Is water Colorado’s earthship-limiting factor?

Colorado's rainwater harvesting laws pose a challenge for 'biotecture' homes

Amber Hess\' earthship house in Boulder.

Earthships aiming to land in Colorado pour on a slew of questions about rights to the rain. Permaculture-minded and rather postmodern, the gridfree homes are designed to catch rainwater for consumptive, gray water and black water use. But in most parts of the state, catching rainwater is illegal.

Earthships are biotecture-inspired and carbon-free, typically seen around their birthplace in the desert near Taos, N.M. Built from auto tires, glass bottles, beer cans and dirt, they look like futuristic survival vessels, with slanted windows protruding from the ground, castle-like towers and jeweled walls made of glass. Michael Reynolds built the first of many in the 1970s, when he saw off-grid living as a possibility for anyone  willing to try it. While earthships have gained worldwide traction, especially in the past decade, some county building codes make it hard to build one. Water laws pose the biggest challenge in Boulder.

At a sold-out earthship-building workshop in Denver March 22-24, attendees hailed from Canada, South Dakota, Wyoming and several communities throughout Colorado. Audience members came to learn about sustainable lifestyles and how to make their earthship dream house into a reality.

Mike Wird, Denver Earthship’s “point person,” announced plans to build a “Sustainability Education Center” in Denver, in the Five Points neighborhood where he grew up. The education center will be an earthship.

“We’re basically going to take the model of the visitor’s center at the Earthship World Headquarters in Taos and duplicate that,” he says. “And we’ll add a component of services, like permaculture design courses.”

The workshop, a series of lectures mostly led by Reynolds, included photos, videos, infographics and drawings from Reynolds’ published work. His presentations recapped the history of earthships, and he discussed water, sewage and power systems and showed footage of disaster relief projects where earthships were built in several developing nations.

When asked about how to get around rainwater rules, Reynolds adamantly encourages proactive research — to find out if anyone’s been busted within their city limits, and if so, to find out why.

“My guess is nobody’s really gonna bust you,” says Reynolds. “And if they do, I’d say that a battle should be fought publicly to show everybody that this is wrong.”

In addition to the legal workarounds of rainwater harvest, Reynolds explains why he believes water catchment systems are important.

“If you have water in abundance municipally from runoffs and lagoons and reservoirs, you lose half of it from evaporation and soaking into the soil,” Reynolds says. “The traveling and moving around of electricity and water is a joke, really. It’s archaic. … You’re making more for everyone by getting it on site.”

James Fry, a Boulder resident, organic farming entrepreneur and graduate of the Earthship Biotecture Academy, a hands-on earthship principles and philosophy training program in Taos, says he doesn’t believe that restrictions on rainwater use make a whole lot of sense.

“I’d like someone to arrest me for harvesting water and re-using it over and over again,” Fry said to a group of earthship enthusiasts at a workshop he hosted in his backyard in October.

The way that Fry sees it, he says, anyone should have access to things like food and water if they can be independently procured. He plans to build an earthship for himself and his mother, and he’s looking at land in Jamestown where water laws won’t interfere.

The 2009 Senate Bill 80 made rainwater harvest allowable for state residents who live too far from a municipal source to receive it. As stated in a document from the Colorado Division of Water Resources, homeowners harvesting rainwater must have a well permit, be located in a place where city water is unavailable and take water only from the permitted homeowner’s rooftop for residential use — uses which are specified on the well permit.

This holds promise for aspiring earthship owners to settle in remote locations, but the fusion of earthshipliving in modern, close-to-work settings remains a tricky battle.

“Lawyers around the state have generally accepted without question that rainwater that might otherwise work its way into a stream is tributary,” says Mark Squillace, a law professor and director of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado. This means that any kind of rainwater or snow, however minimal, has the potential to reach a stream or reservoir that eventually contributes to a source already claimed.

“And thus it’s subject to the state’s appropriation laws,” Squillace says.

Joe Callahan, an environmental engineer and educator of renewable energy, built an earthship up Fourmile Canyon in 1995.

He renovated a conventional home into an earthship, and the former property owners had already drilled a well nearby. Having been warned about the restrictions of water harvest, Callahan primarily used the well for water consumption to avoid any trouble.

“It seems crazy to me that we mix wastewater with more water and bring all this energy into filtering it for sanitary use,” Callahan says. “Gray water is a great way to use water. Plants love it. My banana trees wouldn’t stop growing.”

Callahan did seek permission from the state health department to reuse gray water and was given the green light.

Earthships are generally designed with pipes to transfer gray water, or water from the shower or washing machine, to an indoor greenhouse for plants. The water filters through soil, is collected, and transferred to the bath house, where it’s used to flush a composting toilet, turning into “black water.” Finally, the remaining water is sent to an underground septic tank. When building codes allow earthships to function the way they are meant to, rainwater is used three times, aside from drinking, before it’s slowly pumped back into the ground.

In 2007, a study done by the Colorado Water Conservation Board revealed that 97 percent of rain evaporates before it reaches a stream or reservoir.

And according to Doug Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado, the amount of rainwater usually harvested is so minimal, he’s never heard of anyone getting arrested or filing suit.

“Catching rainwater isn’t a problem unless everyone is doing it,” Kenney says.

Amber Hess, a friend of Callahan’s, also built an earthship in Boulder. Hers is considered a “greenhouse studio,” and it’s situated right behind her conventional 6th Street house. When Hess had concerns about potential power crises with Y2K on the rise, she heard about earthships and had to check them out. Hess ventured to Taos for a weekend workshop, spent the night in one and fell in love. She started to build in 1999.

“On almost a visceral level, it feels right to be in a cave,” Hess says, referring to earthships’ more primitive characteristics. “The idea of having all the luxury of a glass front and all the protection is like the best of both worlds. You have that feeling of being housed, like a hobbit house. And you have the fact that these houses take care of you.”

Hess hasn’t used her trenched rooftop or water system even once. Her studio serves as a space for her yoga practice and she waters plants like her avocado tree by hand.

Like Callahan and Fry, Hess says she hopes the rainwater rules will eventually loosen, so that she may serve her greenhouse the way earthships are supposed to.



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