Steamboat Springs Yampa Valley rain, in no short supply this year, can be harvested legally for personal use since July 1, after the Colorado Senate approved a measure to legalize collection units in rural areas.
The bill allows homes with certain well permits - not connected to a municipal water supply - to use rainwater in homes, to irrigate as much as 1 acre of garden and to water some livestock. Local water experts, however, say homeowners have little reason to install collection units in Routt County, where water from other sources is not yet exhausted.
Erin Light, Division 6 water engineer for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said that in her eight years of working with water in the Yampa Valley, she remembers only two people ever asking about rainwater collection, and she has not seen any collection units in operation. It is possible that homeowners in the county have been using rainwater, she said, because enforcement of the rainwater usage ban has not been a priority for Light's office.
"It was illegal, and I use that term loosely," she said.
Staffing and time constraints have meant that the office has not been out searching for the units, unlike more water-strapped areas such as Durango, where engineers have to mind water usage more carefully.
Light said there are thousands of well permits across the county. Rainwater collection units can be added to those wells for free after the homeowner submits a notice and fills out a form. New well permits are $100, while permits to install only rainwater collection systems cost $60. The rainwater collected is limited by the type of well permit the homeowner holds. Well permits issued after 2006 on the Upper Yampa basin, for example, have restrictions on how the water can be used and limits on the speed of water pumped out.
The law, Senate Bill 80, was sponsored by Senator Al White, R-Hayden, among others, and was passed at the end of March. The bill prohibits adding rainwater collection systems to homes that have municipal water supply available.
Even with plenty of rain falling this year, local water attorney Tom Sharp said the effort to install a system probably would not be worth it.
"Most people would rather drill a well, an exempt well, than put together a fairly complicated rainwater collection system," he said. "We haven't had anybody I've known of propose to construct and use one."
Sharp said the areas that likely will benefit the most from the new legislation are water-poor regions, either from drought or because water is hard to find in elevated areas.
"I would suspect it would be first promoted in the areas where the streams and rivers are highly over-appropriated," he said, including northern Summit County and in some areas of the Front Range.
"I don't think it's particularly useful or necessary to rural residences in Routt County because of the general availability of exempt well permits. It's more reliable to have a water well, or you can pump the water, than worrying if there's enough rain coming from the sky," he said.
Rainwater collection units have had mixed results in the past, said Shirley Andrew, part owner of Raindrop Water, a water tank installation and excavation business based on Routt County Road 35.
Andrew said there was a family that installed a collection unit to catch water from their iodized roof, but the experiment was short-lived.
"Their roof was blue, and all that dye went into their tanks. It turned all their clothes that color, and it was a family with blonde women, and it turned their hair blue," she said.
Andrew's company was called out to clean the tanks, and the family gave up on the experiment. Andrew said the family since has moved out of the valley, and she hasn't heard about any rainwater collection since then.