the rain might not belong to you

At first I thought it was a good idea. I never imagined that in some communities it would be prohibited.


During some of the recent rains I put some little buckets to catch rainwater that had drained off the roof. In this part of the state you can hardly ever have too much water, and good-quality water is extra-valuable.



One of my water-use indulgences is an experimental little bog garden with carnivorous plants. Tap water here has four times the dissolved solids usually recommended for these swamp-dwellers, so in warmer weather they get five gallons a week of reverse osmosis water from the local water store. Collecting fresh rainwater seemed like a much more sustainable alternative.

Left: Drosera Marston Dragon.
Drosera capensis, red form, with deerfly snack.

Yesterday’s LA Times had an article on residents in some of the dryland Four Corners states who were finding out that collecting rainwater was actually illegal in their communities. Because of a complex patchwork of water rights agreements, many homeowners actually don’t own the rainwater that falls on their houses.

Here’s a quick snippet from the article:

“If you try to collect rainwater, well, that water really belongs to someone else,” said Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress… Frank Jaeger of the Parker Water and Sanitation District, on the arid foothills south of Denver, sees water harvesting as an insidious attempt to take water from entities that have paid dearly for the resource. “Every drop of water that comes down keeps the ground wet and helps the flow of the river,” Jaeger said. He scoffs at arguments that harvesters like Holstrom only take a few drops from rivers. “Everything always starts with one little bite at a time.”

I have a healthy respect for the rule of reasonable laws, but these seemed way beyond the pale. Like, are they worried these people are going to bottle the rainwater and sell it to us in Southern California?

Here within view of the Pacific Ocean, any water not retained in the ground would just wash down the storm drains and slide out into the bay. I doubt we have the same sorts of rules. But for many folks in Utah or Colorado who are trying to grow their own veggies, doing what they can to reduce become more self-sustaining and reduce their footprint on the earth, things aren’t so easy.

What do you think? Should the rainwater belong to all of us?

10 thoughts on “the rain might not belong to you”

  1. I think you hit on it exactly when you mentioned bottling rainwater and selling it out of state. Seems to me that water cached for irrigation use on property is doing the same thing it would naturally, recharging groundwater and streams along the natural course, just with a slightly different timeframe. I could see how you would start getting into water issues though when you talk about development and large cisterns that would funnel water into a sewage system as opposed to the surrounding ground. Bet we see a lot more of this kind of thing covered in the media as what was previously considered alternative living becomes the norm.

  2. I’ve recently read the same thing about collecting rainwater being illegal in some communities. I can understand if some large scale operation is diverting run-off that feeds reservoirs, but the average home gardener? Oh please. It seems particularly shocking to people in California nad other states that have huge issues with run-off polluting oceans and rivers. Amazing that while some communities are passing legislation to require storm water to remain on site, others are doing the opposite.

  3. The original article cited an interesting statistic that of the water that falls in a location only 3% ever makes it into a river or stream, with the remaining amount staying on-site–which I’d assume means whatever doesn’t go back into the atmosphere would still continue to charge the ground water. I don’t know that people are being dragged into court over this, but clearly they’re being denied making meaningful changes to building practices that might make the world a greener place.

  4. Ahhh, the first glimmer of the Great Water Wars of the Future.

    Damn. Collecting rainwater illegal? The most ridiculous thing I ever heard, at least as it applies to your typical home gardener.

  5. I remember first hearing about this from a couple from St. George, Utah who I’d met on a camping trip. I’d assumed that rainwater harvesting would be an important part of water conservation in the western states and was shocked to be told it was illegal where they live.

    Access to potable water around the world is a critical issue for billions of people. We must all protect this precious resource and our right to it.

  6. Greg, I agree that on the scale of a home the laws are pretty daffy, particularly when they prevent a person from getting permits to incorporate more sustainable details into their planning. Recycling water is another area where it’s hard to do within the laws as they exist now. Things are changing, but not fast enough to make a difference in how we consider water.

    MSS, I’ve heard of people living in areas as arid as lowland Arizona who harvest their rainwater and end up with enough for an entire year. It’s odd that the laws are on the books in some of the areas where residents would benefit most.

  7. I would think you “own” (to the extent ownership of parts of the natural world prevails) water falling on your land. But the situation in Southern California and most of the west is difficult, where we have built cities and communities in a water-scarce part of the world – in places where they really shouldn’t be in a totally rational world. (Not to say there is any such thing as a totally rational world.) Does this change what is appropriate and inappropriate, right and wrong? I’m not suggesting personal responsibility for the water situation in the west, just that communal needs may have to prevail. I’ll stop. This is a disturbing train of thought.

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