Southwest Environment

Stories written by University of Arizona students

Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science
The Stories

Neighbors work to convert street water into shade

Palo Verde treeA palo verde tree on Silver near Highland sits in a basin designed to collect water from the street when it rains.

By Michelle Kostuk, May 15, 2010

On the sunny corner of Tucson’s Silver and Highland, a band of about fifteen volunteers sporting sunscreen, hats, and loose clothing gathered on a Sunday to help create water basins for excess rainwater.

“We’re trying to use rainstorm water and green the street – make it a better, more attractive place,” said Allen Denomy, a workshop leader of the Watershed Management Group.  “That’s why we’re using a lot of color and a lot of shade.”

The Watershed Management Group was formed three years ago. Its mission is to provide communities with knowledge and skills to help make their neighborhoods more sustainable. For this particular project, this mission translates into finding a place for excess rainwater in a constructive, neighborhood – beautifying way.

The location on that Sunday in late March was an older neighborhood boasting southwestern style homes, such as adobe. From this landscape, the WMG chose three homes to participate in the project.  Katrina Mangin, director of science education outreach for the University of Arizona Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, was one of those homeowners.  

“I just really like the idea of water harvesting because it’s green,” said Mangin.

At her home, volunteers dug a basin about two feet deep and lined the edges with rocks to make sure the walls do not collapse when the late summer monsoon rains hit. Next, the volunteers planted native plants that require little water, including a palo verde tree and several purple and yellow flowering shrubs, near the edge of the basin.

One tree seedling and about four to five plants found new homes in each of the three basins constructed that day.

These plants will help filter out pollution, such as excess nitrogen, from the street water runoff.  The basins can also deter street flooding by storing water, especially important during intense monsoon storms.

“We can rely solely on storm water,” said Catlow Shipek, senior WMG program manager.  Because Tucson is susceptible to long dry periods and droughts, though, residents also have the option of watering the plants to keep them looking green and fresh, he added.

curb cutsCurb cuts allow water to seep into basins from the street.

A curb cut will allow water to flow directly from the street into the basins. A city employee will cut that section of the curb at a later date, Shipek indicated.Using rainwater as a source of irrigation wields many benefits, he noted.

“We can put in more plant matter and we can do it without municipal irrigation,” Shipek said.  “Our Tucson vision is to make Tucson the leader in water harvesting practice and to make our communities more livable and sustainable.”

Jennifer Wade, a first-time volunteer, said this project really excited her.  “I’m really interested in harvesting water.  It felt like the right time to get in the dirt and dig holes,” said Wade as she patted the dirt down around a yellow flowering shrub.  “I’ve realized how important it is to live with the landscape.”

Ron Kuykendall, who also participated, said he has been volunteering for about three years. 

“I like to drive by the sites when it’s raining and see the basins in action,” said Kukendall as he leaned on his shovel.

The support of the community and local volunteers impressed Mangin, as she admired the freshly dug basin in front of her house. “I was surprised with how many volunteers showed up to help out,” she said. “Now I feel like I need to volunteer to help people.”

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