Why rain barrels are only now becoming legal in Colorado

Colorado legislation legalizing the use of rain barrels has passed and will take effect in August. It is the last state to have laws formally outlawing them. I have seen several questions about how such a seemingly common sense best practice for conservation could be outlawed for so long, and the answer comes down to the convoluted and odd way western states choose to deal with the issue of water rights.

Some people might assume that water, whether it falls from the sky or runs in the form of a river, is a common good to be shared by all for the greater good, but that is not the case. Water in America is considered a commodity and its use is regulated by a set of laws which fall into two categories: riparian rights and prior appropriation doctrine.

Those unfamiliar with water rights would probably describe something akin to riparian rights: water belongs to those whose land it falls on, or those whose land it runs adjacent to. In the eastern part of the United States that’s exactly how it works: the landowners next to a river have first rights to the water that runs through that river and to the rain water that falls on their property. In the western states prior appropriations doctrine is the law of the land which regulates whom water belongs to.


States in orange utilize prior appropriations, green use traditional riparian rights and blue use modified riparian rights. Grey states use a hybrid water rights system.

The basic tenant behind prior appropriations is that no one “owns” the water in a stream or river, but whoever claimed the rights to water usage first has priority to it. For instance a farmer whose family has been diverting a river 30 miles from his property for irrigation for hundreds of years has precedent over the family who actually lives on the banks of the river. It’s a process which can be dated back to the times of the gold rush, when miners would stake their claims to rivers to pan for gold and the law was enacted to make sure new miners couldn’t set up shop closer to the water and steal claims.

Rain barrels are where prior appropriations doctrine starts to get slightly complicated. It seems common sense to allow homeowners to collect small amounts of rain for their personal use but under the strict letter of the law the rain belongs to senior claim holders who should have first use of the water.

Colorado’s legalizing of rain barrels is a welcome step forward, but concern remains that other states may be considering tightening their belts when it comes to citizen water use. Agriculture makes up the vast majority of water use in western states and agricultural lobbies have long been pushing to secure their claims to precious water, a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce in the light of recent droughts. I would love to see more western states stepping up to guarantee individual rights to a set amount of water (Colorado’s 110 gallons seems reasonable) that homeowners could collect without having to worry about prior appropriations being claimed.


Bunch, Joey. “Colorado Rain-barrel Exemption Headed to Governor to Become Law.” The Denver Post. N.p., 01 Apr. 2016. Web. 25 May 2016.

UMD and the Purple Line

I was recently given the opportunity to speak with University of Maryland President Wallace Loh at an informal meet and greet with around a hundred students. One attendee asked him what he thought his most important work while at UMD was, and his answer surprised me. He said that he thought the most important work he has done has been to advocate and cooperate with authorities to get the purple line built.

The purple line is a 16 mile light rail track currently being built which will serve 21 stations between Bethesda and New Carrollton. Upon completion (scheduled between 2020 and 2022) it will help hundreds of Terrapins who live in the DC suburbs utilize public transportation to get to campus. DC Metros current system is designed like a bicycle wheel with spokes radiating out of a few stops downtown. This system works perfectly for commuters coming from the suburbs into DC, but alienates those who wish to commute within the surrounding areas. Going from the popular Bethesda area to campus in College Park is a mere 13 miles as the crow flies or by car but can take upwards of an hour on Metro because it requires riding downtown to transfer to the appropriate spoke on the bicycle wheel. The purple line will eliminate the need to travel through a hub and will bring commuters directly onto campus.

To commute via metro to UMD now one must take the metro to the College Park station and then take the 104 bus the 1.5 miles to campus. The bus alone can add 10 to 15 minutes to the commute based on traffic on the crowded campus. I know this because I tried commuting to campus via metro myself last semester as I thought it would be a good way to catch up on reading while commuting into class and, at least on paper, the commute should have been similar in length to driving from my home downtown. However constant metro delays, dirty trains and the uncertainty of traffic once I made it to College Park made it not worth the trouble and it regularly took 15-30 minutes longer than driving. The purple line looks to alleviate one of these concerns by stopping in the middle of campus instead of at an off campus location.

One of the most interesting things about President Loh’s conversation about the purple line was his regret that years ago, when the College Park metro station was being built, the University passed on the opportunity to have it run directly to the Student Union in the middle of campus. He considers, as do I, the purple line running directly through campus to be one of the most important parts of its success or failure.

We live in a car based society and if we hope to get commuters off the road and onto mass transit we have to make it more appealing than the cars they are used to. The first step in this will be running directly into campus, and the second will be making sure the trains are reliable and timely. Being late for class because the train runs late could be enough to turn a commuter off of mass transit for life, and if the purple line runs with even half the trouble that famously faces the rest of the DC Metro system it could run from a students bed to their desk and they still wouldn’t utilize it.

I am optimistic on the purple lines ability to make Bethesda, Silver Spring and other Maryland suburbs transit commutable to UMD as long as it is more appealing than the cars that students are already used to.


