It's 'Groundhog Day,' as Rain Barrel Bill Hits a Snag

Mar 25, 2016

A bill that would allow people to collect rain that falls from their rooftops remains hung up in the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee after the chair said he wasn't comfortable with the measure. It's not clear when the committee will vote on it.

The same thing happened last year when the rain barrel bill vote was delayed. And while the bill eventually cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee over the objections of the Republican chair, it failed on the final day of the 2015 legislative session when time ran out.

"I didn't plan on today being Groundhog Day, I anticipated that the bill would pass," said Senator Michael Merrifield (D- Colorado Springs), the sponsor of House Bill 1005.

"Citizens of Colorado want to be able to do this," he said. "A rain barrel is an efficient way for people to learn about water policy in Colorado."

But opponents worry the barrels would prevent some water from reaching downstream users. The bill already passed in the House where Democrats added changes to bring Republicans opponents on board. One amendment would give the state water engineer the ability to shut down rain barrels if they are determined to impact downstream users. Another clarifies that having a rain barrel is not a water right.

"I indeed had high hopes that those were helpful," said Senator Jerry Sonnenberg (R- Sterling). He chairs the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, where the bill is stalled. Like a lot of people inside the capitol, he said he's tired of having the rain barrel debate.

"I want to be done with this, but right now I'm not comfortable," said Sonnenberg.

Sonnenberg disputes a study from Colorado State University water experts that found rain barrels would not hurt other water users, because that water would otherwise be absorbed in the grass and shrubs. Sonnenberg posed a hypothetical scenario.

"Say the town of Greeley looks like they get shorted 40 acre feet and it can be attributed to rain barrel usage in the city and county of Denver. How would you deal with that specific type of instance?" Sonnenberg asked. "You obviously can't walk up and down alleys and see who has rain barrels to curtail them."

Supporters of the bill say that scenario would never happen because rain barrels have no impact, but Sonnenberg still wants more information before voting.

Colorado is the only state in the country that doesn't allow rain barrels. Water experts say the measure's time has come, and they want to move beyond this debate and start focusing on substantive policy changes to deal with projected long-term water shortages.  

And despite the hurdle in Thursday's committee hearing, Sonnenberg and others don't think there will be a repeat of last year; they expect something to pass before the session ends.