Who Owns the Rain?

A few months ago a man in Oregon was jailed for collecting rainwater ‘illegally.’ Being from a state where water is plentiful, this seems beyond insane to me. Rain is a gift much like manna from heaven no matter where on Earth you may live, unless the weather is hellbent on creating monsoon effect. Yet, surprisingly it is illegal to collect rainwater even in small capacities in some places in the United States – even off your own roof. It seems that water rights no matter what form it is made available in belongs to the state, not a person. Still, in places like California where it is illegal to collect rainwater, if it falls on your property it is your responsibility to manage it.

How crazy is that?

Looking into the facts surrounding this guy in Oregon who collected over 3 million gallons of rainwater only on his property, it is discovered that his little project was disturbing watershed further down the river. Yes, his case is a bit extreme and incorporated dams to control the water flow. Is it obsessive to collect this much rain? Someone in the middle of the desert might think so, but that is a completely different world to those who live in say Northern Minnesota or Wisconsin. While someone living around the Great Lakes should be surprised about things like permits for rainwater collection and use. A lot of folks living in states where any form of collection is illegal aren’t even aware that it is.

Toyota dealer, Mark Miller, in Salt Lake City wanted to make his business more environmentally friendly in 2008 and installed a simple runoff collection system connected to his dealership’s gutter spouts. Needless to say it wasn’t long before he was amazed to discover that by trying to reduce his footprint he was breaking Utah laws. It took a great deal of legal effort on Mr. Miller’s part to gain the water rights to rainwater runoff from his business’ roof, but he was victorious. In the end he was awarded with a Leeds certificate for becoming an environmentally friendly business. Though you will see information published everywhere dated as recently as the end of 2012, Utah changed water rights laws regarding the collection of rainwater in 2010 so that it is no longer illegal for the average citizen to store up on water from heaven.

Like the laws from 1928 in Oregon, Utah’s water rights laws were there to protect farmers and ranchers right to supply their crops with adequate moisture in decades long passed. These laws give senior permit holders more water rights than not just the average citizen, but junior water rights permit holders as well. There are levels to this privilege, one that big agriculture and corporations have more control over than is good for the population at large. In the 1920s and 1930s farms and ranches were more heavily populated by average citizens. Over the ensuing decades the little man was subsequently excused from his land and big business took over, a practice that basically removed the family from farming across the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.

While all of this is going on, the Environmental Protection Agency is not just supporting the practice of rainwater collection to all U.S. citizens, they recommend it. As do agencies in the U.K. and other countries of the world, and it is a requirement in many new residential and commercial buildings globally for sustainability purposes. Should local and state government have the right to contrl who and who cannot harvest rainwater? Becoming more environmentally friendly and self sustaining says definitely not. What do you think – should this be a privilege for the few or a basic human right?

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.