Rainwater Collection Laws in the US – An Overview

When it comes to preparedness, hardly anything is more important than having a large supply of water on hand that you can draw from.

water drums collecting rainwater from the roof via rain gutters
water drums collecting rainwater from the roof via rain gutters

For washing, bathing, drinking, watering the garden or crops and a whole lot more, it’s always a good idea to have plenty of water.

And one of the smartest things you can do to ensure you have lots of water is to hook up a rainwater collection system.

That way, every time it rains or storms, you’re getting dozens or even hundreds of gallons.

But believe it or not, some states have seen fit to regulate the practice, and if you live in one of these states, you’ll have to abide by the law.

Naturally, each state has its own view and laws on this subject, so I’ve prepared an overview to help familiarize you with the most important concepts comes to rainwater collection. 

Rainwater Collection is Not Federally Regulated

The first thing that you should know is, as far as private citizens are concerned, the federal government does not regulate the practice of rainwater collection.

This assumes, of course, that your harvesting of the rainwater is tacitly legal and does not violate any of the other innumerable federal laws.

If that is the case, the federal government does not care that you collect rainwater or what you do with it.

That’s good news, but sadly the same thing it cannot be said of the individual states.

Rainwater Collection Laws Do Vary from State to State

The bottom line is that each individual state has its own set of laws, however many or however few, governing the practice of rainwater collection by citizens.

I know, I know: who could be so unbelievably arrogant to think that catching rain that falls from the sky requires laws?

That is a conversation for another time, but what you need to know is that it is up to you to look up, learn and adhere to your home state’s laws on the practice.

NevadaNew HampshireNew Jersey
New MexicoNew YorkNorth Carolina
North DakotaOhioOklahoma
OregonPennsylvaniaRhode Island
South CarolinaSouth DakotaTennessee
VirginiaWashingtonWashington D.C.
West VirginiaWisconsinWyoming
Rainwater collection laws by states

Failing to do that couldn’t get you in trouble, ranging from fines to jail time to a stint in prison!

Why Do Some States Regulate Rainwater Harvesting?

All griping aside, why would a state even have to regulate the harvesting of rainwater by citizens? You aren’t stealing water from anybody, and you definitely aren’t taking it from the state so what gives?

And actuality, that is exactly how some states view the practice: they believe that all the water that falls in the state, even before it hits the ground, belongs to the state.

As such, if you take it without their permission or if you take an excess of what they allot to you, then you are in fact breaking the law.

Also, ostensibly, this has something to do with the hydrologic cycle, the process by which rain that falls onto the ground goes deep into underground aquifers and other reservoirs as part of the natural cycle of replenishing groundwater sources.

And again, ostensibly, if enough people caught enough rain, it could disrupt this cycle. Or at least, that’s what they want you to think.

Many independent studies have shown that even with mass civilian harvesting of rainwater it would have basically no net effect on the hydrologic cycle because that water would, one way or the other, eventually find its way back into nature and subsequently the ground.

County and Local Laws Might Also Apply!

Now, if learning state laws on a rainwater collection wasn’t bad enough you might also have to contend with county and local city or town laws on the practice.

This is especially likely in places that struggle to deal with flood water or that suffer from a pronounced lack of water either seasonally or throughout the year.

These local laws are also likely to have restrictions on the type or size of system you can install, how much water you can collect, and what you can use it for.

And, if applicable, don’t forget to check in with your neighborhood HOA: most are absolutely not kosher with you having any large and conspicuous tanks above ground that will be an eyesore.

Who Should You Check With Regarding Rainwater Harvesting Laws and Regs?

At the state level, check in with your state legislature and look up the state statutes online to get started.

Most of this information is easily searched and found in a given state.

At the local level, check in with the county water board and other relevant authorities for more information, and definitely do that before you purchase or build any rainwater collection system because, as we will learn in a moment, abiding by codes and permitting is an important part of navigating the process.

Permitting Might Be Required

Assuming you understand all of the relevant laws, the next step in the process of installing your rainwater harvesting system is to obtain any required permits.

This might be required at the county level, or at the city or township level.

This process is highly variable in all regards: in some states, usually states that have minimal or no laws concerning rainwater collection this might be a little more than a rubber stamp with a small associated fee.

In other states it is just the opposite: a byzantine process with high associated costs and oversight at every, single step of the way.

The smartest thing you can do, however straightforward the process seems, is to consult with neighbors or anyone else you know that has recently installed a system in your area.

That way, you can have some idea of what to expect.

Keep in mind that the permitting process itself might have an associated “wind-up” time depending on how mired in bureaucratic idiocy your local officials are. Don’t jump the gun!

