Sasha Nelson: Proposed water bill offers barrel full of common sense
In 2000, I left the Yampa Valley and headed for the southern hemisphere to begin seven years of graduate school. Three flights and two days later, I arrived in Melbourne, Australia. When I stepped off the plane that first day in a foreign land I was met with the familiar sights of signs for American fast food and big-box stores. I was puzzled by the number of large barrels at the sides of buildings and cisterns on the skyline. These were unusual sights for me and likely would be for most Coloradans. Soon I discovered the reason for such equipment. Australia is the driest continent in the world, making water extremely precious. As a native Coloradan, I was no stranger to that reality, but the Australian approach to water supply was very foreign.
The reason for the barrels and cisterns was simple: to make use of every drop of rain. Here in Northwest Colorado, water is similarly precious, but rain barrels are not allowed. For most of our history, the conventional wisdom was that capturing and using rainwater before it absorbs into the ground would harm downstream water rights holders.
However, this assumption does not hold up under scrutiny. A study conducted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Douglas County discovered that, on average, only 3 percent of rainfall that falls on our lawns and landscapes returns to a stream through groundwater and surface water. In short, rainwater is consumed by our gardens and lawns. Rainwater contributes very little, if any, to nearby streams and rivers. This means that the allocation of rainwater has very little to do with water rights. Preventing people from collecting the water that falls on our roofs only deprives us of a useful tool and has almost no effect on supply.
Fortunately, common sense legislation is now being considered in the Colorado legislature to allow Coloradans to collect water, which falls on their roofs. House Bill 1259 would allow the residential use of two 50-gallon rain barrels. These barrels would capture about 6 percent of the rain that falls on an average residential lot during a rainfall. The bill is good news for local gardeners. The captured rainfall could be used for gardening to grow tomatoes and flowers, but probably isn’t enough to water our lawns. Residential rain barrels are a common-sense measure that will help Coloradans understand our water supply and encourage all of us to use it wisely.
We are actually pretty behind the times on legalizing the use of residential rain barrels. Several localities in the Western United States, including San Diego, Santa Fe, Austin, and Tucson, all provide financial incentives and rebates for installing residential rain barrel systems. Our neighbors in Utah even passed a statewide ballot measure to allow the limited use of rain barrels.
Though we are one of the last Western states to act, Colorado faces increasing water challenges such as drought, dried up rivers, and water supply issues. Creating better educated citizens is a necessity for any solution to those challenges and rain barrels would be a useful tool. Australians have used barrels for years to collect water, and as a result, I found that people there understand the need to conserve and wisely use every drop. Not only is it a common sense way to make better use of precipitation, but rain barrels help people visualize how much rain falls and how much water plants consume. It’s important for people to know that water does not pour endlessly from our taps.
Growing season is just around the corner. Our water is a precious resource in Colorado and rain barrels would help us do our part to use less to meet our growing water needs. Making sure people know how much water they are using leads to better choices in how much they use overall. The smarter we are about our water use, the better we can protect our farms, ranches, and Colorado way of life.
Sasha Nelson is a field organizer for Conservation Colorado in Craig.