GREEN
04/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What If Water From The Sky Didn't Belong To Everyone?

Part of going off-grid that's so attractive is the idea of using what the earth provides, rather than what we have to pay for. Once solar panels are in place, the sun is free. Line-drying your clothes? Free, after you buy a line and some clothespins.

But in some states, the reverse can end up being true: if you collect water as it literally falls from the sky, you could be committing a crime. From the LA Times:

Holstrom's violation is the fancifully painted 55-gallon buckets underneath the gutters of her farmhouse on a mesa 15 miles from the resort town of Telluride. The barrels catch rain and snowmelt, which Holstrom uses to irrigate the small vegetable garden she and her husband maintain.

But according to the state of Colorado, the rain that falls on Holstrom's property is not hers to keep. It should be allowed to fall to the ground and flow unimpeded into surrounding creeks and streams, the law states, to become the property of farmers, ranchers, developers and water agencies that have bought the rights to those waterways.

"Welcome to water politics in Colorado," Romer said. "You don't touch my gun, you don't touch my whiskey, and you don't touch my water."

A long page on water use in Colorado explains the only "sure way" to stay within the law while capturing water:

Some priorities on major stream systems in Colorado date back to the 1850's, and most of the stream systems have been over-appropriated, meaning that at some or all times of the year, a call for water even by a senior appropriator is not satisfied. Practically speaking, this means that in most river drainages, a person cannot divert rainwater and put it to a beneficial use without a plan for augmentation that replaces the stream depletions associated with that diversion. In most areas of Colorado, the only sure legal way to use rainwater is to direct roof gutter downspouts to drain to landscape areas you wish to water.

Read that carefully: there's already not enough water to go around in Colorado. The state is no dust bowl -- it's full of beautiful, lush landscapes -- but water scarcity is a problem you'd want to stem early on. Unfortunately, it's just as complicated as any other resource issue.

What's a good way to tell that water is going to be a big deal in the United States soon? Follow the money. T. Boone Pickens thinks there's money to be made in water.

If water is the new oil, T. Boone Pickens is a modern-day John D. Rockefeller. Pickens owns more water than any other individual in the U.S. and is looking to control even more. He hopes to sell the water he already has, some 65 billion gallons a year, to Dallas, transporting it over 250 miles, 11 counties, and about 650 tracts of private property.

In the coming decades, as growing numbers of people live in urban areas and climate change makes some regions much more prone to drought, water--or what many are calling "blue gold"--will become an increasingly scarce resource. By 2030 nearly half of the world's population will inhabit areas with severe water stress, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development. Pickens understands that. And while Texas is unusually lax in its laws about pumping groundwater, the rush to control water resources is gathering speed around the planet.

Some typical water crisis stories that raise questions worth thinking about:

The Tibetan environmental "protection" plan that may include damming rivers for hydroelectricity production that would likely speed up the shrinking of the rivers -- which are already fragile due to the glaciers that feed them receding.

Historians now have reason to believe that a water crisis -- a massive, 600-year drought -- may have triggered the fall of the great Cambodian city of Angkor.

Half a year after major storms devastated Haiti, some of its citizens are still without direct access to clean water. Picking it up in buckets at rising costs is causing serious problems for families whose lives were already battered in the storms.