Water. Here in the arid Sonoran Desert, it’s something of a loaded word. Tucson sees about 11 inches of rainfall every year, almost half of which comes all at once during the end-of-summer monsoon. And though the vast majority of that water is channeled through the streets and into gutters before being fed into the dry beds of our city’s three historic perennial rivers (the Rillito, the Pantano, and the Santa Cruz), many would-be homesteaders in the Tucson area have managed to find a way not only to harness that renewable water source but also to thrive using rain as their only source of fresh water.
Watershed Management Group is a Tucson-based nonprofit dedicated to educating the community about water conservation issues, including rainwater harvesting, and to helping local citizens implement those programs and systems on their own private and commercial properties. According to research by WMG, more rain falls on Tucson in a year than is used annually in the municipal water supply. WMG is working to create a water budget for the entire Tucson basin that shows that Tucson can meet its water needs with only local, renewable water including annual groundwater recharge, reclaimed water, and harvested water.
WMG’s executive director, Lisa Shipek, says that “although traditional thinking is that green infrastructure at the site scale is not going to have an impact,” research done by WMG suggests that a single rain garden in Tucson can capture as much as 12,000 gallons of fresh water each year. One such garden can thereby provide $2,600 or more in annual benefit to the community while also contributing an additional 4,000 gallons of recharge to the local water table. And, for us, that means a free renewable source for drinking, bathing, and washing, and especially for irrigating our landscapes and food-producing plants. In fact, WMG estimates that the average household could reduce its water usage by 40 percent simply by switching over to rainwater for the purposes of irrigating landscapes.
But transitioning your home to make efficient use of rainwater harvesting or graywater systems can seem daunting, conjuring up images of storage tanks and other complex and costly equipment. But Shipek says that for basic earthworks and raingarden installation projects, “all you need is a shovel.”
Using more advanced systems, WMG has completely eliminated its dependence on municipal water at its Speedway and Dodge headquarters. WMG also offers twice-monthly classes on the basics of both passive and active rainwater harvesting methods, which, once completed, qualify you for Tucson Water Incentives of between $500 and $2,000 to offset project costs. Tucson Water offers an additional $1,000 incentive for projects that make use of graywater; WMG offers free classes on that subject, too.
For those who are willing to get their hands dirty for the sake of their green infrastructure education, WMG hosts 30 to 50 free workshops every year through its Green Living Co-op program. Shipek says that it operates under a “barn-raising model.” Through the co-op, neighbors join up and “complete a project together,” which both gets it done more efficiently and provides ample opportunity for volunteers to learn more about the processes involved with the installation of green infrastructure. Interested parties can register for projects like earthworks, raingarden construction, and cistern installations online, then show up for a few hours of hands-on learning that has been optimized both as a workshop and as a worksite. “That way,” Shipek says, “people can come out and participate in a half-day workshop and actually help install a raingarden [or a graywater system or a tank], and learn the techniques” firsthand. There is a small fee associated with hosting a workshop on a site of your choosing, but participation in four workshops as a volunteer earns you a discount.
As you continue to increase your knowledge of green infrastructure and rainwater harvesting through WMG’s free programs—or if you already feel fairly well versed in the subject—you might find yourself interested in the advanced workshops and field studies offered by WMG both on- and off-site. For newcomers to the concept of rainwater harvesting, Shipek says the best entry point is probably a tour of WMG’s Living Lab and Learning Center. Tours are free on the second Saturday of each month and they include demonstrations of the Lab’s passive systems (such as earthworks and raingardens that support a native food forest) as well as their active systems (including above-ground and underground tanks for storage, composting toilets, outdoor showers, and systems for collecting and distributing graywater). Shipek says that people are often surprised that an office or household in the Arizona desert could ever meet all of its water needs using rain as their primary—or even only—water source, “But here at the Living Lab, it’s enough to meet our demands,” she says, adding that she hopes “more people will see that this is possible by visiting.” No doubt that’s a great place to start. ✜
For more information on Watershed Management Group, its research, the Living Lab and Learning Center, or ways that you can get involved with its green infrastructure efforts in and around Tucson, visit WatershedMG.org or call 520.396.3266.
Craig S. Baker is a local freelance writer. You can see more of his work at CraigSBaker.com.