How insane are the water laws in the US southwest?

This insane. In Colorado it is illegal to collect rainwater flowing off your roof into a rain barrel because under their bizarre and arcane water laws, that water already belongs to someone else – something which takes the concept of private property to entirely new levels of psychosis.

However it’s not just Colorado, all the states in the southwest have equally screwy laws. Upstream rights. Got-here-first rights. Use it or lose it threats. It’s a ball of confusion, yes it is.

Now factor in the huge population growth there, coupled with increasing drought, pitting states against states, cities against agriculture, and you might have some idea of the train wreck that is coming.

PS I’m guessing the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association will not be having their conference in Colorado…


  1. “[U]nder their bizarre and arcane water laws, that water already belongs to someone else – something which takes the concept of private property to entirely new levels of psychosis.”

    An interesting judgement. In many states, there are no rules at all as to who has rights to the water. You may drill a well on your property, only to have the aquifer sucked dry by an industry next door, leaving you with nothing. In essence, water is (erroneously) treated as an infinite resource, and whoever pumps it fastest can have as much as they like, until it’s gone.

    In the west, where water is scarce and there have (literally) been wars fought over it, various legal doctrines have emerged. The most common is “first in use, first in right.” In other words, if you got here first and are putting a certain amount of water to use, no one can move in next door and take it from you. An associated principle here in Utah is that water belongs to the people as a whole (i.e. the State). Thus if you’re NOT using your water, it eschetes to the State. One might almost call this “water socialism” since the government regulates how much you can have, and takes it away of you’re not putting it to “beneficial use.” There are idiosyncrasies that lead to waste, but on the whole, it’s a system that makes a certain kind of sense.

    The problem now is that new residents are moving in at a brisk pace– and why not? It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world! This creates friction between those who have water and those who need water, especially since years of drought have caused water tables to fall, and there isn’t as much water as there used to be. But there are rules in place to deal with this, rather than allowing a big free-for-all. We recognize that water is NOT infinite. Choices need to be made on what to do with the water available.

    Don’t you wish the national and global economies were as regulated?

  2. The Colorado law says rainwater can not be collected because that would prevent it from getting into streams or groundwater and thus the downstream owner of the water would be deprived of their rightful water.

  3. That seems a bit on the extreme side. OTOH, I bet it stems from the concept of people building dams upstream to catch the runoff– which it would be entirely understandable to ban.

  4. In Australia they encourage collection of Rainwater because it PREVENTS stormwater being washed into streams and rivers on the basis that the stormwater washes chemicals, rubbish into the water ways and helps prevent erosion. There is plenty of area ‘upstream’ that is not densely populated where the water is collected.

  5. In our water wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people would dam up a river to deny water to those downstream. These sometimes became violent conflicts, with people killed oiver access to water. Thus, allowing flow downstream is central to most western states’ water laws. Plus we’re not that populated: we’ve got erosion issues, but not much widespread pollution. (What we do produce, the weather patterns take east, away from us!)

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