Rain Harvesting Part 1 – How much and why the State cares

In my last post about water, Kristine pointed out that storing rainwater is illegal in some places.  While this fact gets on my last nerve – I guess it is the libertarian rancher blood in me – this is a real concern.  Much of this stuff is regulated because of (1) health, (2) safety, and (3) environmental (water table and management) concerns.  I will cover the health/safety concerns of dealing with rain water on site in the next couple of posts, but let me explain the water table legality mess since it recently changed in Utah.

Generally speaking, the state owns and decides how to manage water but pushes enforcement through municipalities often in the form of codes. Many of these regulations are antiquated; further, enforcement is generally uneven at best.  In the arid SW, the assumption is that the water table needs to be closely managed.  For years, Colorado and Utah held that every drop of rain belonged to the water table and thus to the state.  To capture rain without a water right was essentially theft and illegal.

It is my understanding that in 2009, Colorado relaxed to their stance to say if you are on a well, you have long-term water rights to the water table below your land and therefore may harvest rain.  If you have city water, no rain capturing for you.

Utah, in 2010, also changed their rules.  As long as you register your system here, you may harvest and store up to 200 gals above ground. I don’t know what the deal is with specifying 2 each of 100 gal containers – maybe someone following this more closely can help explain.

Utah also now allows you to put in a significantly bigger underground cistern.  Besides seeing a significant increase in installation cost, many more states regulate large systems and most municipalities (no matter what the state) are going to want to have some say about anything underground.  Check with your city before doing anything that big and permanent.  Unless you have a barn, you really don’t need a cistern.  Your roof would do just fine.

How much can you get from your roof and what does that buy you in terms of landscaping/gardening (the most common resuse)? 1 inch of rain on 1000 sq ft of surface equates to 623 gal.  In SLC, summer months see about .75 inches of rain per month. (Go to weather.com, tab to month, click on averages to see how much your specific location can expect.)  In other words, in a 1000 sq ft main level house on the Wasatch front probably would generate about 468 gallons per month during the summer.   No wonder the state is concerned about managing this!

Realistically, how much can you capture?  Since Utah limits a household to 200 gal in above ground storage, you would have to assume the rain comes in at least 2 storms a month (preferably evenly spaced) to reuse almost every last drop.

How much do you need?  Most veggie gardens need between 3/4 and 1 inch of water per week.  Thus, a 10×10 ft bed requires about 62 gal per week or 250 gal per month.  A quarter of those needs are met with rainfall.  By my calculations, you can realistically and legally capture enough rain in SLC to water a 200 sq ft plot.  In Southern Utah, Southern Nevada, and AZ – due to the monsoons – you could probably cover the needs of a 100 sq ft plot in July and August (Vegas averages .4 inches these months) if you supplement with city water in spring.

Up next – how to safely install and use a rain barrel.

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14 responses to “Rain Harvesting Part 1 – How much and why the State cares

  1. TopHat May 22, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    I look forward to the next one! I’d love to set up a system in our new place next month!

  2. pobept May 22, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    There in lies the secret! In some places, catching ‘harvesting’ rain water is illegal. However they {state, county and city} will gladly SELL that water to you to use as you see fit!.

    To a Bureaucrats harvesting rain water as taking cash out of their bureaucratic little hands. As with any government bureaucrat, follow the money trail.

  3. Nicole I May 23, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Pobept – Like I said, part of me cringes that rain water is in any way regulated. But I think you may have misunderstood my point.

    Today’s regulations, while a holdover from the past (when water rights=usable property in the west) are primarily justified as an attempt in system management of a limited resource. In other words, we can only fairly divy up (limited) water if we can account for all available water. Harvesting rain water is problematic in that it removes water from the system in an unaccountable way. If every house put in 4 rain barrels in SLC, used that water to flush their toilets and thus sent it through the municipal sewage system, I would wager you would see the water table drop over a couple of years. A nightmare if you couldn’t explain why it was happening.

    What makes rain barrel bans (and to a certain degree large cisterns) so crazy is I would wager 90% of that water will be utilized for landscaping and therefore recharged into the ground water, even if a few days/weeks later. It is half a dozen of one and 6 of another. Utah recognized this and now allows IF you are willing to help them out in their water accounting system by registering your system.

    This leaves Colorado as the odd man out… and I admit, I struggle to wrap my head around their position. In some of their pilots of rain harvesting, CO is requiring payment for captured rain. Crazy if you ask me, but a logical extension of regulating a very limited resource through the marketplace.

    Pretty much every other state is indifferent to rain harvesting as long as it is done safely.

  4. pobept May 23, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Grinning, using that logic, it would be legal to regulate the use of wind by homes and land owners, it is also a limited natural resource. No more water producing windmills used by ranchers to water livestock, or wind powered electric producing wind turbines. without paying the state of the wind you have used.

    Rain is does not ‘belong’ to anyone, not the land owner where it falls, and certainly not to the state!

    It seems to me like your attacking water usage / harvesting from the wrong end. Regulating what type landscaping is used in homes and business landscapes would accomplish much more than an attempt to ‘regulate’ rain fall usage. In my humble opinion, having a lovely green lawn is not a god given right.

    President Reagan had the correct opinion of government and government bureaucrats. “Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.”

    Remember the old saying, Be very careful what you wish for, You may get it.
    In any event it is not likely that you or I will have much if any ‘real’ influence on this on going water battle.

