Mitigating Drought Department: Mr. Rain Man shows how

I especially appreciate the way this one man took it upon himself to not just transform his own use of water, but to “bump up against existing laws” in a risky effort to show both his neighborhood and his city that another way is possible. Both the neighborhood and the Tucson city government, to their credit, jumped on the bandwagon. Hopefully, this and similar efforts will pave the way towards a greater permacultural understanding of how to store and utilize precious water in any environment during climate change. And notice, BTW, how much more interesting the landscape when we cut into straight curb lines to open tiny new spaces for creating abundance.

Rain Man: How one Tucson resident harvests the rain

October 8, 2014

by Dan Kraker

Brad Lancaster stands in his outdoor shower at his home in Tucson. Lancaster harvests enough rainwater to satisfy most of his water demands. Nick Cote / For MPR News

By Dan Kraker

When it comes to rainfall, Tucson is not the beneficiary of Mother Nature’s bounty. The desert city receives only about 12 inches of rain a year, and in the past decade, mired in drought, Tucson has been lucky to get 10.

But that’s plenty for Brad Lancaster, perhaps the nation’s foremost expert on rainwater harvesting and certainly a die-hard proselytizer. He catches every drop that falls on his rooftop and has used it to transform what was once a barren, sun-baked 1/8 acre city lot into an oasis overflowing with native plants, shrubs and trees.

He recycles the greywater left over from his shower and washing machine to irrigate fruit trees. He’s swapped out a water-guzzling toilet for a composting commode. He even drinks the rain, collecting it in a giant cistern. Lancaster talks of water as a crop, something to harvest to lessen the reliance of Tucson’s burgeoning population on water sucked from the ground and imported from the Colorado River.

“Let’s plant the rain,” he said. “Plant and reuse greywater, in a way that dramatically reduces or eliminates our need to pump water in the first place.”

Tucson's resident rainwater guru Brad Lancaster explains how he has transformed the sidewalk along his street into an oasis of hardy desert shrubs and fruit-bearing succulents. Lancaster cut away the curb where storm runoff from the street can flow to where it is needed to water plants and has shaped the landscape to make full use of the desert's sparse rainfall. Nick Cote / For MPR News

That’s a strategy that could find fertile ground even in water-rich Minnesota, both as a way to conserve groundwater in parts of the state that are pumping it faster than it’s being recharged, and as a means to control flooding in a changing climate, says Ali Ehassan, manager of water supply planning with the Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities.

“In many places we’re starting to see intense rainfall events that prevent us from recharging the aquifer, have huge runoff, causing floods, that will be the biggest factor that will change our water management.”

A living laboratory

Lancaster’s ultra low-impact lifestyle starts with the roof over the tiny 200-square-foot converted garage he calls home. His brother and sister-in-law live next door in the property’s larger, more conventional home, in a neighborhood of modest, one-story houses near the University of Arizona.

Gutters underneath the slanted metal roof funnel rainwater into two 1,000-gallon tanks. The first flush of water off the roof, containing bird poop and dust, is filtered with small screens. The tanks are shaded so algae won’t grow, and because the roof and gutters are made with non-toxic materials, Lancaster drinks the water straight from the collection cisterns.

Brad Lancaster drinks rainwater that came directly from the cisterns where it is stored at his home in Tucson. Lancaster harvests enough rainwater to satisfy most of his water demands. Nick Cote / For MPR News

“You’ve probably heard of the local food movement?” the tall, red-bearded 47-year-old asked as he took a hearty swig. “This is the local water movement. It doesn’t get any more local than the rainwater coming off your own home’s roof.”

It’s legal to collect the water that runs off roofs in Arizona, Minnesota and most other states, but not everywhere. In Colorado it’s against the law for homes connected to water and sewer systems. The rainwater there is reserved for owners of downstream water rights.

Lancaster, who’s traveled the United States and the world consulting on how to conserve and capture water, says rainwater is known worldwide as sweetwater, “because it’s never hit the soil surface, it’s never picked up the salts and minerals you would find in ground and surface water.”

But the bulk of the water Lancaster collects is used to irrigate gardens in the winter and landscaping and fruit trees during the remainder of the year. Between 30 and 70 percent of a typical household’s domestic water is used to irrigate home landscapes, he said.

Brad Lancaster is able to rely even less on the City of Tucson's water supply by using a composting toilet. Nick Cote / For MPR News

The only city water he uses feeds a washing machine and shower. But even that water is used again. Next to his washing machine four pipes are labeled with four different fruit trees: olive, pomegranate, orange and fig. Each time he washes a load of laundry, he selects the tree he wants to irrigate. Similarly, his shower has three drains, each funneling water to different areas.

“It’s a guilt-free shower,” he says, “because the water’s not going to the sewer, it’s going to grow the landscape.”

Transforming a neighborhood

Lancaster hasn’t confined his water harvesting to his property. He’s taken the same strategies out into the streets, where he tired of watching the asphalt funnel torrents of stormwater away during Tucson’s summer monsoon season.

