Who Owns the Rain?

by Craig A. Ruark

In nearly every part of the world and most of the U.S. when it rains, people take advantage of the heavenly gift and in many cases capture the precious liquid in rain barrels or cisterns for later use. However, in Nevada, it is illegal to capture the rain because it is owned by all of the residents and the state assures that the water is made available to everyone on an equal basis.

To further explain, “Who Owns the Rain,” we need to go back to the late 1930’s when the Nevada Water Law was adopted and forward to 1994 and 1999 when the law was revised.

Nevada Water Law, (set forth in NRS Chapters 533 and 534), state that: “All waters within the boundaries of Nevada, whether above or beneath the ground surface, belong to the public and are managed on their behalf by the State. The State Engineer is responsible for the administration of Nevada Water Law, which ensures that these waters are managed so that sufficient quantities are available to preserve our quality of life and to protect existing water rights.”

The reasoning behind the Nevada Water Law is simple, we live in the driest state in the union. The Las Vegas Valley receives an average rainfall of 4.5 inches per year based upon a 30-year norm. Reno, which sits in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountain range receives nearly double the amount at 7.48 inches per year. Some years are wetter than others and controlled by the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean. The warmer surface water, identified as an El Niño brings more rain than the cooler water or La Niña.

Anyone that has lived in Las Vegas and Reno long enough knows that during storm events there is a lot more than 4.5 or 7.4 inches of water running down the streets. That is because rainfall data is gathered and reported by the National Weather Service from their “official” rain gauges located at McCarran and the Reno-Tahoe airports. However, due to the geography of both valley communities and the science of weather, we know that the heaviest amount of the precipitation received during a storm event is along the mountains that surround the Valley. In addition, due to the desert hardpan crust, water does not easily soak into the ground but rather flows in sheets toward the lowest point where it gathers into major natural washes, making their way toward wetlands and rivers.

Approximately 60 percent of the water withdrawn in Nevada comes from surface water sources (lakes, rivers, and streams) and the other 40 percent is pumped from underground lakes. Both of these water sources are highly dependent upon rain and snowmelt to keep them full. In essence, the reasoning behind the Nevada Water Law is to allow for the natural recharge of streams, rivers, lakes and underground aquifers. According to the Nevada Division of Water Resources, 67 percent of the groundwater and 64.9 percent of the surface water is used for irrigation.

While the Nevada Water Law prevents individuals from capturing the rain, it also places a burden on developers to design drainage plans to allow the rain that falls on their property to allow for natural absorption and to direct flowing water safely off the property and into storm drains.

To accomplish this task, engineers utilize various software programs including one called “DDMS,” developed by the Southern Nevada Regional Flood Control District, to calculate the amount of water flowing onto a site. Based upon these calculations, or what is referred to as a “Drainage Study,” they are able to design grading plans and drainage components to safely accommodate those flows and allow the water to continue on its natural course to Lake Mead.

In the last ten years, there has been increasing interest (through the institution of the U.S. Green Building Council LEED Certification for green buildings), to capture and treat the stormwater that crosses a development’s property. In those cases, engineering firms have been able to develop plans that allow up to 30 percent of the water to be filtered back into the ground through a pores infiltration system, while the rest is captured in an underground vault, cleaned of its suspended solids and metered over a 72-hour period back into the normal stormwater channel system. This later system gives the builder One LEED Point toward their green building certification under the category of Sustainable Site Credit 6.2.

Nevada is not much different from most of the other western states when it comes to water laws, which is understandable due to its precious little quantity. However, change is in the air, and a 2010 ruling in Colorado made it legal for individuals to install rain barrels to capture melting snow and rain from their roof, but only if they live outside of an urban area.

The state of Arizona has also implemented a new ordinance which mandates developers of commercial properties to “harvest” rainwater for landscaping. And in October 2008, the city of Tucson, which receives an average rainfall of 12.17 inches annually, became the first municipality in the country to require developers of commercial properties to harvest rainwater for landscaping. The new water-saving measure—approved by a unanimous vote by the City Council—mandates that new developments meet 50 percent of their landscaping water requirements by capturing rainwater. The rule went into effect June 1, 2010. Other local governments, including Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico, require new homes to use rainwater harvesting, but not commercial properties.

One acre-foot of water which is 325,851 gallons or the equivalent of a football field covered with one foot of water can supply two families of four (depending on irrigation needs) with enough water for one year.

If you had a 1,000 square foot roof from which you were to capture rain, you would collect 83.3 cubic feet (625 gallons) of water during a rain event that produced one inch of rain. That means a resident of Reno who receives 7.48 inches of rain on average, would only collect 4,675 gallons of water in a one-year period, far short of the 162,925.5 gallons that a single family of four would need to survive.

So, to answer the initial question of, “Who Owns the Rain?” It belongs to everyone, and therefore, it is shared equally among all Nevada residents.

Craig A. Ruark is a popular freelance writer and journalist. He will soon be the new Editor-in-Chief of the new bizNEVADA southern Nevada magazine.

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