Friday, July 3, 2009

Water Wars: How much we take for granted

Photo Courtesy of Bev Walker

The news lately about a crack in the strict water laws in the western United States has me thinking about water inequities and assumptions. I take water for granted for the most part, other than my ongoing concerns about having good, potable water.

Occasionally, I may have to water my garden more than I’d prefer, but I know there is enough water available. I ‘know’ there are friends who are lucky to have even an inch of rain in several months… but somehow I just cannot wrap my mind around how that really IS. HOW can they possibly garden and grow food?

It is illegal in some western states like Utah and Colorado to collect rainwater falling on your roof, with fines of $500 a day. The fallen rain belongs to downstream water rights.
"All the water was spoken for here [Colorado Springs] in the Arkansas Basin 100 years ago or more," said Kevin Lusk, water supply engineer for Colorado Springs Utilities. "If the water falls as rain, that's water that was going to get to the stream system, and somebody already has dibs on it, and if somebody intercepts that, it's the same as stealing."

Colorado has just passed a couple of laws that give a glimmer of hope to folks living in many of the western states. While the changes in the Colorado laws are minor, it could be the beginning of a revolution in water wars.
One new water law (SB80) in Colorado allows only the residents on private wells with a recorded well permit to collect precipitation from rooftop areas of up to 3,000 square feet IF they apply and get a collection permit. (I couldn't find any information about the costs involved.) Most of those folks with wells live on the plains where rainwater tends to evaporate, rather than flow into the streams anyway. If you are on a public water supply, rainwater harvesting is still illegal.

The other new Colorado law, HB1129, directs the state to approve 10 pilot projects, new housing or mixed-use developments designed to include rainwater collection. Officials will study the projects through 2020 to see how viable it is to use rain for household irrigation and what impact it has on stream flows.

Water suppliers only agreed to support the bill because developers and residents in the projects must pay for replacement water for every drop collected in the first two years of study. (That means they have to measure and pay for the amount of rainfall collected.) Residents can then ask a water court to lower the augmentation requirement.

Out of curiosity, I looked at some U.S. annual rainfall averages. The average annual rainfall in my county is currently over 41”, and that’s with 3-4 of the most recent years having well below average annual rainfall. The map above shows the rainfall average by color code, dark green is highest, dark red is the lowest.

I’m thankful I live where I do, and I certainly will be more cognizant of the water I have been taking for granted!

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