Is It Illegal to Collect Rainwater?

Why would anyone think it illegal to collect rainwater? Well, what if I told you back in 2012, a man was sentenced to jail because he collected rainwater on his own property?

Rainwater falls freely, and since it’s on your own property, you should be able to collect it for your own personal use. It seems astounding that someone could be jailed for collecting rainwater, doesn’t it?

five rainwater tanks for one house
five rainwater tanks for one house

In fact, I can still remember the days when I was 5 or 6 and I used to bathe in rainwater that warmed in the sun for 3-4 hours. Life was much simpler back then.

Long story short: no, it is not illegal to collect rainwater in most United States. However some states may require a permit, or there may be restrictions on how much you can harvest.

Before we get further into the issue of whether or not you should collect rainwater, I want to discuss the case of Gary Harrington, aka Rain Main, of Eagle Point, OR because it’s a very interesting one.

There are some conflicting bits of information out there, but one thing is clear. Mr. Harrington spent 30 days in jail and was fined $1,500 for this. He had three ponds (reservoirs, if you will) and gathered over 13 million gallons, which the government maintains was in excess of “personal use”.

He went to jail because he collected rainwater on his property from rain and snow. He had three ponds (reservoirs, if you will) and gathered over 13 million gallons.

That’s a lot of water but the real issue is whether he had the right to collect it in the first place. According to Dominic Notter, a member of the team helping to defend him, Mr. Harrington has a right to collect the rainwater and winter run off from his own property.

Notter claims that in 1973, a watermaster told Mr. Harrington that the rainwater and winter runoff in the ponds and lakes in his area were NOT under the Rule of Appropriation, and thus they could not give him a water permit which was required to then obtain a water certificate.

Thus, his legal team maintains the law in question didn’t even apply to Gary Harrington.

A press release in July of 2012 clearly states that it is legal, in Oregon, to collect rainwater from your roof, in tarps, or barrels, and store it for “personal use”. But the government maintains that under Oregon law, all water is technically “owned” by the public.

A permit or license is necessary to use any public water whether from streams, lakes, or underground.

In Oregon, landowners do not inherently have the right to water that runs through their land without prior authorization from the Water Resources Department.

The law also states, you cannot divert or interrupt water from watersheds or rivers, which would naturally flow downstream where others would need it. This law refers to what is known as “riparian water rights”.

So, according to the government, the watershed in question was designated as a public water resource by the State of Oregon, as it supplied the entire water supply for the town of Medford, located downstream from Harrington’s land.

There are exempt uses of surface water, including:

  • Fire control
  • Stock watering
  • Natural springs
  • Fish protection
  • Forest management
  • Rainwater
  • Reuse of water with a registration under ORS537.132

According to Harrison, he had already finally obtained his permits. He had three of them, one for each pond and apparently, including his 37-year-old reservoir.

But at some point, his permits were withdrawn, he was asked to drain the reservoirs on two occasions, which he did, but then reopened them.

According to the government, he was put on trial, fined, and thrown into jail for failure to abide by the law as ordered by the court. 

The real issue here is those permits. Harrison was given the permits at one point and thus he had every right to collect rainwater and winter runoff from his property. But two things happened.

Mr. Harrison collected a massive amount of water, which likely had a negative impact on the water supply for the town of Medford. He then refused to obey a court ordered request to drain the ponds and stop collecting rainwater.

Let’s Talk About the Water Issue

Leaving Mr. Harrington aside for a moment, the big problem is that some US states have serious water supply issues. California is one of the most drought intensive areas in the United States.

If fact, it was in a near constant state of drought from December of 2011 through March of 2017. Other states like Oregon and Washington State also have regions that are extremely hot and dry.

According to a USA Today article, updated in June of 2014, seven states in total were “running out of water”. Additional drought ridden states included Montana, South Carolina, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah.

There’s no water problem where I live (yet) but you may be a lot less fortunate. Water may become a real problem where you live, and your options may be limited (unless you’re willing to move out).

An easier option is to store some of the rainwater that falls down on your property. Collecting rainwater becomes an easy and free way of stockpiling for the future, when everyone else will die of thirst.

