Catching rain water is against the law

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Who owns the rain? Not you, it turns out. You're actually breaking the law if you capture the rain falling on your roof and pour it on your flower bed! A prominent Utah car dealer found that out when he tried to do something good for the environment.

Rebecca Nelson captures rainwater in a barrel, and she pours it on her plants. "We can fill up a barrel in one rainstorm. And so it seems a waste to just let it fall into the gravel," she said.

Car dealer Mark Miller wanted to do pretty much the same thing on a bigger scale. He collects rainwater on the roof of his new building, stores it in a cistern and hopes to clean cars with it in a new, water-efficient car wash. But without a valid water right, state officials say he can't legally divert rainwater. "I was surprised. We thought it was our water," Miller said.

State officials say it's an old legal concept to protect people who do have water rights. Boyd Clayton, the deputy state engineer, said, "Obviously if you use the water upstream, it won't be there for the person to use it downstream."

"Utah's the second driest state in the nation. Our water laws ought to catch up with that," Miller says.

So what about the little guy, watering with rainwater at home? Will anybody do anything about that violation of the law? Clayton said, "If she really does that, then she ought to have a water right to do it." He added that they would not likely make an issue out of it, though, because they have "bigger fish to fry."

After months of discussion, city and state officials worked out a tentative compromise with the bigger fish, Mark Miller Toyota. Jeff Niermeyer, the Salt Lake City director of public utilities, said, "He would basically be using a Salt Lake City water right and diverting it under our name."

State officials say the Mark Miller agreement could become a blueprint for other rainwater projects. Homeowner projects, although technically illegal, are likely to stay off the state radar screen.


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John Hollenhorst


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