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The History of Illegal Rainwater Harvesting in the US

If you go into the Facebook homesteading groups and ask, “Hey, anyone harvest rainwater around here?”, you may get a flurry of responses exclaiming,


“Who’s asking?!”


“It’s illegal in some states, did you know that?!”


“It’s illegal where you are probably! Don’t even try!”


As a researcher and journalist interested in investigating the best practices associated with collecting rainwater, I was truly taken aback many people don't want to get started with rainwater collection because they believe it is completely illegal for them.


First, if we want to talk about regulations, I only trust official sources. I don’t trust Karen peering across the hedge and telling me it’s illegal to do it in my backyard, no matter how ugly she thinks my beautiful steel tank is. According to the Energy.gov map, it is completely legal to harvest rainwater in every state in the US. The extent to how much you are legally allowed to collect, as well as the applications you are allowed to use the rainwater you collect, varies by state, county, municipality, etc.


So, if rainwater harvesting is legal in every state, then why does everyone think it is illegal? Why is it so taboo? Why is the first soundbyte that comes out of every person’s mouth when I tell people I write and publish books on rainwater, “Did you know it’s illegal to collect rainwater in some states?”


I don’t know, but I do know this:


Harvesting rainwater is legal in every state.


To clear up the confusion with the exact regulations your local area adheres to, it may help to understand where the confusion came from in the first place. Let’s go back to the 1800s…


The History of Illegal Rainwater Harvesting in the US


There are probably 3 main factors affecting the complicated history of water rights in the US, especially in the drier West. These are water rights (which were bitterly disputed as the West was colonized and turned into ranching and agricultural operations), the availability of water (or lack thereof), and how water has been distributed to major municipalities throughout the country. 


Water rights and laws are divided into two main categories: ones that apply to the wetter Eastern states and the others that apply to the drier Western states situated West of the Mississippi River. 


Rainwater Harvesting Incentives in the Eastern US


East of the Mississippi, rainwater can be so abundant that residents must often deal with flooding, difficult stormwater management, and too much rain. In fact, according to Doug Pushard at Harvesth2o.com, the City of Philadelphia can offer grants of up to $100,000 per impervious acre if businesses or homeowners manage at least the first 1” of rainwater runoff. Collecting the rain helps to manage it. I also know the City of Raleigh reimburses up to 100% of the cost of your cistern installation if you meet their requirements. These cities need help to manage their abundant stormwater, just like how many cities will pay you to collect solar energy and add it back to their grid.


Rainwater Harvesting History in the Western US


Back to the West. The West does not have as much rain as the East, and in fact, as the West was first colonized in the 1800s, ranching and agricultural operations bitterly disputed access to the water in the rivers. If the rain flows into the river on my land, it’s mine right?



Imagine you are a rancher, and you live downstream of another rancher whose cattle are drinking the water your cows could be theoretically drinking if only those other pesky cows hadn't gotten there first. You're probably going to be a little angry, and you want your cattle to have access to as much of the scarce rain they possibly can. This means more money in your pocket. So, you ask the government to pass a little law here and there, and over time,


These are where the terms “upstream water rights” and “downstream water rights” come from, and they are often cited when discussing the ability to collect rainwater. For centuries, states like Colorado and Utah have had strict rainwater collection laws because of these agriculturally-associated upstream and downstream water rights. These laws have invaded the public psyche, and as such, are often cited. 



It’s not my intention to decide whose access the rain belongs to. However, it is my intention to point homeowners, homesteaders, and hobby farmers towards the current regulations affecting them. And the good news is, states like Colorado are quickly changing their laws to allow for more and more rainwater collection for the typical household operation. It has been completely legal to collect rain using rain barrels in Colorado since 2016 (limit of 2 barrels at a time, and you can collect as much as you want off your own roof if you live on a well). 


There’s Never Been a Better Time to Harvest Rainwater


No doubt, rainwater collection in the past was a subject of taboo due to the bitter dispute related to upstream and downstream water rights. 


But, as we know, water is not as easy to come by now, and the aquifers and lakes municipalities draw from are draining faster than they are replenishing. The classic example is Lake Mead, a lake that waters 20 million people and large areas of farmland, which reached a record-low in 2021. 



What is the solution? Wait for someone else to fix it for us?


Or rather, figure out a solution for ourselves?


I have been lucky to talk to many homesteaders and hobby farmers who use rainwater as part of the water source on their land, and many of them started collecting rainwater due to the high costs of laying a municipal water pipe to their land or digging a well. 


Building a series of rain tanks and collecting the natural rainwater falling onto their roof seemed to be the next best option.


Will it be for you?


If you'd like to learn more about the stories of water and land disputes, as well as how states finally started to change their minds about collecting rainwater, let me know in the comments.👇 I'd love to dig more into this research too.


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