For the most part, water laws are enacted to prevent people from diverting rivers or building dams.

But the real question we need to ask ourselves is, what if things get worse?

We should be and are allowed to collect reasonable amounts of rainwater for ourselves, right?

Is Collecting Rainwater Legal?

Sure it is. The laws and regulations vary from state to state, as you can see in the chart below.

RegionState
Southeastern Alabama water laws

Arkansas water law

Georgia water law

Florida Riparian laws

Kentucky water laws

Louisiana water rights

Mississippi water resource

North Carolina

South Carolina code of law

Tennessee riparian rights

Virginia

West Virginia water laws
Western U.S. Alaska water rights

California water rights

Colorado

Hawaii

Idaho

Montana

Nevada

Oregon

Washington

Wyoming (based on prior appropriation)
Southwest Arizona

New Mexico

Oklahoma

Texas
Northeast Connecticut

Delaware

Maine

Maryland

Massachusetts

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New York

Pennsylvania

Rhode Island

Vermont
MidwestIllinois

Indiana

Iowa

Kansas

Michigan

Minnesota

Missouri

Nebraska

North Dakota

Ohio

Wisconsin

But if all you do is collect water from your own rooftop and store it in 55 gallon barrels for your own personal use, you should be fine. If you are worried, see the links in the chart above for your specific state to confirm the water conservation laws for your state.

What you should worry about next is ways to properly store the water you’ve collected. Keep in mind that water may become more important than gold in times of crisis.

The Government has already issued executive orders which allow them to take your water stockpile away if need be and share it with everyone else who didn’t prepare.

If people know you’re stockpiling larger quantities of water, the rumor might spread. Desperate families or looters might come for your water stockpile when SHTF.

So yes, it’s legal to collect rainwater on your own property. Keep in mind you’re going to need at least 3 gallons per person per day in a survival situation (not just for drinking but also for laundry and personal hygiene), you should definitely stockpile rainwater.

What Can I Use Rainwater For?

Most people use harvested rainwater for “grey water“, meaning they don’t drink it directly (we’ll talk about this in a minute).

But you can use it to water your garden, as drinking water for your pets, to wash your car, and even do your laundry or flush the toilet in a SHTF situation. Even if you’re currently using tap water, in a survival situation, the water you collect now is going to be worth more than gold.

Is Rainwater Safe to Drink?

A lot of people will tell you they’ve been drinking rainwater for years and they’re fine. However, bird poo, industrial discharge, insects, dirt, leaves and contamination from roofing material make it less safe to drink it directly.

What you can do is use a black Berkey water filter for the one you intend to drink or simply add the right amount of non-scented bleach to it to kill most microorganisms.

The interesting thing to note is that rainwater is perfectly fine when it falls down from the sky. It gets “infected” more or less the moment it touches your roof and I think I’ve given you plenty of reasons why in the previous paragraph.

How Do I Collect Rainwater?

Collecting rainwater is really easy as long as your roof is equipped for it.

Tip: you may want to throw away the first few gallons of harvested rainwater from every rain (the first wash).

Now, there are certain materials for your roof that make it safer but, even so, the water is still going to have some level of contamination.

With that in mind, the easiest way is to not worry about all of these contaminants and just use a Berkey filtration system and/or boiling before you drink any harvested rainwater.

However, if you’re looking to build your roof and would like to know what to materials to use, gravel and asphalt are both great as far as shingles are concerned.

Cement roofs are also good from this standpoint but there’re might be too heavy and, thus, cumbersome to install.

Some States and Cities Incentivize Rainwater Collection

One thing to keep in mind that might influence your decision regarding rainwater collection is that some states, and even some cities, offer residents tax incentives in the form of rebates and deductions for such activity.

Texas and Rhode Island are two such states, and there are others besides along with many cities across the nation.

By installing rainwater catching systems on your home, freestanding or making use of tankage that can directly supply your home you might be able to save a bundle and offset the cost of installing the equipment and setting up your property to use rainwater.

Now, it should go without saying that any place that will incentivize citizens to use rain water means that it is legal, but you might still have some hoops to jump through if you want to stay on the right side of the law.

