sense, or even is the way it should be in today’s world — but it helps make sense of this issue — which is the first step in progress. You have to know where you came from to figure out where your going.

  5. That FAQ definitely rationalizes the law. I don’t feel like it really justifies things, though. They are treating water as a commodity, something that I consider a fundamental problem.

  6. tech44 says:

    the Utah legislative session is out for this year. The bill that would allow water storage entered committee, but went no further. There is a lot of support for this bill, and seems very commonsense to me in that by allowing storage it avoids conflict with existing law which does not allow “diverting the waters”.

    The reason behind this is that some water right holders depend on the water from seasonal creeks that are only active for brief periods of the year (aka spring) and theoretically stopping the rain from entering the stream by “diverting” the water takes away water from the downstream rights holder.

    But this is very nonsensical within city limits where everything is paved and gutters everywhere (and eventually all storm water ends up in the Jordan River/Great Salt Lake anyway). A local news station covered a story about how a local car dealership decided to go green with a large cistern that collected rain runoff from their rather large car dealership roof to run their carwash. The water department swooped in and shut things down because he was “diverting” the waters. Needless to say, when the story ran there was public outrage over that. That’s when a local (and smart) legislator Scott Jenkins decided to introduce his water storage bill.

    While the need for water conservation is acute because we live in a desert (and our population is growing but the water supply is not), there are increasing numbers that see the water department as a bunch of water Nazis – which I kind of wonder about myself, with increasing water fees and their large bureaucracy that they are supporting that stamps out private interests. But I digress.

    Everybody is discovering xeriscaping and rock gardens, which is a good thing, inmho. If you live in Salt Lake City, I encourage you to support Scott Jenkin’s common sense, eco friendly bill.

  7. Thank you for the great info! It’s nice to get a first hand perspective.

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  9. Uncle B says:

    Yankee Doodle running out of water? Innocent proletariat! Peon in the first degree! First oil, now water, what next? Are the Factory Farms that feed us secure, or are they just corporate entities, ready to fold corporate name-tags, bankrupt,set workers free to unemployment, write off assets to cost of doing business, and vanish, to shift capital to better investments elsewhere? Remember: GM (China) flourishes today in Shanghai and returns a 30 % profit this year on the Shanghai market, in “Yuan” to New York, and all investors! GM (U.S.) meanwhile, unloads the liabilities on public funding, burns public money, and goes south to bankruptcy! Goddamn smart piece of business for the guys at the top, unloading a “White Elephant” onto U.S. public funds, taxpayers dollars,public money, and moving their own capital to higher profits in non-depreciating “Yuan” with huge dividends paid out annually! Somehow, China is a net food exporter to the U.S. nowadays, as the U.S. southern states dry up, and better ROI’s are offered on the Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong markets! Nobody will ever invest in the U.S. for noble, romantic, patriotic reasons, so the U.S.A. will remain,”King of the ROI” til the last farm is foreclosed, last river polluted, last lake dryed out to irrigation, and last field salted to death for a buck, a fast buck! We don’t love our country, we love money, McMansions and V-8 cars, extravagant clothes, grossly unhealthy foods, and debauchery in drunkenness, drugs and illicit sex, in that order! Corporatism and ROI were the death-knell of all the forefathers saw as good in this country! America, once the beautiful British virgin of the Atlantic, is now a disgraced diseased old whore, sinking in her own filth, and it only took 200 years to do it! Even the socialism of a government run GM can’t change our reality! Far too little, far too late, and unacceptable by the ROI worshipers, like Universal Medical care, will fall away to the delight of the dividend collector, as his very own country sinks into the sea, a polluted, sewage smeared, sickness infested, pus sore, on the face of the earth, threatening all other more advanced societies with war and menacing world peace and progress, a Godless, drug infested, polluting, scab on the earth! Your farmland, in the richest country in the world drying up, poisoned by ROI, and the “Bottom Line” in some great ledger, in a dusty financier’s office in New York, the occupant fed from China’s great resources, driving a British built Bentley, wearing the best from Europe, eating Russian caviar, drinking finest French wines! He doesn’t give a good goddamn about your plight, or that of the Country! He concentrates on World politics, ROI, dividends, exchange rates, and other Shylock and Swindler’s tools! Not your farming ass! it is worth nothing, same as the land you stand on, or anything noble or patriotic you have in mind – He uses these childish notions as part of his tool-chest to unravel your very soul and take what he likes best – dividends, in cash please!

  10. Ceg says:

    FYI, Washington changed their policy in October 2009. According to the Dept of Ecology, rainwater harvesting is now legal. check out the article:


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