Can You Go To Jail for Collecting Rainwater?
It's fine in most states, but some have stricter rules!
Putting a bucket outside to catch water while it rains may not seem like a huge deal. But in more than a dozen states, it actually is. State legislatures established rules on catching rainwater, and what you can or can’t use the water for. So if you’ve built a rain barrel for your home, be sure to review local laws to make sure you’re in compliance.
Why Is Water Collection a Big Deal?
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, catching rainwater or “rainwater harvesting” can affect quality standards, public safety and water rights.
That’s right, water rights are actually a thing.
Water rights are a type of interest that can be tacked on to real estate ownership when a property is close to a body of water. This means the landowner has the right to use that body of water and any precipitation surrounding it. Some states mandate that all precipitation belongs to existing water-rights owners, and rain flow needs to join its rightful water drainage.
A journal published by the University of North Carolina titled “Rainwater Collection, Water Law, and Climate Change: A Flood of Problems Waiting to Happen” dives much deeper into water rights. It states that any type of rainwater collectors — whether from gutters on your roof or any other rainwater drain control — “infringes on the water rights lawfully belonging to someone ‘downstream.’ ” This may not seem like a big deal, but for areas experiencing droughts or any other water worries, legislation such as this can be necessary.
Can You Go To Jail for Collecting Rain?
Obviously, your gutter isn’t doing much harm. But for some, collecting rainwater has even landed them in the slammer. Back in 2012, one man in Oregon collected 13 million gallons of water and created three reservoirs on his property from rainwater harvesting. That’s right— he made three separate bodies of water from the water he collected.
While most states permit rainwater harvesting and some even encourage it, other states have specific rules and regulations around the topic. These states specify the uses of the water. For example, if the water can be collected for “non-potable” purposes, it means the water is not suitable for drinking but can be used for other things. Potable means it’s safe for drinking, cooking and bathing.
Here are a few with specific rules governing rainwater harvesting.
Rainwater harvesting is encouraged in Alaska and considered a primary source of water. But for groundwater harvesting, regulations are stricter. According to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, if you reside near a specific body of water, you need water rights to use that water. If you weren’t given a water rights transfer from the previous owner, you need to apply for water rights, accompanied by an appropriate fee.
It’s fine to collect rainwater in Arkansas under specific conditions. You can collect the water for non-potable purposes as long as the system used is designed by a professional licensed engineer with appropriate cross-connection safeguards and follows the Arkansas Plumbing Code.
Rainwater harvesting coming from your roof is fine in California. No permit from the state board is necessary. However, collecting rainwater for landscaping purposes would require a license. If a rain capture system is being used to create a water supply (swimming pool, hot tub, fountains, ponds), a landscaper must be authorized to enter a prime contract for that system.
Residential homeowners can catch up to two rain barrels of water (approximately 110 gallons). However, the water should only be used for outdoor non-potable purposes on the property where it was collected, such as lawn irrigation and gardening.
For awhile, Colorado had strict harvesting regulations due to the senior water rights. But after a study determined that only three percent of rain reached a stream or groundwater, Colorado decided to revise its legislation.
Rainwater harvesting is legal, though two specific statutes apply. House Bill 991, passed in 2011, mainly deals with solar energy rights. But it also requires homeowners’ associations to specify if rain collection is allowed, and if so, to spell out the location, design and architectural requirements of those systems.
Illinois also has the Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act. This act works through water conservation, efficiency, infrastructure, and management while promoting rainwater harvesting.
Kansas allows water collection, but like Alaska you need water rights to do so. The Kansas Water Appropriate Act protects people’s rights to use ground and surface water within the state. If you do not apply for a right or already hold one with your property, it’s illegal to collect.
However, it’s fine to collect water for domestic use — your household, livestock and up to two acres of lawn and gardens. If you’re unsure about what is considered domestic use, the Kansas Department of Agriculture can explain that for you.
Don’t worry, rainwater harvesting is legal. Just be careful that the rain barrel (also known as a cistern) has a suitable cover. Louisiana law forbids selling polluted water, which also includes ice.
It used to be illegal to collect rainwater in Nevada, but a 2017 bill permits rain collection for non-potable domestic use. It also allows remote guzzlers for wildlife that hold up to 20,000 gallons with a capture area of no more than an acre. The piping system can’t be longer than 1/4 of a mile.
Rainwater harvesting is legal in North Carolina with a few regulations. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources must provide statewide outreach and technical assistance regarding water efficiency. This also includes developing best management practices for water reuse, harvesting and greywater use. The State Law 243 authorized changes in the plumbing code facilitating the use of cistern water in residential and commercial buildings.
So what does this mean for you? Appendix C-1 talks in detail about rainwater recycling systems. All rainwater systems should be inspected, and can only receive water from the roof of buildings or other catchments. All reservoirs used should be approved, and it should have an approved filter strainer that is disinfected and colored blue or green.
It’s fine to catch rainwater in Ohio, even for potable purposes. However, to provide drinking water for less than twenty-five people the system needs to be regulated by the Ohio Department of Health.
It’s legal to collect rainwater in Oregon. But you must have a water rights permit if you plan on using public water, unless the general public has the same access.
Texas has made many changes to their legislation regarding rainwater harvesting, and luckily the state encourages it. However, there are certain regulations regarding catching water for potable and non-potable purposes. If someone plans to connect a rainwater harvesting system to a public water supply system, they must give written notice to the municipality or the owner of that public water supply system. If there are health effects regarding that water, the municipality or the owner cannot be held liable for the consumption of that water.
There are also other rules regarding residential, commercial and industrial facilities. A municipality cannot prohibit a public facility from harvesting rainwater. And the Texas Water Development Board must provide quarterly training to municipality and county staff.
Sorry, Utah, but rainwater harvesting has some strict rules. Rainwater harvesting is only allowed on land owned or leased by the person responsible for the collection. Senate Bill 32 states that the person must be registered with the Division of Water Resources if they plan to collect up to 2,500 gallons of rainwater. Registration isn’t required if you use only one container that holds no more than 100 gallons.
Washington no longer requires a permit to collect water from rooftops, but it still has some pretty strict regulations. Some areas of Washington are stricter than others, so it’s best to check with your specific county.
For now, you don’t need a rainwater collection permit if the rainwater is used on the property and is collected from existing structures that have purposes other than collecting rainwater. Make sure that rainwater collection isn’t restricted due to local regulations. Also, if the water being collected is used primarily for drinking in a new building, check with your county to see if that is allowed.