As you might expect, the nature of the rain catching system along with the quantity might still be regulated in those municipalities.

You can easily look up what incentives might exist in your area by performing a simple internet search, or searching for rainwater rebates and similar keywords concerning any city or state you are considering moving to.

The Catchment System and Containers Might Matter

One factor that you can easily run afoul of when installing an otherwise legal rain catching system is the type of catcher. In some places, large scale, free-standing rain catching systems, cisterns and large tanks might be illegal, or prohibited in certain jurisdictions.

And in the same places you might be able to get away with a simple diverter system built into your gutters with a couple of rain barrels.

This is not something you want to find out after the fact after dropping a lot of coin on all of your equipment and then spending just as much having it installed, or wasting a bunch of time after having installed it yourself. 

Like the old saying says, the devil is in the details, and even if you know that collecting, storing and repurposing rainwater is legal in your area make sure you read the fine print so that you know exactly what is, and is not, permissible.

Also, if you live in an urban or suburban area, and even in an increasing number of rural neighborhoods, you had better check in with your HOA if you have one.

Homeowners associations are often the bane of preppers and other freedom-minded types because they want everyone’s lifestyle and everyone’s property to fit in one, tiny, tidy mold.

Ostensibly, this does some good concerning property values but it rarely fails that these organizations turn into tin-pot dictatorships.

Although not technically illegal under the law, per se, your HOA bylaws might or might not expressly forbid rain catching systems, but it is highly likely that they will not permit you to have any above ground tankage that could prove an eyesore. 

The Intended Use of the Water May Affect Legality

As grating as it is to consider, what you plan on using the water for might not be legal even in places where rainwater collection, storage and reuse is.

One of the most common restrictions is that rain water may only be collected and used for non-drinking or non-potable purposes. Washing, irrigation and so forth.

Now, I know that doesn’t make any sense and it’s none of their business, but I am not telling you to break any laws.

Like we mentioned above, it is true that rainwater can be just as safe as or even safer than municipal or well water supplies with simple filtration and treatment. But that’s a story for another article.

It is worth considering that the powers that be might or might not ever find out about what you are using your collected rainwater for, but a better question is to ask whether or not you can afford or even survive the consequences of what they will do to you if they do find out.

Maybe it will just be a fine. Maybe they will order you to take your system down. Once again, understanding the letter of the law including the consequences for violating it is imperative to making a fully informed decision.

You May Need to Have Your System Inspected or Certified to be Legal

The last point of legality that any prepper should consider before installing a rainwater collection system, wherever you may live, is if any certification or inspection is required.

Some states don’t care whatsoever, and leave the function, storage and suitability of use for your collected water completely up to you; be careful, caveat emptor, all that.

Other states have surprisingly stifling inspection and certification concerns before they will allow you to use your system and collect water. It’s for your own good, you know.

Take Arkansas for instance…

The state statutes concerning rainwater collection in Arkansas state that you can only harvest rainwater for non-potable purposes when the system that collects and stores the rainwater is it designed by a professional engineer who is licensed in the state, has all the appropriate specified connections, and then complies with the Arkansas plumbing code.

Good grief!

Depending on your application, your budget and a host of other factors the necessity of inspection and sign off could be a non-issue, a minor hurdle or a nearly insurmountable obstacle.

Once more, this is something you had better have a handle on well ahead of time before you break ground or purchase components.

I cannot think of anything more heartbreaking than going through all of the labor and expense of getting your system ready to use only to be facing fines, liens or worse because some nut or bolt didn’t meet the standard.

Have you considered harvesting rainwater to store for a SHTF situation? Do you already have a rainwater catchment system in place at your home or bug out retreat location? Share your solutions or struggles in the comments below.

References

3 thoughts on “Is It Illegal to Collect Rainwater?”

  1. I had collected a lot of water in the hard plastic juice jars. One of my clients is also a “prepper” and he told me not to drink that water, that I would need glass jars for drinking water. I have started to gather glass jars with tops but I just wanted to know if he was right or not. I knew I would have to add a little bleach but is it just not drinkable because it was stored in plastic.

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