The Utah Senate advanced a bill legalizing the common but illegal practice of collecting gardening or lawn water in a 55-gallon drum, and opposition from water-rights purists in the House appeared to soften with proposed amendments requiring water users to register with the state.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, introduced the bill and advocated rain collection as a way for garden enthusiasts to both conserve water and save money on water bills.
A similar bill was scuttled last year by fears of undoing Utah's and the West's time-honored tradition of awarding water rights to those who apply first rather than those who own property on which water originates.
"We have thousands and thousands of rain barrels in this state, and I guess right now technically they're not legal," said Sen. Dennis Stowell, R-Parowan, a bill supporter.
The bill, SB32, passed 19-2 in its first Senate floor test and still needs a final vote before going to the House.
Rep. Ben Ferry, R-Corrine, opposed the effort last year but said he may become a House sponsor this year because Jenkins has OK'd amendments he would like. Ferry, a farmer, wants to require rain gatherers to register online with the state Division of Water Rights. That way, he said, in times of shortage the state will know who has drums or underground tanks that may be keeping water from those with established rights.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, asked Jenkins to state during debate on the bill whether he intended to change Utah's water-rights law from the prior-appropriation doctrine to one similar to in Eastern states, where landowners own the water that's on their property.
Jenkins said the old rules still apply, with this narrow exception.
Valentine later said he wanted to establish a record of the Legislature's intent, so that no one could argue the bill nullifies existing rights based on seniority.
Jenkins said it makes sense to enable rainwater use because, once applied to a lawn or garden, it seeps into the ground or runs off to supply downstream water users just as the rain would have if not collected.
The bill caps rainwater storage at 2,500 gallons, either in underground tanks or 55-gallon drums that are covered to prevent child drownings.