Millions lack reliable access to running water. Should they start catching rain?

A home that has done away with grass in the Sam Hughes neighborhood in Tucson. (Caitlin O’Hara)

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TUCSON — In the 1980s, Brad Lancaster started making illegal cuts into curbs in his Dunbar Springs neighborhood here, allowing storm water to flow into street side basins to water native plants and shade trees.

Lancaster, a longtime rainwater advocate in Arizona, was inspired by rain farmers using ancient practices to catch, filter and reroute rainwater for drinking, household use and landscaping.

The result is a desert oasis where couples walk their dogs under shade trees and wildflowers bursting along the sidewalks — and the beginnings of a movement that has helped make Tucson a pioneer in rain catching.

As the Southwest faces a historic megadrought that imperils the water sources it’s always relied upon, a growing number of Arizonans — from the Navajo and Hopi lands to the state’s parched desert cities — are turning to the practice. It’s a movement that extends beyond the United States, to monsoon-drenched southern India. Advocates say that in even the driest towns and cities, rain farming has the potential to erase projected water deficits in the decades to come.

“Rainwater should be the primary water source of everyone’s household,” said Lancaster.

Collecting rain in Tucson

Lancaster, who said rain fulfills nearly all the water needs in his Tucson home, said the same can be true for the city: If collected, he said, the 11 inches of average annual rainfall in Tucson could supply all of its municipal water needs. Studies elsewhere have shown capturing even a fraction of rainwater could eliminate drinking water shortages and recharge groundwater basins.

“There’s more rain falling on Tucson than our residents are consuming,” he said.

Perhaps no city has encouraged the practice more than Tucson, which launched first-of-its-kind rainwater harvesting installation mandates in 2008 and rebate programs in 2012 as part of its goal to become carbon neutral by 2030. The city is one of the country’s most vulnerable to climate change. By 2050, it’s estimated that one-third of its days will reach 105 degrees. It relies heavily on dwindling Colorado River water, pumped through the 336-mile long Central Arizona Project canal.

“I don’t think we should be using the Colorado River as our checking account,” Lancaster said.

Instead, he called for using “free on-site waters,” from rain to “greywater,” which can come from household drains or from air conditioner condensation.

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Rainwater can be actively caught from rooftops that send it down gutters into giant cisterns, or tanks, where it’s filtered before it’s used for drinking, showering and other household needs. It can also be harvested passively, using simple reconfigurations of earth to create slopes and basins and irrigate gardens without requiring expensive equipment.

Most homes in Tucson use between 30 and 50 percent of their water outdoors, Lancaster said. On many properties, he said, simply diverting storm water and greywater runoff to the right places, along with growing drought-tolerant native plants, can cut ​outdoor municipal water use to zero, all for “the price of a shovel.”

Taking guidance from the wind and sun

In Tsaile, Ariz., 300 miles away, Wayne and Melinda O’Daniel installed giant cisterns, at Diné College. They’ve also experimented with earthworks projects on their own property, such as building rock dams for erosion control and small groundwater basins to prevent rainwater from flowing off their land.

Melinda O’Daniel was born on Navajo land, where for centuries, families raised cattle and grew crops by catching and diverting rainwater. Her husband, Wayne, grew up in a place called Big Mountain atop Black Mesa, straddling the Navajo and Hopi reservations, where he remembers dozens of springs that supplied water to his family of ranchers.

“We really used to collect it, and there it was, bountiful,” he said. “As I grew up, I started noticing, those old time stewards of the land, their practices weren’t being carried on.”

After years living elsewhere in Arizona and Colorado, the O’Daniels returned to the Navajo Nation and realized there was now a critical gap in water access. Neglect and industrialization had destroyed the creeks, basins and marshes of their childhoods. According to the Navajo Water Project, 30 percent of Navajo residents now lack access to running water, leading to health and nutrition problems. Families often haul water tankers on pickup trucks to meet their daily needs.

“There was a day, not too many centuries ago, Navajo was self-sufficient,” Wayne said. “Somehow, we lost that.”

Last year, the O’Daniels’s nonprofit Native Seeds of Harmony began holding events to spread awareness, bringing ranchers to the top of a major wash to show them how to use these natural methods to preserve rainfall.

