By Elizabeth Zach , staff writerrainwater

As Colorado, like the rest of the American West, grapples with a crippling drought, residents there are learning that capturing rainwater for future use actually breaks the law.

In California, government leaders encourage both urban and rural homeowners and business owners to set up rainwater barrels. But in Colorado, doing so is illegal because of established water rights, including to rain, which are determined by seniority.

“Water allocation doesn’t satisfy most people’s norms of fairness,” Doug Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Programat the University of Colorado Law School, told The New York Times. “A lot of people are clearly surprised to see that it’s a system where some people will get 100 percent of their water, and others will get zero.”

The state’s irrigation officials and legislators have tried to revamp the water rights system, but a debate between conservation groups and ranchers sprang up. Environmentalists argued that most rain evaporates or is absorbed into the ground, which wouldn’t affect the surface water farmers and ranchers use. Ranchers and farmers, in turn, say rain barrels violate property rights and water principles protected by Colorado’s state constitution.

To read more about the drought in Colorado, go here: