Rain rights


Let the water wars commence – or not.

Douglas County will soon be the site of Colorado's first large-scale rainwater harvesting project -- an important step away from a more than century old state policy that made the practice illegal, perhaps without good reason.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board voted unanimously last month to make Sterling Ranch, a 3,500-acre suburban residential development south of Denver, the first of 10 pilot projects allowed to collect their own rainwater to irrigate lawns, gardens and open space. The proposed development promises to be a, "highly sustainable, exceptionally livable community (that) will be loyal to the unique ideals that helped to build the mighty West." (No telling yet where the community stands on gun slinging, strip mining or horse thief lynching). With hiking trails, open space and an expressed commitment to "walkability," Sterling Ranch looks mighty fine indeed compared to the suburban sprawl that built much of the modern mighty West.


The collection project wouldn't have been allowed under the state's old rules, which essentially said that from the moment rain hit a roof, it was reserved for use by those who owned the rights to the water in the streams it fed. (Water in Colorado, as in much of the West, is over-appropriated as it is, so people jealously guard such rights.) Turns out, though, that the policy might not make so much sense: A 2007 Water Conservation Board-commissioned study of Douglas County found that just 3% of rainwater made it into streams, 97% being lost to evaporation or soaked up by plants.

So last year's House Bill 1129 authorized large-scale rainwater harvesting test projects like Sterling and loosening restrictions on individual collection of rainwater. Well owners, for example, can now legally harvest their rain for personal use. We non-well-owning proletarians (and by extension, basically everyone living in a city) are still  operating outside the law if we fill a rain barrel, though.

Despite the changes, the original law was hardly enforced on individuals back when rain was contraband. It seems intuitive that the people inclined to harvest their own rainwater for personal use would be little-impeded by a badly made, artifact of a policy. The most significant changes likely to come about as a result of the new law will be seen in major developments, like Sterling Ranch, where developers are testing the waters, as it were.