I recently came across an article discussing the drought that has Colorado conservationists and lawmakers trying to encourage residents to collect rainwater for use in their gardens. The only problem is that their existing laws already prohibit doing just that! This has prompted me to write an article on some research I did last year regarding building off-grid homes in Colorado and how it highlighted the importance of understanding building codes before deciding on a state to live in.
And when legislators here tried to enact a law this spring to allow homeowners to harvest the rain, conservationists got a lesson in the power of the entrenched rules that allocate Western water to those who have first claim to it. Even if it is the rain running down someone’s roof.
Collecting Rainwater in Colorado is Illegal
Last year I spent a considerable amount of time researching various states and areas that would be primary targets for relocation. Many of the factors included in the research were climate considerations, but others included taxation, population densities, and laws regarding eminent domain, homeschooling, midwifery, and gun ownership. As I got deeper into my research, it became evident that I should also include building codes into my search criteria. These can vary from state-to-state, but also from town-to-town. An important example of how this can affect one’s plans is that it turns out harvesting rainwater in Colorado is largely illegal.
As in many locations around the world, in Colorado property rights are different than water rights. This means that even if you own a piece of land, the water running through the land may belong to somebody else. The easiest example to understand would be a creek. If you didn’t own the water rights you would be prohibited from diverting water from the creek because you would in essence be stealing from whoever does own the water. The insane thing in Colorado is that they apply this same logic to water that falls from the sky. This water, they say, would otherwise work its way into the below-ground water tables that somebody else owns.
It was disappointing to read that rainwater harvesting in Colorado is illegal since our homesteading plans involve rainwater harvesting as our primary source of water. However, this bit of knowledge didn’t sit quite right with me because I’d also read that Colorado is home to many off-grid communities. Surely some of the people living in these off-grid homes in Colorado must somehow use rainwater. It turns out there is in fact a provision within the law whereby one can harvest rainwater.
To legally collect rainwater in Colorado, one must file an “Application for Rooftop Precipitation Collection System Permit.” For the application to be successful, ALL of the following criteria must be met:
- The property must be residential.
- The property must either have a well or legally entitled to have a well.
- The well use does not exceed levels appropriate for household purposes, lawn and garden irrigation of not more than 1 acre, watering of animals, and fire protection.
- There is no municipal water supply available to the property.
- The precipitation is collected only from the roof a building primarily used as a residence.
- The water is only used for purposes permitted by the well permit the property has or would be entitled to. [Source]
Basically, you cannot have access to municipal water, you must have permission to build a well, the water can only come from your home’s roof, and you can only use the water for normal household purposes. If you do not have a well or permission to have a well, you must also file an application to have a well before filing the application to collect rainwater.
Bureaucratic Considerations in Colorado
We were initially considering Colorado as a possible relocation option primarily because of family being in the area. Otherwise, the state does not meet our criteria mostly due to its climate. It is a fairly arid climate, further evidenced by the recent droughts, and rainwater harvesting and storage would be critical to the success of an off-grid homestead. The state’s water rights laws would make this bureaucratically difficult, albeit still possible. Much thought would have to be put into location and permitting.
Home Design Considerations in Colorado
Under the technical language of the current law, rainwater can only be harvested from the roof of a residence. Because my current home design relies on water collection off a large shed uphill of the house, I may have to redesign the home’s water systems. The likely outcome would mean collecting water off the main roof, which would mean the system may not be able to be fully gravity-driven and additional filtration may need to be applied to the water due to the fact that sediment from chimneys and other equipment can mix with the rainwater.
Always research the laws surrounding unconventional building techniques BEFORE deciding to move somewhere. Many things that you might assume are true (like being able to collect rainwater) are in fact not. Colorado isn’t the only state that has bans or limits on rainwater harvesting – so are those highlighted blue at right. I have not researched those states as much. However, in-depth research on this topic should be conducted before seriously considering any destination.