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In much of the West, water is scarce, and that creates tension over who controls it. Colorado recently made it legal for some homeowners to collect the rain and snow that come off their own roofs. Before that, it was considered stealing because that water would flow into a stream or aquifer, where it belonged to someone else. Washington and Utah have similar bans.

The change in Colorado may seem minor, but as NPR's Jeff Brady reports from Denver, it could signal the beginning of a water-law revolution.

JEFF BRADY: Water law in the West is different than in the East. Out here, there's essentially a long line - those who signed up for water rights first are in front.

With that image in mind, we can say that for the last five years, Karl Hanzel has been taking cuts. Ever since building his house outside Boulder, Colorado, he's been sort of a water outlaw. Hanzel doesn't fit the outlaw stereotype -he's soft-spoken and certainly isn't packing a pistol. The tools he used to break the law are more mundane.

Mr. KARL HANZEL: Metal roof, metal gutters, downspouts. Over here we've got a cistern.

BRADY: On his roof are L-shaped plastic avalanche stoppers. They keep melting snow from sliding off. In Colorado, they're key to successfully collecting moisture from the sky.

Mr. HANZEL: And then probably within five minutes of the sun coming out, whenever that happens…

(Soundbite of sound effect)

Mr. HANZEL: …all that snow would slide off and land on the ground and we wouldn't be able to collect that water. But with these little stoppers up there, it retains the snow on the roof until it all melts up there.

BRADY: Colorado takes this sort of thing very seriously. If caught, Hanzel could have faced fines of up to $500 a day. Lucky for him, a law passed recently that legalizes his collection system. It's a narrow exception to the ban for people who would have to dig a well or have water trucked in.

But over in Washington state, Tim Pope is still breaking the law. He owns a business that installs rainwater collectors in the San Juan Islands, north of Seattle.

Mr. TIM POPE (President, American Rainwater Catchment Association): I've got over 200 systems in San Juan County at this point; 98 percent of them are for everything, including drinking water - potable use.

BRADY: Pope says he gets away with this because state regulators tend to look the other way. And while you might expect Pope to lay low, he doesn't. He's also president of the American Rainwater Catchment Association, and he's on a mission to get rid of the bans.

Mr. POPE: Western water-rights laws were done in the 1800s, and they need some serious overhaul.

BRADY: Pope suggests a fundamental change. He says the first-in-line concept just doesn't make sense.

Mr. POPE: It needs to be based on need, it needs to be based on proper use of water. We don't need to be using drinking water to wash cars and water lawns and gardens and flush toilets.

BRADY: As you might imagine, those first in line disagree. Native American tribes in the West jealously guard their historic water rights, as do municipalities like Denver.

Chips Barry is the general manager of Denver Water. He's not too upset by Colorado's recent exception to rainwater harvesting. The effect on senior water-rights holders will be minimal. But he says if the practice became widespread, that could unwind a complicated system that has long determined who gets the limited water available.

Mr. CHIPS BARRY (General Manager, Denver Water): You have a basic foundation for how water is owned and administered in Colorado. And a wholesale change -to say, oh yeah, take all the water you want off your roof - is actually a fundamental change in that.

BRADY: While rainwater collection advocates say they're ready for a sort of water revolution, it's clear it won't happen soon. Recent efforts in Washington and Utah to get even minor exceptions to the ban on rainwater harvesting failed.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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