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Clouds again hang over rain barrel bill in Colorado Legislature

Committee chairman delays vote amid water-rights concerns
The chairman of a Senate committee delayed a vote on a bill that would allow rain barrels in the state, despite the measure likely having the votes to pass.

DENVER – The chairman of a Senate committee on Thursday delayed a vote on a bill that would allow Coloradans to collect rainwater that falls off their roofs.

The move drew criticism from supporters, who pointed out that Republican Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango supported the bill last year, and offered the swing vote again this year to advance the legislation out of committee.

The bill also earned overwhelming support in the House this year, where it started.

It marks the second time Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling delayed a vote on rain barrel legislation. He did it last year when the bill moved through his Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee. It sat then for nearly a month.

Concerns for the bill revolve around water rights – whether the two 55-gallon barrels would take water from rightful owners.

The state’s prior appropriations system grants water rights to the first person to take water from an aquifer or river, despite residential proximity. A study by Colorado State University found that allowing 110 gallons of rainwater storage per household would not decrease surface runoff by any detectable amount on a typical lot.

On Thursday, Sonnenberg questioned Deputy State Engineer Kevin Rein about the Division of Water Resources’ ability to curtail the use of rain barrels based on a determination of injury, as the bill was earlier amended to require.

“It’s an overwhelming chore to go through all the yards in Denver. I think our first cut at that would be we would need to have some rain barrels identified that are resulting in a deprivation of water to the senior water rights downstream, and then we could make that evaluation,” Rein said.

Sonnenberg worried that farmers and ranchers would feel the pinch: “This could very easily go to the next guy, which may be that farmer in Brighton, and have to curtail him.”

Supporters of the bill hoped they would be able to convince Sonnenberg not to delay the bill because of compromises reached along the way. Amendments helped pass the bill in the House 61-3.

The bill has been amended to state that using a rain barrel is not a water right. Another amendment would require the state engineer to evaluate the use of rain barrels and whether there is any impact to water rights across the state.

Water collected would be used on the residential property where it is stored, usually for things such as watering gardens.

Unlikely groups who previously expressed concerns with the legislation have come on board, including Greeley Water and the Colorado Farm Bureau. “It’s time to find a solution in this ongoing conversation,” said Garin Vorthmann, representing the Colorado Farm Bureau.

But Sonnenberg wasn’t convinced, adding: “I want to be done with this ... but right now, I’m not comfortable.”

Theresa Conley, a water advocate for Conservation Colorado, said she was “disappointed.”

“Fear is a very motivating thing,” she said. “Until the governor has signed this bill, I’m going to be working on it like it could die tomorrow.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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