Tucson, Arizona, is one of the places taking inspiration from ancient methods of stretching this scarce resource. The story of its own innovative practices, captured in a Retro Report video, can be traced back to India in the 1980s, when a physician and environmentalist named Rajendra Singh helped a poor farming community dig a johad, a pit that stores monsoon rains to replenish aquifers. Singh had actually traveled to the village to offer medical care, but took to heart the words of an elder who said, “no need your medicine. We no need education. We need water.” Singh pivoted to build his first johad and ultimately incorporated a combination of strategies that have helped more than 1,300 Indian villages gain access to water while also reviving a number of dying rivers.
In fast-growing Tucson, Brad Lancaster heard what this “waterman of India” and other innovators were doing in limited-resource environments. He also knew that Tucson’s groundwater table was dropping and its feeder springs drying up, but in college he had been exposed mostly to costly solutions that required significant government investments. Johads, he realized, could be created by anyone capable of using basic tools.
So could many other measures to incorporate green infrastructure into the landscape. From rain gardens and green roofs to tree canopy, runoff-capturing bioswales, and permeable pavement that allows rainwater to penetrate into the soil, a host of affordable practices make it possible to use water more efficiently. Lancaster began promoting many of these techniques in homes and neighborhoods across Tucson.
In his own residence, he raised walkways and redirected outflow from household fixtures so that water drained into cultivated areas outside. Water collected on his roof flowed into a storage tank so that it could be pumped into the kitchen sink to wash dishes. A bucket and ladle were all he needed to take a refreshing outdoor shower during Tucson’s scorching summers.
Lancaster’s neighbors took note and wanted to get involved. Together they learned to make curb cuts, adapting a traditional way of redirecting rainwater from the roadside to nearby plantings. The first curb cut was what Lancaster termed “pre-legal,” but city officials eventually legitimized the practice and provided other incentives to enhance conservation and the reuse of rainwater. Now, water harvesting is taking place in almost every neighborhood in Tucson and an annual tree planting project has helped to transform barren walkways into forested paths edged by diverse native plants.