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After receiving a $72,000 grant from the First Nations Development Institute, they identified three homesteads with no water source to fund rainwater catchment projects. At one, a two-story dwelling on a barren hilltop, the O’Daniels took measurements on where to install gutters and cisterns, noting the wind and sun patterns, “things that people probably haven’t thought about in centuries, when a long time ago, that’s how they built,” Melinda said.

“Everything can still be in place to bring back that sustainability, that independence,” Wayne O’Daniel said. “Everything’s still there.”

Another group, Nihikeya, has used expiring Cares Act funding to install rain gutters on 69 rural Navajo homesteads that feed into mobile water tanks that can be transported on pickups and refilled when the rain doesn’t fall.

​It’s an example of how Indigenous communities are “using traditional knowledge and being innovative with it,” said Nihikeya founder Roberto Nutlouis. “Our work is more about self-determination. This is for us and by us.”

Communities add rain-catching rules

Rainwater harvesting has caught on within an off-grid subculture in the rural Southwest that prefers finding independent sources of water and energy, including the Earthships of Taos, N.M. But in the United States and the world at large, it’s rarely been harnessed as municipal policy. Colorado even banned rainwater collection until 2016, and it still imposes restrictions on how much homeowners can keep.

“It’s definitely a journey from grass roots to policy,” said Blue Baldwin, a onetime Lancaster protegee and program manager for Tucson’s Storm to Shade program, which finances new green storm water infrastructure projects on public lands and maintains existing ones.

Tucson has passed some of the country’s first rainwater catchment mandates, notably ordering commercial developments to use rainwater for 50 percent of their landscaping needs. But a recent audit the city’s water department commissioned from Lancaster found that builders simply ignored the mandates because of a lack of enforcement.

City inspectors “would just stamp approved, and then we wouldn’t go out and inspect it,” said Katie Bolger, chief of staff to city council member Kevin Dahl, who represents Tucson’s 3rd Ward.

In response, the councilmember’s office has pushed new measures and sought to add teeth to existing ones — for one, the city recently hired new staff to enforce its mandates — but Bolger said they’ve faced pushback from builders averse to government regulations. “They don’t get it. The planet’s on fire. Our water system’s about to crash, and they still don’t want to [work with us],” she said.

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And the costs of installation and maintenance make large-scale rainwater projects a tough sell, advocates concede, even when governments are willing to spend billions on larger infrastructure. California has approved several desalination plants in recent months despite objections from environmentalists, as have nations from India to Israel to South Africa. On the Navajo Nation, ​​a new pipeline will bring in water from the San Juan River, a major tributary of the Colorado.

Rain-catching pioneers in India

The push for catching more rainwater extends beyond the United States, which can learn from both successes and setbacks across the globe. In 2001, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu passed a sweeping rainwater catchment mandate for all new buildings. But when its capital, Chennai, ran out of groundwater in 2019, auditors found few buildings had actually followed the rules.

It’s a dire warning for towns and cities hoping to institute their own programs, said Sekhar Raghavan, founder of the Rain Center, a Chennai-based NGO that works to install catchment systems.

In the years since Chennai’s water crisis, the city has had strong monsoons, leading to less immediate interest in catching rainwater. Government officials are “more keen on desalination than on strengthening harvesting,” Raghavan said.

“We have wonderful, traditional rainwater harvesting systems,” he said, referring to large tanks and reservoirs outside Chennai, some more than 2,000 years old, initially created for agriculture but converted to supply the city with fresh water. “But they’re being either abused or ignored.”

In recent months, the Rain Center has worked with local Rotary Clubs to convert 15 local schools to run entirely off rainwater. That covers water needs for a small fraction of Chennai’s 5 million people.

Back in Tucson, advocates for rain harvesting like Lisa Shipek are hoping the practice will spread as residents see its benefits.

The executive director of Watershed Management Group, a Tucson-based NGO, has built a showcase in her own backyard, which blooms with trees and native flowers. Behind the garage, chickens prance around a coop adjacent to a greenhouse.

“You start to value water in a different way, and it changes your behavior,” she said

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