Obtaining Water for Urban Agriculture


Water Access and Water Use Agreements

Many urban farmers struggle with the issue of water access. In most municipalities in the US there is not a separate and less expensive non-potable water supply for irrigation, and it is necessary to use the municipality’s potable water. Although it is possible that some urban farm locations already have access to an independent water supply, many have no access to water. In instances like this, it may become necessary to “borrow” water from one or more neighbors to provide enough water to supply your farm’s needs. It may become necessary to form an agreement, preferably written, with your neighbor regarding your farm’s water usage.

Disclaimer: The Sustainable Economies Law Center provides periodic updates to this site, however, information presented may be out of date. We encourage you consult with a professional before taking action based on the information here.

Most municipalities do not provide free water services, and the manner in which municipalities charge for water can vary greatly from city to city. Cities like Raleigh, NC, Columbus, OH, and San Jose CA, for example, charge by the amount of water used on a sliding tiered scale, so the more water you use, the more expensive the water is per gallon. In such a situation the urban farm operation may need to outline in the agreement how much water the neighbor typically uses, and what amount per gallon s/he typically pays, how much water the farm will use, and who will pay the difference in price per gallon if the usage amount is raised to a higher tier.

The City of Denver, Colorado, on the other hand, uses a single fee amount per gallon used, and a monthly flat rate maintenance fee. In a situation like this, a water sharing agreement might be as simple as agreeing to measure how much water your farm is using, and paying for that usage. The agreement might also include who will be responsible for the maintenance fees.

Austin, Texas uses a sliding scale similar to San Jose. There are also peak and off peak rate differences for some residential customers. A water share agreement in this instance will be similar to the one suggested in San Jose.

Water rate information can easily be found for most cities on that city’s website, or by calling your city or municipal utility district. Though water sharing agreements will vary from case to case based upon individual circumstances, it is essential in any case to record all agreements in writing with the signatures of both parties. An agreement can be simple, but should always include the responsibilities of each party to the agreement, and the expected course of action should a disagreement arise. If your city has a sliding rate scale, it may be advisable to create water sharing agreements with more than one neighbor–thus reducing the amount of water used from each individual, and potentially reducing the water rate per gallon for your farm.

Water Hook-Ups

Connecting to a city’s potable water system can cost anywhere withing the range of $3,500-$8,000 and depends upon the city, and whether there has been service at your location before. For specific information regarding connection fees you should contact your local municipality. Some municipalities, predominantly in the western and mountain west states, have public or private irrigation water systems. Although connecting to these systems may be costly, the delivery cost of this non-potable water is usually much lower than municipal supplies. These water supplies may be seasonal, and further research should be done to determine if it is fit for your operation.

Policies Affecting Urban Ag Water Use


Water Discounts and Subsidies

Some municipalities, such as San Francisco, may offer a discounted water use rate for urban agricultural uses. One urban farming operation in San Francisco was also successful in receiving financial assistance from a local foundation to help subsidize the cost of hooking up to the municipal water supply for agricultural use. Subsidized urban agriculture water rates seem to be somewhat of an anomaly among most US cities, but you would nonetheless be advised to inquire about the conditions for discounts in your city.

Water Rationing

As far as can be found, exceptions to water rationing are not granted for urban agricultural uses. Urban agriculture can be hit hard if drought conditions result in water rationing–cutting the amount of water used for plants, and possibly limiting the days that water can be used. Water intensive crops will suffer the most from rationing and for this reason some cities, mostly in California, have relaxed regulations on the use of grey water for vegetation.

During times of limited water supply, urban farmers may find it helpful to enter into sharing agreements with neighbors, use grey water, or utilize rainwater catchment or grey water systems in order to supplement available supply.


What are the regulations governing the use of greywater in urban agriculture? More information coming soon. For general information on greywater systems, see Greywater Action and Bay Localize’s Solutions Series: Greywater Systems.

Each State has different regulations on the use of greywater, ranging from strict laws prohibiting its use, to laws that allow nearly unregulated use of greywater.  Most states have laws allowing the use of greywater in some capacity typically for yard irrigation uses.  To see a compiled list of greywater regulations per state visit Oasis Design’s Gray Water Policy Center page. (This list has been compiled by individual contributors and may or may not reflect the actual and current regulations in every location.)

Rainwater Catchment

Rainwater Catchment is allowed in most states in the United States. The only state which had completely forbidden rainwater catchment until recently was Colorado, although some states such as Washington have severely limited who can collect rainwater and how much. Colorado prohibited rainwater catchment on the basis of established water rights. The idea behind preventing water catchment is that the water would otherwise have flowed to rivers and aquifers. Because water rights in Colorado are established on a first come, first served basis, superior water rights are held by those who obtained the rights first. To demonstrate, if someone who holds superior water rights downstream of someone with lesser water rights, s/he can prevent the lesser water rights holder from using water if their use impinges upon the superior water rights holder’s rights. Therefore, theoretically, all water that would naturally flow downstream can be controlled by the superior water rights holders. As populations have increased and water resources have become more scarce, superior water right holders have asserted their rights to prevent usage by others in order to protect their own rights. Because rainwater would arguably flow naturally to the river and down stream, that water would belong to the superior water right holders.

In 2009 a bill was passed in Colorado authorizing the establishment of rainwater catchment systems in a select number of new developments in order to try to determine the impact that rainwater catchment actually has on river water and aquifer levels. Rainwater catchment is also allowed on a minor scale throughout Colorado. The future of rainwater catchment in Colorado is uncertain and local authorities should be consulted for more information.

Other States, like Texas, offer incentives for rainwater catchment system installation in the form of tax breaks and other financial incentives. For more information on Texas’s rainwater catchment program, click here and see the Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting (3rd Edition). Some individual cities, such as Tucson, AZ, and Santa Fe, NM have made rainwater catchment systems required for new buildings.

However, even in cities and states where rainwater catchment is allowed, there are specific regulations on the types of storage containers that can be used, the manner in which water is collected, and the specific uses for the water. It is important to consult your local municipality regarding regulations and requirements for any rainwater catchment system. For more information on rainwater catchment laws visit: State Water Harvesting Statutes, Programs and Legislation and wrrc.arizona.edu | The University of Arizona

For general information on rainwater harvesting, including resources on how to create a rainwater harvesting system, visit Bay Localize’s Solutions Series: Rainwater Harvesting.

Stormwater Runoff Regulations

Philadelphia has a program that taxes properties based on the total area of impervious surfaces, granting financial incentives to create impervious surfaces like farms and rooftop gardens which offset pavement. The main impetus for the program is to manage storm water runoff which tends to overwhelm storm drains and cause floods and the mixing of storm water runoff with sewage.

What other cities have this problem?  Have other cities adopted similar programs? More information coming soon!
More info on cities that have adopted policies related to stormwater.

Irrigation Runoff Regulations

See the Agricultural Nonpoint Source Pollution Management Web Site: This web site features links to helpful documents, federal programs, partnerships and nongovernmental organizations that convey advice and assistance to farmers and ranchers for protecting water quality.

Also see the National Agriculture Compliance Assistance Center or call toll-free: 1-888-663-2155
EPA’s National Agriculture Compliance Assistance Center is the “first stop” for information about agricultural environmental requirements.