RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
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: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: And then probably within five minutes of the sun coming out, whenever that happens...
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MONTAGNE: ...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: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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: Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.
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