Is It Illegal to Collect Rainwater in California? Here’s What the Law Says

California, the land of sunshine and sprawling landscapes, faces a constant battle – securing enough water. From bustling metropolises like Los Angeles and San Francisco to the fertile farmlands of Sacramento Valley, the Golden State grapples with drought, water scarcity, and an ever-growing population.

In this scenario, rainwater harvesting emerges as a potential solution. It’s the simple practice of collecting rainwater from rooftops, gutters, and other surfaces for later use. But is it legal to collect rainwater in California? The answer, like many things in life, is not a straightforward yes or no.

This blog post dives deep into the legalities of rainwater harvesting in California. We’ll explore the state’s laws, permit requirements, and best practices to ensure you collect rainwater responsibly and within regulations.

Rainwater Harvesting in California: It’s Legal, But…

Gone are the days when California discouraged rainwater collection. In 2012, the state legislature passed the Rainwater Capture Act, making it legal for residents to harvest rainwater. This act aimed to promote water conservation and reduce reliance on strained municipal water supplies.

However, there’s a slight twist. While the Rainwater Capture Act allows rainwater harvesting, it doesn’t give you complete freedom. Permits and regulations might apply depending on how you intend to use the collected water.

Permits and Regulations: When They Apply

Here’s a breakdown of when permits might be necessary for your rainwater harvesting system:

  • Using Rainwater for Outdoor Purposes (Exempt): This is the simplest scenario. If you plan to use collected rainwater for outdoor purposes like watering your lawn, garden, or washing your car, you generally don’t need a permit. Most California cities allow small-scale rainwater harvesting systems (like rain barrels) for outdoor use without any restrictions.
  • Using Rainwater for Indoor Purposes (May Require Permit): Things get a bit more complex if you want to use rainwater indoors, such as flushing toilets or washing clothes. In this case, some California cities might require a permit to ensure the collected water meets specific quality standards for indoor use. Treatment systems like filters might be necessary.
  • Large-Scale Rainwater Collection Systems: If you’re planning a large rainwater harvesting system with a storage capacity exceeding 2,500 gallons, you’ll likely need a permit from the California Division of Drinking Water (DDW). This ensures the system is designed and constructed following safety and health regulations.
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Local Regulations: Check Your City and County Codes

While the Rainwater Capture Act sets a statewide framework, it’s important to remember that California localities can have their own regulations regarding rainwater harvesting. Before setting up your system, check with your city or county water department to understand any specific requirements or limitations they might have.

Benefits of Rainwater Harvesting in California

The advantages of rainwater harvesting in California are undeniable:

  • Water Conservation and Drought Resilience: By collecting rainwater, you lessen your dependence on municipal water supplies, especially during dry periods. This helps conserve precious water resources and promotes drought resilience.
  • Reduced Dependence on Municipal Water Supplies: As mentioned earlier, California’s municipal water supplies are under strain. Rainwater harvesting allows you to tap into a natural, alternative source for non-potable needs, reducing the burden on city water systems.
  • Improved Landscaping and Gardening: Rainwater is naturally soft, making it ideal for watering plants. Using collected rainwater can promote healthier and more vibrant landscaping.
  • Financial Incentives and Rebates: Many California cities and water districts offer financial incentives and rebates to encourage rainwater harvesting. These programs can help offset the cost of purchasing and installing a rainwater harvesting system.

Setting Up a Rain Barrel System or Cistern in California

Now that you understand the legalities and benefits of rainwater harvesting in California, let’s explore how to set up your own system:

  • Choosing a Rain Barrel System or Cistern:

The size and type of system you choose will depend on your needs and available space. Rain barrels typically range from 50 to 300 gallons and are ideal for collecting smaller amounts of rainwater for outdoor use. For larger-scale needs, cisterns with capacities exceeding 1,000 gallons can be installed underground.

  • Diverting Roof Runoff and Filtration:
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To collect rainwater, you’ll need to divert runoff from your roof’s downspout into your chosen container. A diverter valve is essential to control the flow and prevent your barrel from overflowing during heavy rains. Consider installing a first-flush system to divert the initial, potentially dirty runoff before collecting the cleaner rainwater. Depending on your intended use, filtration systems might be necessary to ensure the collected water meets quality standards.

  • Using Collected Rainwater Wisely:

Once you have a rainwater harvesting system in place, use the collected water wisely. Prioritize non-potable needs like watering your lawn and garden, washing your car, or topping off your pool. If you plan to use the water indoors, ensure it’s properly treated and meets local regulations for indoor use.

Responsible Rainwater Harvesting Practices

While rainwater harvesting offers numerous benefits, it’s crucial to follow responsible practices:

  • Preventing Mosquito Breeding: Stagnant water can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Ensure your rain barrel has a tight-fitting lid and a screened overflow outlet to prevent mosquito entry. Empty and clean your barrel regularly to maintain a healthy environment.
  • Maintaining Your System: Regularly inspect your rainwater harvesting system for leaks, cracks, or blockages. Clean your gutters and downspouts to prevent debris from entering your storage container. Perform proper maintenance to ensure your system functions efficiently and safely.
  • Being Aware of Local Restrictions: As mentioned earlier, local regulations might exist in your city or county. Stay informed about any specific requirements or limitations related to rainwater harvesting in your area.


California’s future with rainwater harvesting is promising. The Rainwater Capture Act has paved the way for sustainable water management practices. By embracing rainwater harvesting, Californians can contribute to water conservation, reduce pressure on municipal supplies, and create a more water-secure future for the state.

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Remember: Rainwater harvesting is a responsible and rewarding practice. By following the legal guidelines, utilizing your system efficiently, and maintaining it properly, you can contribute to a sustainable future for California, one raindrop at a time.

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