Briana Sanchez / Arizona Daily Star / AP

Arid Tucson leads the way in water conservation out West

Having faced a water crisis in the 1970s, Arizona’s second city may have lessons for drought-racked region

TUCSON, Ariz. — Schoolteacher Terry Anderson took a break in the shade of a mesquite tree in her front yard as a team of volunteers from a local nonprofit put the finishing touches on a morning's work to help her capture water from the desert monsoon rains.

Together they dug basins and built up berms around the mesquite in a bid to capture about 1,000 gallons of rainwater. Behind the house, meanwhile, work was underway to fit a cistern to harvest 865 gallons from the roof to irrigate more shade trees in her parched backyard.

“There's a lot of water that comes off my roof, and in this Sonoran desert, it's pretty precious,” she said, looking out over the yard newly planted with native desert willow, Baja fairy duster and bird of paradise varieties. “Why have it run down the street instead of using it to put in a few more trees?”

Anderson is among a growing number of residents across Tucson joining a drive to conserve water that may hold valuable lessons for other cities across the drought-racked U.S. West.

The desert city, where barely 12 inches of rainwater falls in an average year, has succeeded in cutting per capita water consumption by about a third since the mid-1970s, and residents like Anderson are finding ever greater ways to pare their use as a culture of water conservation and harvesting takes root here.

Drastically cutting back water use has become a burning issue this year out West, where California Gov. Jerry Brown in April mandated unprecedented 25 percent cuts in response to a four-year drought. Faced with dwindling reservoirs on the Colorado River and its tributaries, water authorities may declare shortages in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico next year. 

Much of the West only recently began grappling with conserving water, but for Tucson, the push began a generation ago. It was prompted by a crisis in the mid-1970s when the local utility struggled to pump enough groundwater from the aquifer to meet peak summer demand from residents irrigating lawns, which were then widespread in the city.

“The crisis created the change that we had here and the ethic toward water conservation,” said Tucson Water spokesman Fernando Molina.

Taking a stick and carrot approach, the city initiated a tiered pricing system that hiked water rates for higher users to encourage water saving and discourage waste. It adopted xeriscaping codes that required new buildings to install landscaping that needs little or no irrigation and began motivating water saving and harvesting with a range of rebates.

They include $75 for homeowners to replace old toilets with new high-efficiency models that use less than half the water; up to $1,000 to install a greywater system, which collects water from sinks, showers, bathtubs and washing machines to be used in landscaping; and up to $2,000 to install a system to harvest scarce rainwater.

Further efforts to foster a thrifty water culture included education on sustainable use that reached 32,000 students and teachers in the service area last year as well as providing Smartscape workshops on best practices for professional landscapers and mandatory classes for those seeking rebates. The city also has water cops who target commercial waste. Last year they issued nearly 500 warnings and two citations to profligate customers.

‘There’s a lot of water that comes off my roof, and in this Sonoran Desert, it’s pretty precious. Why have it run down the street instead of using it to put in a few more trees?’

Terry Anderson

Tucson resident

While the population of the area served by Tucson Water has grown by more than a third since 1989, to more than 700,000 people, Tucsonans consume no more water in total. The appearance of the city, meanwhile, has been transformed, as once prevalent lawns have given way to desert landscaping, including acacias, junipers, desert marigolds and purple sage.

"You don't do it overnight. This is a process that took a long, long time," Tucson Water Director Alan Forrest said of the transformation, which is overwhelmingly supported by residents in polls conducted on behalf of the utility. "Now folks are finding their own ways to save water." 

Among partners assisting Tucsonans toward a more sustainable use of water is the Watershed Management Group, a local nonprofit that showcases grey water and rainwater harvesting systems, composting toilets and what it calls a desert food forest at its Living Lab and Learning Center in the midtown area. Staffers offer classes for residents applying for rebates, which they said are fully booked because of strong demand.

“There's been this kind of tipping point with rainwater harvesting in this region where I feel like everyone you talk to knows somebody who has a system or is interested in getting a system,” said Karilyn Roach, a coordinator at WMG, which helps residents install water-harvesting systems through a co-op program based on a barn-raising model, in which members learn practical skills by helping install projects at other people’s homes.

Once they have given 16 hours of their time, co-op members get a discounted rate on WMG's management services to plan a project that is then installed with volunteer labor. One recent Saturday morning, it was Anderson's turn to have her system installed with the help of 10 volunteers — among them, Martha Retellick, a freelance copywriter and photographer.

“You get a lot of good ideas about how to do things at your place,” said Retellick, who chatted and networked with other volunteers during the four- to five-hour installation. “There's a lot of sharing and exchanging that goes on around here. It's not just moving rocks and dirt around. We're building a community.”

Once they have a basic system installed in their homes, some Tucsonans find they want to take water harvesting a step further. Joel Biederman, who lives a few blocks from Anderson, is already watering peach, fig and olive trees with rainwater harvested by a system installed at his house and is now thinking of attending a grey water workshop to learn about reusing water from his shower and laundry.

“I'm definitely interested to see what's feasible,” he said. “I'm at the stage of learning about it, but I think that it's the next really attractive option.”

Further down the path to ever greater water savings is David Stevenson, a homeowner on Tucson's west side who has rainwater and grey water recovery systems in place. He uses them to irrigate food-producing wolfberry, pomegranate, mesquite and quince trees in his yard.

Having already cut his use of potable city water by nearly 70 percent, he is now planning to install a composting toilet to replace his flushing system. Flush toilets, on average, account for 14 percent of domestic water use.

“I'm happy to know that my footprint on water in the Arizona desert is small and … I am making things way better all around me,” he said. “It feels really good that other people are seeing that.”

In California, Brown has called for the replacement of 50 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping and the creation of a statewide consumer rebate program (of the kind Tucson has had in place for years) to replace old appliances with water- and energy-efficient models. He has barred new homes and developments from irrigating with potable water unless water-efficient drip irrigation systems are used, and he has asked local water utilities to raise rates for higher users to incentivize conservation, in ways that have become familiar in Tucson.

Tucsonans are eager to share what they have learned about saving and capturing water. WMG said that about half the attendees for its hands-on water harvesting design certification program are from California, and it is working with the Water LA collective to set up a program to train and certify installers of water harvesting systems. Tucson Water has not been approached by any California utilities, but Forrest said it would be happy to share its experiences on implementing conservation policies.

“The message is, ‘Yes, you can do it. You're not so different to us. You could learn from what Arizona has done,’” he said. “The problem is that you've waited so long, it's going to come with a lot of pain.”

For Anderson, with a new harvesting system installed at her home ready to catch the fleeting monsoon rains due to start in July, the real lesson Tucson has to offer may be in teaching others to adapt to a world where water is becoming increasingly scarce.

“For Californians, it's a crisis, but this is every day. It's how it is here in Tucson,” she said. “‘Drought’ connotes that it's going to end.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter