Morning Edition, June 1, 2009 · The West remains one of the fastest growing regions of the country, and that continues to put pressure on scarce water supplies.
So, Colorado recently made it legal for some homeowners to capture and collect the raindrops and snowflakes that fall on their own roofs. That had been considered stealing because the water would flow into a stream or aquifer, where it belonged to someone else; Utah and Washington state have similar bans.
The change in Colorado may seem minor, but this could signal the beginning of a water-law revolution.
Water law in the West is different than in the East. In the West, there's essentially a long line for water rights; those who signed up for rights first are in front. And in some cases around the West, Native Americans are near the front of the line because they've lived there for so long.
For five years, Karl Hanzel "took cuts" in that line because he illegally collected water from the snow that fell on his home outside Boulder, Colo.
"I struggle to understand the argument for these laws. It doesn't really make sense to me," says Hanzel. "The water that I'm detaining here, I'm not exporting it to Mars … We have a leach field; we water the garden; that water is still returned to the earth … We're just holding some of it for awhile."
Colorado takes this sort of illegal harvesting of precipitation seriously. If caught, Hanzel could have faced fines of up to $500 a day. Luckily for him, a law recently passed legalizes his collection system. It's a narrow exception to the ban for people who would have to dig a well or have water trucked in.
But in Washington state, Tim Pope is still breaking the law. He owns Northwest Water Source, a business that has installed about 200 rainwater collectors in the San Juan Islands, north of Seattle. Pope says state regulators tend to look the other way.
He's also president of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, and he's on a mission to get rid of the bans.
"Western water-rights laws were done in the 1800s, and they need some serious overhaul," says Pope. He says the first-in-line basis is inefficient.
"It needs to be based on need — it needs to be based on proper use of water. We don't need to be using drinking water to wash cars and water lawns and gardens and flush toilets," he says.
Those near the front of the line disagree. Western tribes guard their historic water rights, as do municipalities like Denver.
"You have a basic foundation for how water is owned and administered in Colorado, and a wholesale change — to say, 'Oh yeah, take all the water you want off your roof,' — is actually a fundamental change in that," says Chips Barry, general manager at Denver Water.
Barry says he's not upset by Colorado's recent exception to rainwater harvesting — the effect on senior water-rights holders will be minimal. But he says if the practice were to become widespread, that could unwind a complicated system that has long determined who gets the limited water available.
There seems to be little risk that such a wholesale change will happen anytime soon. Recent efforts in Washington and Utah to get even minor exceptions to the ban on rainwater harvesting failed.