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This Is Why It's Illegal to Collect Rainwater in Some States

You won't just get wet. You might get fined—or imprisoned.

No one likes rainwater. That's why umbrellas and raincoats exist, and why most folks take extensive measures to stay inside when it's coming down outside. However, if you, for whatever reason, wanted to not only experience the rain but keep some for yourself, you might find yourself on the wrong side of the law. That's because, weirdly, collecting rainwater is actually illegal in some states.

Exactly how much rainwater you're allowed to collect and use varies across the U.S.—for example, under a Colorado law passed in 2016, homeowners are now allowed to catch and use two rain barrels (a total of 110 gallons) from their rooftops, but no more. (For the full list of rules state by state, check this resource guide, courtesy of the Natural Conference of State Legislatures.)
Its all begs the question: if water falls on your roof, why isn't it yours to keep?

According to The Washington Post, it comes down to a concept called "prior appropriation." Also known as "first come, first served," it's an old policy that dates back to the Gold Rush when prospectors went across the country to pan for gold in California's streams. Miners would use water to speed up the process, often employing a method called "hydraulic mining," which over time could hurt the environment by creating huge demands on the dry region's water resources.

In order to continue their gold-digging aspirations, miners would dig channels that siphoned water from sources that could be miles away. They established a rule that was carried over from mining principles: The first one to dig his canal was entitled to whatever water came that way. So, first come, first served.

Soon after that, other Western states began to regulate this procedure, and water was treated as its own, separate property right. Owning land did not imply you owned the water that came with it. And the rest is history. At least this is how the story goes.

In 2012, this issue of illegal rainwater collection caught renewed public attention when a 64-year-old named Gary Harrington was sentenced to 30 days in jail after illegally collecting rainwater on his own property in Oregon. Sounds crazy, but the issue went a little further than most headlines implied.

Gary's imprisonment did not have to do with the act of collecting rainwater but the volume: He gathered a shocking 20 Olympic-sized pools' worth of the stuff. According to Health Guidance, Harrington used dams that were up to 20 feet tall in order to collect the rainwater across 40 acres. He then added trout, boats, and docks and used these for recreational fishing. The reason for his arrest was because of "diverting water." Laws against diverting water exist for the protection of the environment.

So now you know why it is illegal to collect rainwater in certain states. Knowledge is power, and will hopefully keep you out of trouble. And for more ridiculous rules that are actually on the books, learn all about The 47 Weirdest Laws from Around the World.

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Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more
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