Southwest Environment

Stories written by University of Arizona students

Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science
The Stories

Water harvesting efforts increase over time in Tucson

By Evan Kipnis

Photo by Michael Seronde
Rainwater drains off a parking lot into a harvesting basin north of the University Medical Center.
On a cool morning in late October, Tucson received a fall rain and water ran down the street, across the asphalt. At one site near the University Medical Center, it flowed out of a parking lot and into a water harvesting basin. While the water on the next street over was pooling in the intersection of Warren Avenue and Ring Road, this water was being used for groundwater infiltration and to grow plants.

Grant McCormick, a campus planner for Planning, Design and Construction at the University of Arizona, pointed out this project and several others during a brief tour of several rainwater harvesting projects the UA has implemented over the years.

These types of improvements can be seen all over the Tucson Valley. Rainwater harvesting projects are visible in local neighborhoods as well as on the University of Arizona campus. Laws at the city and county level will be promoting additional rainwater harvesting projects in commercial developments. Rainwater harvesting projects have been on the increase in Tucson for decades.

“We have about doubled every year since 2006,” noted Catlow Shipek, senior project manager with the Watershed Management Group, referring to the number of the group’s projects. The growth of the non-governmental organization based in Tucson in the past half decade is in itself a strong indicator of local support for rainwater harvesting. WMG’s Tucson office staff has grown to 13 employees, up from two in 2008. In recent years, affiliates of the group launched programs in Phoenix, Santa Barbara, California, and India.

The use of rainfall can reduce the use of municipal water for landscaping while potentially recharging groundwater. While providing water conservation, this also provides a potential economic incentive. It also plays a role in controlling stormwater runoff. Close up of basin

Photo by Michael Seronde
Rainwater pools in the rainwater harvesting basin to promote plant growth and for potential infiltration into the groundwater table
UA expands efforts
McCormick recalled how water harvesting played a role in planning decisions when he first joined the UA in 1995 to work on the Campus Drainage Master Plan.

“There was an intention to put a small catchment basin on the corner of a parking lot being reconstructed at Euclid Avenue and Sixth Street,” McCormick explained. “The contractor overlooked constructing it, so I encouraged stepping back and reevaluating the need for it, which resulted in it getting built. Since then momentum has built for much greater things, including many innovative water harvesting features in the recently completed Arbol de la Vida Residence Hall, which replaced the original small basin and parking lot mentioned above.”

The University of Arizona has been participating in rainwater harvesting since at least the 1970s. A UA agricultural engineer, W.G. Matlock, published a book called “Farming the Desert” in 1973 on using rainwater for farming. He followed up by writing multiple papers in the 1980s on the use of water harvesting in an urban environment. Also at the UA, agricultural extension agent Patricia Waterfall has published multiple works related to water harvesting dating back to 1982.

While WMG has been growing, so have University of Arizona efforts in water harvesting. In 2004 the Surface Water Working Group was formed. Grant McCormick described this group having “come together to try and work collaboratively to solve everything from small drainage problems to helping guide and provide feedback on stormwater management plan issues.” He continued by saying that the “surface water group was pretty instrumental in the first student run water harvesting projects on campus.”

In the spring of 2006, Soil, Water and Environmental Science Professor James Riley began teaching a course on Water Harvesting (SWES 454/554) at the UA. This course gave students the skills and hands-on experience to apply rainwater harvesting practices at an institution.

Since the formation of the SWWG and the commencement of the water harvesting course, now taught by both Riley and McCormick, the UA has implemented many more rainwater harvesting projects. One involved constructing a detention basin, a tank to slow and regulate the amount of water leaving the area, underneath Bear Down Field. Others involved installing retention basins, basins to capture water for evaporation and infiltration, near Campus Recreation, Likins Hall, and University Medical Center.

WeirPhoto by Michael Seronde
A weir (above) helps slow the departure of rainwater from a drainage basin at the University Medical Center
Community harvesting grows 
Individuals at the university were not the only people pushing water harvesting in Tucson.

Brad Lancaster and Ann Audrey were early leaders with water harvesting for decades,” Shipek said. WMG started in 2003 with the goal to “engage communities in stewardship of their watersheds,” he said, specifically in the urban environment – “where 99 percent of the people spend 90 percent of their time.”

In 2005, members of WMG attended a lecture by Lancaster on water harvesting. At the time, the group was seeking a way to engage the community in their mission to create healthier environments and communities into the future. “There was starting to be some interest in water harvesting,” so group members decided to choose water harvesting as “the vehicle for change, to engage communities at their home.”

In 2006 the first programs began, involving six demonstration sites around Tucson. The funding for these sites came from a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation grant.

The Watershed Management Group has created a number of successful programs in recent years. The group’s first program in rainwater harvesting was the Co-op Program, using volunteers’ homes to demonstrate the installation of harvesting systems. The Green Streets and Neighborhood Program targets flooding and aims to reduce stormwater runoff.

The WMG’s most recent program is Conserve to Enhance. With a UA group and a local non-governmental organization, the WMG is “linking water conservation, realized water saved to an environmental benefit that is realized in the local community” – in this case, to improving Atturbury Wash.

Regulations promote water harvesting
The City of Tucson passed an ordinance in 2008 requiring new commercial construction sites to provide at least 50 percent of their landscaping needs with harvested rainwater. The county is making similar moves.

“We are in the process of changing [our] manual to essentially require retention,” said Eric Shepp, manager for the Floodplain Management Division of the Pima County Regional Flood Control District. The idea is “keeping the water on the site,” added Shepp. This is a push by the county for all future construction projects to include on-site rainwater harvesting. Currently, the county requires only the detention of rainwater before it leaves the site. 

“The markets really opened up and I think it is about to boom again,” said Shipek when asked about commercial contracting in rainwater harvesting. The WMG works with commercial contractors on some of its projects.

For a view of the future of rainwater harvesting developments at the UA, McCormick suggested looking at plans for the Environmental and Natural Resource Phase 2 building. This is to be built near Sixth Street and Park Avenue in the parking lot adjacent to the building constructed in the first phase of the project.

“We put forth a lot of ideas about harvesting water condensate,” said McCormick about the future project, referring to the water that air-conditioning systems produce. McCormick really wanted to highlight all sorts of water saving improvements. He said, “The design team really did try to find a lot of ways to integrate water in unique ways.”

“We are rain appreciators,” said Shepp. With consistently increasing building construction and increasing community programs, the growth of water harvesting seems likely to continue in Tucson.

Evan Kipnis is a senior from Flagstaff, Arizona. He plans to graduate in the spring with a degree in Watershed Hydrology from the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment.


‘Conserve to Enhance’ puts conserved water into local watershed

For more on rainwater harvesting in the Southwest, see Brad Lancaster’s website

UA efforts to harvest, conserve water adding up

Rainwater harvesting cisterns can save money as well as water

next story
return to main stories page