The author and President Loh


Charities doing good work for Gorillas

So in light of the recent news regarding the killing of Harambe the Gorilla (here’s some info via a CNN article if you aren’t familiar) I felt like I should write something. There are absolutely two sides of the story and I have had several interesting and enlightening debates with friends and family today over whether it was appropriate and who is to blame for the tragedy that inherently comes with the death of an endangered species.

My opinions will stay my own until we are able to totally flesh out what happened in Cleveland, but there is one thing that is certain: that simply re-tweeting a trending hashtag does little good for an animal that has passed. Endangered species have been brought into the forefront of public consciousness and this is a perfect time to highlight some charities that are doing good work to help not one individual, but rather the entire species.

I have compiled a completely not comprehensive list of charities that focus on gorillas, and I would encourage everyone to turn their outrage into action and put their wallets where their mouths are if they are truly concerned with #Gorillas and #Harambe.

African Wildlife Foundation

The Gorilla Organization

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund

World Wildlife Fund



The Clean Power Plan, The Courts, and the 2016 Election

On August 3, 2015 President Obama, in conjunction with the EPA, announced the Clean Power Plan, a plan to reduce carbon emissions as a result of power generation and step towards concrete action to reduce climate change. On that day the president stood with EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and proclaimed the CPP as

“…the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global change.”

That announcement took place just over nine months ago, but given the current 24-hour news cycle and one of the most bizarre elections in modern history nine months might as well be nine years. So what, exactly, is the CPP, what has become of it, and what is likely to happen with it in the future?

WHAT IS THE CPP?          

  • The CPP is a result of two years of development by the McCarthy’s EPA and it’s main goal is to reduce carbon emissions from energy-generating plants.
  • The CPP was implemented under authority of section 111 of the Clean Air Act, which gives the EPA authority to control pollution from stationary sources.
  • The CPP gives individual states many options on how to meet goals for emission standards, including investing in renewable energy, implementing energy efficiency policies and working to make coal-fired power plants themselves cleaner.
  • The CPP is a perfect example of cooperative federalism (working together of state, federal and local governments) as the federal government sets goals for emission reductions and then works with state and local governments to set ways to meet those goals.

WHAT HAPPENED?           

  • On Tuesday, February 9 the US Supreme Court ruled to issue a stay, which stopped actions to implement or enforce the CPP pending a ruling regarding the CPP’s legality in the US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit. Finding against the stay were Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. Finding in favor of the stay were Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Roberts, Alito and the now deceased Justice Scalia.
  • The Appeals Court will be hearing oral arguments on June 2 of this year regarding the legality of the CPP.
  • The stay doesn’t kill the CPP, it just stops it from being implemented until it can be ruled upon by the DC circuit court.
  • The request for the stay was only heard by the Supreme Court after being denied by the DC Circuit court, which will be ruling on the CPP’s legality, however this is not necessarily a sign that the DC court will rule in favor of the CPP.


  • The DC Circuit court will hear arguments starting on June 2 and is expected to rule by the end of the year. However…
  • It is widely expected that whatever decision is rendered by the appeals court will be challenged and heard by the Supreme Court.
  • The passing of the stay had suggested to some that the Supreme Court (as it was composed at the time) would be likely to rule against the CPP. However…
  • Just four days after the stay was approved, on February 12, Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, leaving a vacated seat on the court, a seat which could swing the majority opinion towards accepting the CPP.


  • If the Supreme Court justices rule on the legality of the CPP the same way they did on whether to issue the stay the judge appointed to replace Justice Scalia will be the swing vote on the CPP, so we can see three possible options:
  • Merrick Garland: President Obama’s nominee, served on the Court of Appeals for the DC district and is widely considered to be a moderate choice. It’s hard to say how he will rule, but in 2010 Tom Goldstein wrote on SCOTUSblog

On environmental law, Judge Garland has in a number of cases favored contested EPA regulations and actions when challenged by industry, and in other cases he has accepted challenges brought by environmental groups.”

  • Garland’s centrist leanings make him the biggest wildcard of the three possible nomination scenarios.
  • Hillary Clinton’s nominee. If Clinton becomes president her nominee could come from a large pool, but if looking at her statements on the CPP suggest she would be likely to nominate a candidate who would defend Obama’s environmental legacy, taken from her campaign’s website

“The Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan is a significant step forward in meeting the urgent threat of climate change. It sets a smart federal standard that gives states the flexibility to choose how to reduce carbon pollution most effectively. And it drives investments in clean energy and energy efficiency, reduces asthma attacks and premature deaths, and promotes a healthier environment and a stronger economy. It’s a good plan, and as President, I’d defend it.”

  • Donald Trump’s nominee. If Trump is able to shock the establishment and become the 45th president it is highly likely that his supreme court nominee would lean right, and we can get a clear idea of how he feels about the importance of the EPA from the March 3 GOP debates when he said

Department of Environmental Protection (sic). We are going to get rid of it in almost every form. We’re going to have little tidbits left but we’re going to take a tremendous amount out.”

