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Is It Illegal To Collect Rainwater? The Infuriating Truth about Water Rights


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Last Updated: July 13, 2020

There are 3 core things we need for survival: food, shelter, and water. Of these, most of us really take water for granted.

We’ve got modern plumbing systems bringing clean water into our homes, and for a relatively cheap price.

However,  people are finally waking up to the fact that our water supply system isn’t as secure as we thought.  There is a large risk of mega drought looming, and some smart patriots want to prepare by harvesting rainwater only to discover that rainwater collection is ILLEGAL in their state!

Is It Illegal To Collect Rainwater?

It seems so ridiculously stupid that something like rainwater collection would be illegal. But, yes, it is actually illegal to collect rainwater in many states.

Take the case of Kris Holstrom of Colorado who was sentenced for having 55-gallon buckets under the gutters of her farmhouse, or the case of 70-year-old  Missouri resident Clifford McIlvaine who was jailed for “violating plumbing ordinances” because he was collecting rainwater.

Note that these cases aren’t as clear cut as the media reports would have them seem.  With the Missouri man, the government wanted him to install specific (expensive) equipment to keep his rainwater out of the public supply.

But the complexities of these cases doesn’t change the infuriating fact that rainwater collection is still illegal in many states.

rainwater collection from gutters

What’s the Basis of Rainwater Collection Laws?

The basis for these infuriating laws preventing rainwater collection go back over 100 years.  In legal jargon, it is called “prior appropriation.”  Basically, it means “first come, first serve.”

A Washington Post article does a good job of explaining how water collection laws came to be.  Here’s how it boils down.  Some 100+ years ago, a settler came out to the West.  He called dibs on a stream or river and all of the water in it.  Remember that water was (and still is!) important for irrigating crops.  Under the law, no one was allowed to do anything which could interfere with the water going into “his” river or stream.

There was also the issue of gold miners.  Since you needed water to mine for gold, they’d go upstream, make a canal, and channel the water – and whatever gold was in it — onto their property.  Eventually the government stepped in to regulate this practice: “Just because you owned the land, it didn’t mean you owned the water.”

These old rules obviously make no sense today.

Let’s say that I’m lucky enough to live next to a river.  A record drought hits.  My uphill neighbors are prohibited from collecting rainwater from their roofs.  The rainwater goes downwards into the river on my property.  I get to enjoy all the water I want while my neighbors die of thirst.

On the other hand, it would be really crappy if my uphill neighbors captured all of the scare rainwater that fell, leaving me with absolutely nothing.

That leaves us with the issue of whether rainwater collection should be regulated, and how.

pretty rainwater collection system

Rainwater Collection Isn’t Illegal in the East

Here I should note that the stupid rainwater collection laws don’t apply in the American East.  These states follow riparian laws imported from England back in the colony days.   You are basically allowed to do whatever you want with rainwater so long as you don’t “materially alter its flow” such as by diverting a stream.

The obvious irony is that there is plenty of water in the East.  It’s only in the West – where drought actually is a BIG problem – that rainwater collection is regulated and prohibited.

Truthfully, you probably aren’t going to get caught if you illegally collect rainwater on your property.  The laws aren’t strictly enforced.  However, if you are going to have a huge rainwater collection system (like the one Gary Huffington got jailed for), then you’ll need to see what permits are required.

It’s your call – Follow stupid laws or ignore them because it should be your right to collect rainwater that falls on your property.

rainwater Irrigation System

The Good News

Yes, some states still do have ridiculous laws prohibiting rainwater collection.  But, at the same time, many states are coming around and even encouraging rainwater harvesting.

  • In Georgia, for example, you can get a $2,500 tax exemption for rainwater harvesting systems.
  • Texas now gives tax breaks for individuals and communities installing rainwater harvesting systems.
  • Tucson, Arizona offers up to $2,000 in rebates for installing rainwater harvesting systems.
  • #Santa Fe County, NM now requires new residences to install rainwater collection systems.

The laws about rainwater harvesting are constantly changing and it can be tough to find accurate, up-to-date information about the laws in your state.

Here are some resources where you can find more information.

If you are interested in installing a rainwater collection system and want a rebate, check out this page: Rainwater harvesting incentives.  You can see if your state/municipality offers any kickbacks for doing what we should all be doing.

Do you think that rainwater harvesting should be regulated?  What implications can you see for the future?

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Leave a comment

  1. It’s now legal to harvest up to 110 gallons –max of two rain barrels– of rainwater from your own roof in Colorado. They changed the state law on rainwater harvesting in 2016. However, as restrictive as this still is, … “water law experts say rain barrels are only technically illegal, because proving they injure the water rights of other users is nearly impossible.”

    Reply
  2. I’d rather see these laws enforced on bigger “consumers” such as Nestlé and other water bottling companies. There really is enough to go around, I think, but it’s all ending up in the store, instead of getting it “free” out of the tap.

    Reply

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