Mythbusters: Are Rain Barrels Illegal?

By Jesse Savou, M.A., ARCSA A.P., ASSE 21110 & 21120 Certified, Founder of BlueBarrel Rainwater Catchment Systems

Are Rain Barrels Illegal?

Jesse Savou with a perfectly legal 12-barrel rainwater catchment system.

Here at BlueBarrel, we love highlighting customer projects on our website and Facebook page. But these days we can hardly post on social media without a litany of comments claiming rain barrels are illegal. In years of speaking professionally about rainwater harvesting, it's one of the more common questions I get:


Aren't rain barrels illegal?

The good news is, this question has a simple answer.

[Spoiler alert!...]

No. Rain barrels are not illegal.
In fact many jurisdictions incentivize rain barrels and cisterns because harvesting rainwater is so very beneficial for the local water supply and for the greater environment.
So what gives? Why do rumors run rampant that it's illegal to collect the water that falls on your own roof?

What's With the Nasty Rumors?

I can't tell you for certain, but after fielding the question for so many years, I have a few theories:

Tim Taylor with Mr Wilson over the fence

Mr. Wilson: "Did you know you're not allowed to capture the water that falls on your own roof?
Tim: "You don't say...."

1. It's a catchy idea, and a fun rumor to spread. In a day and age when it's popular to grumble about the government, it sure is fun to tell your neighbors you can't even collect the water that falls on your own roof. Picture Mr. Wilson and Tim-the-Tool-Man Taylor. I say no more.

2. In (very) limited cases, it used to be illegal. Colorado is probably the most classic example of one of the only states that actually did have a statewide ban. Rainwater harvesting wasn't outlawed in name, but due to interpretations of a complicated and antiquated set of laws governing the Colorado River known as the prior appropriations doctrine, water falling in Colorado was determined, by law, to already be owned by downstream users. But in 2016, CO passed legislation to legalize rainwater harvesting on a limited basis. Read more about Colorado's interesting story here. Nevada also used to have significant restrictions but has eased those as of 2017 to allow rain barrels and large tank storage for residents.

3. In places where there are no codes or regulations on the books, it may be assumed to be illegal when it isn't. Untrained code inspectors may not know what to do with rainwater harvesting in absence of a code reference, so they may resist a permit when there's actually no law on the books to prohibit it. The good news is more and more states are adopting code with simple standards for non-permitted rainwater catchment systems. This not only helps to make regulators comfortable, it ensures safe installations and streamlines the process for homeowners, often with no permits required!


What Can We Do to Spread the Facts?

While I groan about Facebookers spreading the illegal rumors on so many of our posts, it's actually a good opportunity to cross-check resources and get input from people far and wide.
Federal Energy Management Program Rainwater Harvesting Regulations MapThese days, when anybody insists that rainwater harvesting is illegal, I ask them to cite the local code that they believe outlaws it. Believe it or not in eight years as a rainwater harvesting professional (at the time of this writing), I've never once had somebody reply to show me a law or ordinance.
I'll even give you a cheat. Check out this state-by-state resource from the Federal Energy Management Program. Notice Colorado and Nevada (as mentioned), are in limited (but not illegal) status. Please also notice those states designated with "regulations," specifically points to regulations allowing & encouraging rainwater harvesting, not disallowing it.
What a relief!

To conclude, I have a challenge for you.

It's a three-part challenge:

1. First, don't be that guy (or gal...but honestly its usually a guy!) to post uninformed comments about rainwater harvesting being illegal.

2. If you do believe rainwater harvesting may be illegal where you live, take a moment to check your facts. Search your town, county, and state for laws. For a state-by-state overview, start here. An easier approach may be to search for rebates and incentives. If you find your county or water agency is incentivizing rainwater harvesting, then you can be darned sure it isn't illegal. (If you do find a law on the books, send us the reference so we can keep this blog up to date!)

3. Now here's the meat of the challenge: go tell everyone you know that rainwater harvesting is good for the environment and actually encouraged in many places!

And hey, if you're feeling inspired, build one of these. (We can help you!):

BlueBarrel Rainwater Catchment System

This 8-barrel system joins 7-barrel and 3-barrel systems for a total of 18 barrels at this Santa Rosa, CA residence, providing just shy of 1,000 gallons of storage capacity. The city rebates $0.25 per gallon!

The only way to combat the spread of rumors is to spread truth. So for the sake of water supply and happy gardens everywhere, please help spread the good word!


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