While the CPP lays dormant, unable to be implemented or enforced one of the strangest elections of all time is playing out, and one of it’s first major consequences may be the future of the Supreme Court’s makeup. As a full confirmation hearing of Merrick Garland seems more and more unlikely there is a clear implication that who wins the general election this fall will determine the future Obama’s attempt to leave a legacy of cleaner power generation and two years worth of the EPA’s work towards reducing carbon from the atmosphere.





FACT SHEET: Clean Power Plan Key Changes and Improvements. (2016). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from https://www.epa.gov/cleanpowerplan/fact-sheet-clean-power-plan-key-changes-and-improvements


FACT SHEET: Overview of the Clean Power Plan. (2016). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from https://www.epa.gov/cleanpowerplan/fact-sheet-overview-clean-power-plan


Remarks by the President in Announcing the Clean Power Plan. (2015). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/08/03/remarks-president-announcing-clean-power-plan


Statement from Hillary Clinton on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. (2016). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from https://www.hillaryclinton.com/briefing/statements/2015/08/02/obama-clean-power-plan/


The Clean Power Plan: A Climate Game Changer. (2016). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from http://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/global-warming/reduce-emissions/what-is-the-clean-power-plan#.VyuTo6MrJp8


The Fox News GOP debate transcript, annotated. (2016). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/03/03/the-fox-news-gop-debate-transcript-annotated/


The Potential Nomination of Merrick Garland. (2010). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from http://www.scotusblog.com/2010/04/the-potential-nomination-of-merrick-garland/


Who is Merrick Garland? (2016). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/273227-who-is-merrick-garland






Bicycle infrastructure and the fight against carbon dioxide emissions

If the US wants to get serious about combatting climate change it has to address its disproportionate emissions of carbon dioxide. Great leaps are being made in clean energy generation and tax credit programs are spurring the purchase of hybrid vehicles, and now major cities are increasingly turning to adding bicycle infrastructure as a way of not only reducing gridlock but also reducing emissions.

The world bank tracks carbon dioxide emissions in metric tons per capita and for the 2011-2015 period, and the United States ranks 11th in highest per capita emissions. The top ten? All small countries whose high per capita emission load adds very little to the net CO2 amount in the atmosphere (With the exception of two Caribbean islands and Luxemburg, the top ten are also all oil producing countries located in the middle east).

At this point in history the link between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change have been so convincingly made that the challenge when writing about it is not finding a paper to cite, but rather choosing a paper to cite. One easy way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to get people bicycling. A study by the European Cyclists Federation cites figures that over a similar distance a single-passenger car will emit 229g of carbon per kilometer and a bicyclist will emit just 21. The war to fight climate change will not be won by adding bike lanes, but changing America’s culture towards being less reliant on personal vehicles and more conducive to bicycle commuting is a winnable battle.

The most recent edition of the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2012)  showed bicycle commuting had grown an amazing 60% over the decade since the 2000 census. However across the nation still only 0.6% of commuters bike. The ACS points to one city in particular that showed dramatic growth over that time period: Portland, Oregon which, at the time of the ACS had a bicycle commuting rate of 6.1%. The cities best current available numbers show that number increasing even further to an amazing 7.2% of commuters, or 4.32 times the national average.

What is most surprising about Portland’s large number of bicycle commuters is that it has no large-scale bicycle share systems, like DC Bike share or New York’s Citi bike. There is a bike share platform scheduled to open in Portland in July 2016, but it has not had any impact on the commuting numbers reported by the ACS. This suggests that, at least in Portland’s case, protected bike lanes, dedicated traffic signals and bicycle boxes at intersections are more important than availability of bikes. Simply providing a bike sharing service in a city without the infrastructure to support cyclists is not the solution.

It is not coincidental that Portland was the only large city in America given the rating being “platinum bicycle friendly” by the League of American Bicyclists. It was by investing in bicycling infrastructure that Portland was able to encourage eco-friendly commuting. The Portland city government outlines what they have done to make their city so bikeable: 17 miles of physically separated roadways, in conjunction with 350 miles of non-separated bike paths and lanes, and 19 intersections which feature designated bicycle boxes to raise visibility and bicycle-specific traffic signals. Cost is for these infrastructure updates are amazingly low, the estimated replacement value of the entire bicycling infrastructure of Portland is 60 million dollars, which is also the approximate replacement cost of just one mile of urban freeway.

It’s only by dedicating lanes, signals and modest amounts of money to cyclists that bicycle commuting becomes an attractive option for city commuters and America starts winning one battle in the war against carbon dioxide emissions.



Award Database. (2016). Retrieved April 13, 2016, from http://www.bikeleague.org/bfa/awards

Bicycles in Portland Fact Sheet. (2016) Retrieved April 12, 2016, from https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/407660

Biking to Work Increases 60 Percent Over Last Decade. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2016, from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2014/cb14-86.html

CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita). (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2016, from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC/countries

NRC (2010). Advancing the Science of Climate Change . National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA.

Walker, P. (2011). Cycle like the Danes to cut carbon emissions, says study. Retrieved April 13, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/dec/12/cycle-like-danes-cut-emissions