Yes, it's true. 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. KSL Channel 5 first broke this story on August 12th, 2008.
Car dealer Mark Miller of Mark Miller Toyota wanted to do pretty much the same thing on a bigger scale. He collects rain water 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 rain water. "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." And Clayton says that since rain supplies the water that comes from upstream, it follows that use of rainwater must be controlled.
But after a public outcry, KSL is now reporting on August 18th that some Utah state lawmakers are considering changing the law. KSL video embedded below:
District 20 State Senator Scott Jenkins (R-Weber) has already filed a bill to change the law. And while District 4 State Senator Pat Jones (D-Salt Lake) hasn't yet decided if the law should be changed, she's looking into it. "My first thought was, this is ridiculous that we can't collect our own rain water", said Sen. Jones. She doesn't believe we should punish someone for doing what we feel is the right thing to do.
Furthermore, the state never enforces the law against home users of rain water, even though users could theoretically get jail time for repeated violations. Consequently Senator Jones believes that's even one more reason to change the law. If a law isn't to be enforced, get rid of it.
Ultimately the city of Salt Lake agreed to let Miller use city water rights. Officials say that should reassure people downstream who have made investments based on their own water rights. But Boyd Clayton is stubborn. He said, "That's the idea of the water rights system, is to protect the people who put water to use and who want to put water to use. They ought to have some certainty about what to expect from everyone else." And he even argues that Mark Miller himself benefits by pinning down his legal right to the water. "His investment is secure because he has the right to use it," Clayton said.
I did a little snooping around, and Utah is not unique. It appears to be also illegal to catch and divert rain water for personal use in Colorado and in Washington State, too. In contrast, Toledo, Ohio, which receives more rain per year, permits and encourages their residents to catch rain water.
Opinion: I understand the state's reasoning, but it goes too far. If the state owns the rain, does it also own the sunshine? Would I have to pay a "sunshine tax" to the state if I installed solar panels? And how about the wind? Would I have to pay a "wind tax" if I wanted to install a wind collector?
At the very least, it should be legal for an individual private homeowner to collect and divert rainwater for personal use.