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Science & Environment

Why Rain Barrels Are Now Legal In Colorado

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And here in the West, who owns the rain that falls out of the sky is a topic for serious discussion and the law. This summer, after much debate, Colorado will allow homeowners to use rain barrels. Grace Hood of Colorado Public Radio explains why.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: In the West, rain that falls on your roof may not be your water. That's because states like Colorado have complicated laws that honor long-standing water rights. That's meant that a simple act like collecting rain on your own property was technically illegal. Rain barrel owners like Aaron Broderick have been operating in the shadows.

Three years ago, he re-purposed a 55-gallon wine barrel. It sits right in front of his house under a gutter.

AARON BRODERICK: The first few batches came out red like the wine that was in the cask initially, but now it's fairly clear.

HOOD: Until the law change, Broderick could've gotten slapped with a $500 fine. Even though the state doesn't actively enforce the rule, conservationists say the change was needed. With Colorado's population expected to double by 2050, water watchers like Broderick say the practice should be encouraged.

BRODERICK: Numerous neighbors have commented on the fact that they appreciate seeing it, so maybe it'll get traction now that it is legal.

HOOD: The law doesn't go into effect until August. Colorado is one of the last places to legalize rain barrels. Across the country, states are reviewing rainwater collection practices. Mindy Bridges is with the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks bills across the U.S.

MINDY BRIDGES: States aren't just looking at rainwater harvesting from a drop perspective.

HOOD: Bridges says it's not just Western states. Hawaii, Ohio and Rhode Island have passed bills to encourage or clarify what's legal.

BRIDGES: They are looking at it as part of a portfolio of water conservation and other efficient measures.

HOOD: Cities are also getting into the game. Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Tucson, Ariz., promote rain barrels through rebate programs. One of the largest covers Los Angeles and five other counties in Southern California. Since that program started, Bill McDonnell says his district has given out more than 67,000 rebates.

BILL MCDONNELL: We didn't really do much advertising - actually, no advertising at all. It kind of took off.

HOOD: That program has cost about $5 million so far. Mcdonnell says it's unclear whether rain barrels mean lower water bills. But maybe that's not the point. He says there can be other benefits like getting rid of thirsty sod during a long-term drought.

MCDONNELL: After this, they might re-landscape their yard. Maybe they'll graduate to something larger like a cistern, so we look at it as an educational tool leading to other technologies.

HOOD: Some users may eventually upgrade from a 55-gallon barrel to 500 gallons. In other words, a rain barrel could be a gateway jug. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.