In the eyes of the law, Karl Hanzel was a water thief. Colorado homeowners who captured and stored water that fell onto their own roofs were considered to be stealing because that water technically belonged to the owners of streams and aquifers beneath the homeowners’ properties.  If caught, they faced fines up to $500 a day.

Luckily for Hanzel and other homeowners, a change in Colorado law legalizes this kind of water collection. But homeowners in other states who just want to use less tap water still face legal barriers.

In the Southwest, one of the fastest growing regions in the country, water is a precious commodity – one that people are willing to fight over. Water laws, which were created in the 1800s, give those who were first in line for water rights precedence over the rest of the population. 

"I struggle to understand the argument for these laws. It doesn't really make sense to me," says Hanzel. "The water that I'm detaining here, I'm not exporting it to Mars … We have a leach field; we water the garden; that water is still returned to the earth … We're just holding some of it for awhile."

Tim Pope, owner of Northwest Water Source and president of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, is still in violation of the law. As a Washington state resident, it isn’t likely he’ll be legally allowed to collect rainwater any time soon. Recent efforts to get minor exceptions to the ban on rainwater harvesting in Washington and Utah failed.

Pope believes it’s time that water laws were updated.

"It needs to be based on need — it needs to be based on proper use of water. We don't need to be using drinking water to wash cars and water lawns and gardens and flush toilets," he says.

Also on MNN: 

2009 legislation: Hits and misses from the Colorado legislature