The Type and Installation of Your System Might Also be Regulated

Worse yet, your state and your local authorities might have restrictions on what type of rainwater collection system you can use.

Some might allow you only to use a system that is fed by the roof of your house or a single building that is routed directly into one or two tanks.

Others might allow you to set up larger and more elaborate standalone rain-catching systems, or tie multiple systems into one or more sets of tanks or other vessels.

And there could be even more minutiae associated with these restrictions: there might be requirements for first flush diverters, cross-contamination prevention valves, the quality and type of materials used throughout and a lot more.

Again, these laws tend to be highly variable and you’ve got to get them right if you want to stay on the right side of them.

Make sure you read the fine print, and consult any applicable building codes that are referenced in the state statutes or the local laws before you buy components and definitely before you start building, lest you be ordered to take your system down.

Some States Restrict Total Capacity or Tankage

One of the most common restrictions concerning rainwater collection in the states that do restrict the practice is how much water you are allowed to collect in a certain period of time, or how much you are allowed to keep on hand.

This is invariably defined in gallons. Some highly restrictive states like Colorado will only ever allow you to have no more than 110 gallons of rainwater, and no more than two barrels designed for holding it.

Other states, like Louisiana, have absolutely no restrictions on capacity.

And once again, do keep in mind that in some places local restrictions might be more stringent than state-level restrictions assuming that the state law doesn’t override local laws in this regard.

You May Only Be Allowed to Use Your Rainwater for Non-Potable Purposes

Another relatively common restriction at both the state and local level is what purposes you can use your rainwater for.

Generally, these places want you to use your rainwater only for non-potable purposes, meaning purposes other than drinking and washing your body.

That would be things like watering crops or your garden, washing vehicles, and other equipment, etc.

Specifically, they don’t want you or anyone else drinking harvesting rainwater.

I know, sounds like another silly red tape rule, right? Well maybe it is, but it has a basis in good sense: your edification, rainwater is only clean and pure until it touches something, anything, and then it gets very dirty.

If rainwater is collected from your roof, for instance, it will have tons of dust, dirt, bits and fluids from insect and most worryingly animal feces from birds and many mammals like mice.

Obviously, without extensive filtration and other treatment drinking this water could put you in genuine peril of contracting some seriously nasty, gribbly disease.

I’m not here to tell you what is right or wrong for you and your family in any set of circumstances, but it’s something you need to be aware of and, if it is a law, obey it unless you want trouble.

Cross-Connection to Other Water Supplies is Usually Not Permitted

With very few exceptions, and most jurisdictions you are never allowed to connect supply piping from your rainwater collection system to your normal public water supply piping. This is to prevent potential contamination.

So, if you want to set up your house with a dual-feed water system there’s another set of restrictions and regulations you’ll need to abide by concerning protection against water from one getting into the other.

If you live with water drawn from your own well and rely on septic or other disposal technologies, these restrictions usually do not apply but don’t assume!

Always Double-Check Your State’s Water Rights Laws!

Another term you’re going to become very familiar with is water rights.

Generally speaking, water rights laws are variable from place to place but usually follow a doctrine known as reasonable use.

The reasonable use doctrine as it concerns water means that anyone has access to collect rainwater, or to use other groundwater sources, so long as it is reasonably for their own benefit and does not interfere with the rights of anyone else.

Sounds simple, but it can and will get complicated if a neighbor contests your claim or claims that your use impedes his own.

Additionally, things like prior appropriation might be a factor if rain is mostly responsible for replenishing those ground sources like streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds.

If someone can reasonably claim that your rainwater collection is causing their water feature to dry up, or interfering with their enjoyment of that water feature, you might be told to throttle back your collection or even stop it entirely.

It should be noted that most states have relatively straightforward water rights laws concerning the collection of rainwater, but some states, like Arkansas, have pretty intricate water rights laws.

Which States Have Strict Rain Harvesting Regulations?

I mentioned several times throughout this article that most states don’t have any serious restrictions concerning the collection of rainwater by citizens. And they don’t!

But, of course, some do, and some states restrict the practice so heavily that your intention to harvest rainwater might as well be a pipe dream.

Below are a few of the most restrictive states concerning rainwater collection:

  • Arkansas: all rainwater collection systems must comply with the Arkansas Plumbing Codes, and collected rainwater can only be used for non-potable purposes. State also has fairly extensive water rights laws.
  • Colorado: probably the single most restrictive state in the US. Capacity restriction is capped at 110 gallons spread across no more than two rain barrels. Water may again only be used for non-potable purposes.
  • Nevada: a state with a long and infamous history of restricting or outright banning the collection of rainwater. Presently, collective rainwater can only be used for household, non-potable purposes.
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