The Eagle Valley is a headwaters community—the Eagle River feeds into the over-allocated Colorado River, which, in turn, provides water for seven states and nearly 40 million people annually. Water that flows out of sprinklers and hoses is the same potable water that flows out of our kitchen sinks and shower heads. Outdoor water use in Colorado accounts for half of residential water use and is more consumptive than indoor use, making each drop of water we use outside especially precious.
In August of 2016, Colorado House Bill 16-1005 passed, legalizing the use of rain barrels for homeowners in our state. Each household is allowed to collect up to 110 gallons each, or approximately two rain barrels. These barrels capture water from downspouts and are only intended for watering outdoor lawns, gardens, and plants—not for potable or indoor use. An estimated 1,200 gallons of water a year can be saved annually by watering your lawn and plants with rain barrel water.
Not only do rain barrels conserve water and make us more aware of the natural rain cycles, they also help keep pollutants out of our rivers and streams. Often after a big rainstorm, overflow rain from our gutters travels down our streets and sidewalks, picking up motor oil, dog waste, and other pollutants before entering our rivers untreated via our storm drains. By redirecting this water to your lawn, plants, and garden, the earth is able to naturally filter this water before it makes its way back into our waterways.
While rainwater collection can help homeowners become conservation stewards, it took several years for the legislation to pass. It may seem strange to East-Coasters that rainwater collection from rooftops is strictly regulated, but Coloradans know every drop in our overstressed western river system counts. Our water use is controlled by the prior appropriation doctrine, also known as “first in time, first in right.” Senior and junior water rights holders rely on runoff from snowmelt and rainfall to sustain their beneficial uses (agricultural, industrial, or household), with some farmers and ranchers with junior rights not getting any water other than rainfall in drier years. Opponents of the bill worried rain water captured “out of priority” would mean less water for those with legal rights to that water. Proponents and experts from Colorado State University argued that there would be no noticeable difference in water levels if water was entering through the ground as rainfall or from a downspout, or slightly later from a rain barrel. Both sides were able to agree when a provision was added to the bill mandating that the state engineer would monitor rain barrels’ effect on water levels closely, and have the power to curtail rain barrel use if harm to water rights is shown.
Want to incorporate a rain barrel in your home? Here are some tips and regulations to consider:
- Barrels must have a sealable lid to prevent against breeding mosquitos.
- Each single-family, or multi-family residence with up to four units, can collect a maximum of two 55-gallon barrels.
- Prop your rain barrel up on cinder blocks or steps to allow space for a watering can underneath the spigot, and to allow gravity to help your water pressure.
- Barrels should be rinsed out, dried, and stored in garages or basements, or upside down in the winter with the spigot open.
- To prevent against algae and other contaminant build up, use your collected rainwater regularly!
- Collected rainwater can be used only on your property (watering gardens, washing cars, windows, etc.) but cannot be used for watering livestock.
- A downspout gutter extension may be needed to connect to the barrel. These can easily be purchased at a home or garden store like Home Depot–just be sure to measure your gutter beforehand!
The Watershed Council is partnering with the CSU Extension Office of Eagle County to offer rain barrel workshops with instruction on how to build them as well as kits and tips for how to best reuse water in your backyard this summer! The first workshop will take place on Wednesday, June 28th at the Crazy Mountain Brewery in Edwards from 5:30-7 PM. Register here to reserve your spot! Rain barrels are a great way to do your part in conserving our most precious resource, as well as become better attuned to our natural rain cycles.
Lizzie Schoder is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.
This article ran in the Vail Daily on June 29th, 2017.