Rainwater Harvesting: Is it Legal to be Green?

Since humans began growing food intentionally, people have been “harvesting” rainwater in some form and capacity. Rainwater harvesting systems really just allow you to temporarily ‘borrow’ some water from the water cycle , to irrigate your landscape or garden. After captured rainwater serves this benign purpose, it (theoretically) continues on it’s way through nature’s water treatment process of evaporation, precipitation, permeation, and so on.

After establishing our composting system, we turned our organic and sustainably-minded enthusiasm to finding a cost effective and sustainable way to provide our vegetable garden with the water it needs:The obvious solution being to set up a rainwater harvesting system. We decided we want to use rainwater for several reasons:

  1. Because (again theoretically) it doesn’t contain the chlorine, fluoride, and other treatment chemicals that we know our city water does
  2. Harvested rainwater is also “sun-warmed” by the time it is applied to your garden, and it is rumored that plants prefer this to a chilly bath from underground city supplied water pipes.
  3. And, lastly, I won’t pretend the cheapskate in me did perk up at the idea of using free water for yard irrigation — the cost of city water in an arid region adds up over the course of the summer!

However, our enthusiasm was quickly subdued as we began asking around town for sources of used 55 gallon food grade plastic barrels to store rainwater in. We were cautioned by friends and neighbors to “watch out for the law”.

If you live in Utah like we do, (where the law completely bans rainwater harvesting), or in one of the other states where the laws restrict “prior appropriation” of water via rainwater harvesting, then the simple act of even diverting rainwater has the potential to land you in the joint (or at least get you fined!) To most people, the concept of using the rainwater that falls on your property just seems like common sense, but in reality, issues surrounding water rights can be a legal quagmire.

As the popularity of urban rainwater collection has risen, so have questions about the practicality and necessity of the restrictive rainwater harvesting laws in, most notably, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and ironically, the rain-drenched state of Washington. Below are some recent and relevant news articles about the debate and legal dilemmas of rainwater harvesting.

Rainwater harvesting saves water, breaks the law

Rainwater harvesting is barely legal

Who Owns the Rain? Hint: It’s Not Always Homeowners

Out West, Catching Raindrops Can Make You an Outlaw

Most of what we’ve read indicates that though the laws are real, enforcement is negligible. In Utah, after media attention was focussed on a local car dealership’s use of collected rainwater, a new bill was proposed to allow rainwater collection systems with a storage capacity of less than 2500 gallons (and ours will be well within that!)  I’m personally more concerned about the debate surrounding the true “green”ness of rainwater collection. One environmental theory claims that rainwater “detention and storage” for delayed release during hot weather can lead to a lower percentage of that water reaching the water basin and rivers which could worsen a drought. The scientist in me wonders though: Wouldn’t water that evaporates still be re-entering the earth’s water cycle, just at a different point, to be shortly recycled into the water table again?

After much deliberation, hubby and I have decided to proceed with our quest to temporarily divert some of Utah’s spring rain for use in our little vegetable patch.  Stay tuned the next episode in our rainwater harvesting saga…

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