    Good luck 🙂

  5. Ardis May 23, 2011 at 11:41 am

    Wind is not a limited natural resource at a practical level — almost no one requires the private use of wind in order to live and work. There is no competition for wind — anyone can use as much as he wants without impinging on anybody else’s use — and wind is not consumed, in that once it passes through a turbine it goes right on its merry way to the next place where it is theoretically wanted.

    I appreciate your explanation of this aspect of water law — it seems absolutely arbitrary until the reasoning is known, and then it seems far more rational (albeit with a few tics) than the all-or-nothing ideology of those who rail against cooperation for the simple reason that they detest government.

  6. Nicole I May 23, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Ardis correctly IDd the reason why pobept’s wind example is a fallacy.

    Pobept – I don’t believe government is the problem, particularly when it comes to resource management. Usually, government is a decent solution in collectively managing limited resources. On that, we are going to have to agree to disagree :).

    At the risk of feeding an ideological debate, do you have another system of collective management of water in mind? How do you propose to divy up water so that every person in the state has access to enough on an every-day basis to meet every day needs?

  7. pobept May 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Nicole, no matter where you live, there are always resources in limited availability. Whether it be land in Japan, fuel world wide, food supplies or water. Governments world wide have proven by their actions to be lousy administrators.

    Having a nice life filled with all the little things you heart desires is not a God Given Right. It is something that you {humans] have wrestled away from someone or someplace else. Reallocating any resource from the have’s to the have not’s is not a viable solution.

  8. Nicole I May 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Pobept – I don’t think you are going to gain much traction on this blog if you only come to rail against government intervention. While thinking about ways individuals can do their part is a big part of our effort, most of us here recognize the role of government at some level in helping humanity protect the environment. We welcome a diversity of thought, but only to the extent that it helps identify solutions. I am not ok with you using my post to rail against the government without at least offering an alternative solution.

    So I’ll ask one more time. If reallocation of resources through governmental means makes you uncomfortable, what would you prefer? Does it make any difference if it is merely a limited resource vs a scarce (as in water in the desert) resource?

  9. Kristine N May 23, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    pobept–think of it this way–you can have freedom to do whatever you want (which, I suspect is what you’re arguing for) or you have have rights that are protected (since my rights inherently infringe on the freedom of someone else). Most of us are willing to trade a certain amount of unrestricted freedom to protect rights we hold dear because most of us are also aware that unrestricted freedom means our rights aren’t any more inviolable than anyone else’s and frequently leads to a few people enjoying vast freedoms at the expense of everyone else.

    Ursula Le Guin wrote an interesting novel exploring that particular conundrum called, “The Dispossessed.” You should read it–it’s very thought-provoking.

  10. Seldom May 24, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    The approach to water rights in the west is based upon Mormon ideas of community ownership of natural resources. Laws were adopted and government became involved because it was necessary to have a system that protected the rights of the invidual to use the community resource.

    The Sevier River in central Utah is a good example of the problems that can occur if there is no system of regulation. During drought years in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s farmers on the upper Sevier River in Piute, Sevier, and Sanpete counties, had diverted the entire Sevier River for irrigation. Farmers in Millard County, who also relied on the river for irrigation, were left dry. There was an armed standoff between the two groups of farmers at a diversion dam in central Utah. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the Church and State authorities intervened before anyone was killed. The issue was resolved by negotiation and legal decree that guaranteed that upstream wate users could only divert a portion of the total flow.

    We continue to protect the rights of downstream water users by making sure that upstream water users can’t divert and use a water right that belongs to some else. Almost every drop of water that falls in the State of Utah is currently allocated to someone for irrigation, drinking water, or some other use. If a signficant quantities of water were collected by homeowners, it would be impacting a downstream user with the legal right to the water.

  11. mfranti May 24, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Seldom, did you read Marks post on irrigation and community?

  12. Seldom May 26, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    I went back and read Mark’s post. I appreciate his recognition that community based approach is important in preserving resources. However, Mark’s example of losing salmon in order to grow a little alfalfa also shows the weakness of that approach. Ranchers at the headwater of a river are unlikely to act voluntarily to protect the interests of downstream fishermen because the communities are not closely linked. Government needs to step in and regulate water use when the competing interests are complex and widely separated.

    In his book “Collapse,” Jared Diamond outlines two approaches to managing critical resources. With a “bottom up” approach, individuals or local leaders recognize the importance of a resource to their survival and cooperate to protect it. With a “top down” approach, a strong regional authority recognizes the competing and sometimes conflicting interests of widespread groups and regulates the resource to balance the benefits. A bottom up strategy is generally effective for small isolated societies and a top down strategy is more effective for large complex society. Diamond concludes that without effective management strategies of critical resources societies are doomed to failure and to eventual collapse.

    Managing water in a large and complex river basin requires a combination of both top down and bottom up approaches. That’s why I’m in favor of Utah’s regulations for rainwater collection. Water is viewed as a community resource, but its use also monitored and controlled by State agencies. Regulations for rainwater collection recognize both the benefits of preserving high quality drinking water, and the potential impacts to downstream users. I believe what we have now is a ood compromise.

  13. Nicole I May 27, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Seldom – I am a big believer in needing both local, bottom-up strategies and river-wide top-down approaches in water management (and resource management more generally). Thank you for articulating the differences and needs for both.

  14. Pingback: Rain Harvesting Part II – Planing & Making the Rain Barrel « Our Mother's Keeper

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