University of Maryland Extension

Water access and usage laws

Nicole Cook, B.S., J.D., LL.M., Environmental and Agricultural, Faculty Legal Specialist, Agriculture Law Education Initiative (ALEI), University of Maryland Eastern Shore

Urban Ag home | Table of contents

Access to a reliable water source is crucial for an urban farm. In urban areas, it’s state and local laws that most affect water access and usage rights. Local governments, in particular, may have water regulations like water emergency restrictions, graywater usage rules and water service fees. You will have to work with your local utilities department(s) if a potential lot doesn’t have established water inputs or isn’t connected to a meter. Check to see if your local government has programs to help subsidize the cost of equipment installation and water usage.

Also be sure you know whether your city or state has any restrictions on water usage. For example, does the state restrict where and how rainwater can be collected or used? In 2016, Colorado became the last state to allow for residential rain barrel water collection, with restrictions on the number and size of the barrels and how the collected water could be used. The rain barrel allowance is, however, limited to residences and does not apply to non-residential urban farms and gardens (Cabot et al. 2016).

Check with your local utility company about local restrictions on water usage. And while you’re talking with them, be sure to ask if your city has a rebate program or other incentive program to help purchase rainwater harvesting or water retention equipment and materials. A number of cities offer rebates for rainwater harvesting systems, including Gaithersburg, Maryland. Other cities provide rain barrels free of charge. For more information about government initiatives to encourage water conservation, see Good Laws, Good Food by the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, in the literature cited section.

You can also contact your local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office for both financial and technical assistance to help implement conservation practices, including water-use efficiency.

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