So several years ago he started cutting small gaps in street curbs to allow rain water to rush off the street and into basins he dug along the sides of the roadway, which he mulched and planted with shade trees and native shrubs.

837-finished-cuts“When we started this, it was illegal,” he conceded. “So we did it on a weekend, when no one from the city was watching.”

That first cut worked so well, he started making more. Then his neighbors noticed how well plants responded, and soon they wanted to cut the curbs bordering their properties.

So Lancaster called the city. “I was nervous initially,” he recalls. “Because I knew some of our strategies were breaking the laws at the time, and I feared it would be a difficult situation working with the city.”

But he found Tucson officials receptive. It took a lot longer than he had hoped — three years — but eventually the city made the process legal.

Now three quarters of the homeowners on his block have cut holes in their curbs to collect stormwater. His six-block neighborhood collects over 600,000 gallons of water a year that previously just flowed away and eventually evaporated.

And what began as a covert experiment in one modest neighborhood is now poised to expand city-wide, thanks to a groundbreaking new “Green Streets” (PDF)ordinance passed by the Tucson City Council in 2013. It requires new street projects to capture the first half inch of rain during a storm.

“It’s a radical shift,” Lancaster said. “Because in the past, streets have been designed to drain 100 percent of the rain falling on a street. Now it shifts the streets from a drainage strategy to harvest strategy.”

Tools for Minnesota?

Lancaster says his strategies are applicable far beyond Tucson, any place there’s a dry season or periods of drought. That’s why he’s added the words “And Beyond” to the title of the how-to bible he authored, “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands.”

In Minnesota, the capture of rainwater and stormwater is becoming more commonplace as strategies to protect the water quality of lakes and rivers and mitigate flooding, and increasingly, for irrigation.

Several rain gardens have been built around Duluth to prevent water from rushing down the steep hillside and sweeping pollutants into Lake Superior. Several cities, including St. Anthony Village and Centerville, are harvesting water to irrigate parks and ball fields. There’s even a 200,000-gallon cistern underneath the warning track at Target Field that collects stormwater to water the outfield.

Creating-Rain-Gardens-02-550x316Lancaster said he gets jealous when he travels to wetter regions and sees the vast resource that rushes away with each rainfall.

In Tucson, he said he’s seen a sea change in just the past decade. A few years ago “people would look at you with a blank look on their face” when you mentioned rainwater harvesting.

Now, the city of Tucson has in place a $2,000 rebate for homeowners who invest in rainwater collection systems. And the city council passed an ordinance requiring new commercial developments to irrigate at least half their landscaping with rainwater.

But Lancaster isn’t satisfied. The vast majority of rain that falls on Tucson is lost to evaporation, he said. “In my opinion, we need to make rainwater the primary irrigator of all landscapes.”

Source – MPR News

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Mitigating Drought Department: Mr. Rain Man shows how

  1. This is pure truth, pure Good Reality. An absolutely essential piece of life, well-lived. – And it matters, this idea of harvesting our Sister Rain. In actuality, it is such old knowledge, such basic common sense. I join in the belief that this is a necessary part of our life’s duty. We must change. – We must above all be in communication with our purpose in life. When the mists and shackles of society fall away, there is only good that can come. That is why it’s so important to be the individual you are meant to be. This is how we create movement and change. Change begins on a cellular level, and we are all – every one of us – change agents. It’s our basic human responsibility to do and be the best we can be. This has to include being responsible stewards, brothers and sisters with our Earth Mother. Brad Lancaster is completely brilliant, and I’m so very grateful to know about this.

    I’m grateful to Mr Lancaster and for all whose attention is clearly focused both mentally and in reality, on making this true, at least for ourselves and also in our communities. Thank you, dear Ann, for this Post.

    Much love,
    Mari Braveheart-Dances

  2. laurabruno says:

    Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
    This is so great! I hope this idea spreads — especially around drought prone areas. Please spread the word.

  3. cdancer says:

    Well, in all this “fear” it is easy to forget ways we may have played with influencing the weather like our indigenous brothers and sisters have, also, because much of that lore of wisdom has been buried beneath the “western cultural norms”. Why aren’t people also, playing with re-inspiring the wisdom of calling the rain via the “Rain Gods/Goddesses”?

    The book that comes to mind is Soul of Fire by Peter Calhoun. You’ve just reminded me to read that again and re-inspire this self. 🙂

  4. cdancer says:

    Sorry that is meant to be “Soul On Fire”. Haven’t you ever played with asking to rain to hold off or asking the rain to come? Giving a gift and a celebration to the water from the sky and the water from the earth? Just a thought…

  5. Reblogged this on Forever Unlimited and commented:
    One man’s innovative solutions for living in a drought-ravaged area have made Tuscon a lot greener, and he eventually managed to get local laws changed to allow curb-cutting for rainwater collection. Now the city even offers a rainwater collection rebate to homeowners. Here’s how he did it:

  6. BeyondInfinity says:

    Believe it or not, in some states/cities, it is illegal to collect rainwater. Thats insane!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *