This Desert City Wants to Be an Oasis of Water Conservation
Tucson, Arizona has added almost a quarter-million residents without using a drop more of water. Here’s how they did it.
Photo via Flickr user Denny Armstrong
"Everybody remembers Pete the Beak," Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild says. A man in a plush duck mask and sensible khakis, he is the designated "spokes-duck" for water conservation in the city.
Pete is big in Tucson. Pete has gone to water basins. Pete has gone to book fairs. He's even in one of those comically hyper-specific listicles about "how you know you were a kid in Tucson in the 80s and 90s." But Pete's ubiquity is telling. Water conservation has, over the past 30 years, become an ingrained part of Tucson's culture and helped them achieve a remarkable feat: Since 1985, Tucson has added over 226,000 more residents — and not used a drop more water. In fact, their water table is now rising. Local activists and officials say that they are just getting started.
For all its current aridity, Tucson was once an oasis. Fed by the vanished Santa Cruz River, it is home to the longest continually farmed land in the United States. The ruins of the world's largest gravity-based canal system, built more than 3,000 years ago by the Hohokam people, still dot the landscape, evidence of a network that once irrigated more than 100,000 acres of farmland. But by the 1950s, the river was gone, destroyed by years of urban expansion and mismanagement.
Tucson coasted along, growing with little regard to the encroaching crisis, until the heatwave of 1974. One afternoon, during peak demand, the city ran out of water to the degree where had a fire broken out there would have been nothing available to put it out. Propelled into action, the city made a commitment to conservation, beginning with the implementation of a tiered water pricing system still in place today. (The utility charges higher prices per gallon the more gallons a customer uses, which means the water gets more expensive the more that you consume.)
Mayor Rothschild, a third-generation Tucsonian, remembers that summer and the conservation ethic that followed in its wake.
"We've been unique in the sense that I think there was a recognition decades ago in our community that we're a desert community and water is a precious resource. And so for three or four decades now, the citizens of the community have been very unified in the idea that we need to find ways to conserve water and be at the cutting edge of technology for ensuring water supply," Rothschild said. "And that's played out in both a macro sense and a micro sense."
The macro sense he refers to is the storage of Tucson's allotment of Colorado River water (known as Central Arizona Project water, or CAP) in their underground aquifer, a major source of water for the city, and to store that water for future generations. The micro level is more varied; the Mayor says he is "looking at every kind of conservation technique [...] and then incentivizing those things."
The key components include rebates for rainwater-harvesting cisterns; the construction of greenstreets that use stormwater to irrigate shade trees and funnel water back into the aquifer; xeriscaping, the planting of native flora over traditional lawns; and the requirement that plumbing in all new construction allow residents to install gray water systems that recycle water from sinks, tubs and showers.
But much of the excitement in the city's water world revolves around rain. Tucson gets an average annual rainfall of 12 inches. Paltry by another region's standards, but spread over the 226 square miles of the city, those inches add up. Kieran Sikdar of Tucson's Watershed Management Group (WMG) explains, "60-to-70 billion gallons of water fall from the sky a year, and if you look at the amount of water we consume, it's around 40 billion gallons."
In other words, if properly harvested, Tucson could subsist entirely on rainwater.
Brad Lancaster is a born-and-bred Tucsonian. He is a rainwater-harvesting expert who advises the city and consults with others around the country, and says that seeing other parts of the Southwest, with their still-fertile valleys, propelled him into action. "It was devastating to me to be in these oasis environments and to realize that my comparatively barren home used to be that way. And through mismanagement of the watershed we lost that," he says. "That was really weighing on me."
After working with a rainwater harvester in Zimbabwe, Lancaster returned home "on fire," ready to implement what he learned. He started a neighborhood rain and tree planting project that's been going on for over 20 years. The program redirects rainwater from street runoff and "plants the rain" in the soil to water native trees. When Lancaster first began this was technically illegal, but, using his site as a pilot, the city changed its tune. Now, the greenstreets are not just incentivized, but mandated.
"I don't view what I do as simply water conservation," he says. "That's minimizing the negatives." With rainwater harvesting, he explains, they are maximizing the positives. "Each year we are a little further ahead. Whereas with water conservation, we never get ahead. We're just trying to maintain."
Sikdar of the WMG calls Lancaster "a guru" for his work, but Sikdar's organization is also a leader in water management. The WMG operates its office, a small farm and a model homestead, entirely on rain, using not a drop of city water for crop irrigation, bathing, or laundry. They even drink from a cistern on the roof; Sikdar says it was so pure that, when they tested it, they could have drunk it as soon as it fell from the sky -- no treatment needed. He's proud of the WMG's model and the vision it offers to those who visit. "It's a great demonstration of what's possible," he says.
There is often a gulf, however, between what is possible and what is actually feasible. On the poorer Southside of the city, majority Spanish-speaking and lower-income neighborhoods disproportionately suffer the effects of increasing drought, especially as the resulting lack of shade leads to hotter and hotter temperatures. Money and language barriers mean they are less able to take advantage of the initiatives that would mitigate the problems, but this doesn't mean the population is lacking in enthusiasm.
Flor Morales, another city native, works with SERI, an environmental justice group that helps low-income and Spanish-speaking communities access Tucson's conservation programs. "Three to four years ago families wanted to participate in rainwater harvesting but they weren't able to," she says. "Some of them were already doing it, just by collecting water in a bucket."
Thanks to an environmental justice grant from the EPA, SERI began offering grants and interest-free loans to households interested in installing the systems. That first year, they installed 32 systems and have since partnered with the city to ensure their programs reach all Tucsonians, not just the white and the wealthy. Under the current administration, however, grants like these are under threat. President Trump's proposed cuts to the EPA budget include slashing the environmental justice division's funding by 78%. The division's longtime head also quit after 24 years, citing his values as "different than our current leadership."
There is a looming danger for Tucson that makes these programs all the more urgent: the depletion of the Colorado River. Tim Thomure, director of Tucson Water, says that water is the city's biggest long-term resource but "it's also one that is at risk due to long term drought and over-allotment."
Every drop of water in the contested Colorado River is contentiously negotiated by the bordering states. (To give a sense of the tenor of these negotiations, a former Arizona water official was quoted saying "keeping water away from California is one of our fundamental principles.") But the original allotment calculations were made in a good year with heavy rainfall, so even these numbers are far too optimistic. And to bring that water from the river to Tucson requires drawing it 330 miles uphill with coal fired pumps. It is, in effect, robbing Peter to pay Paul.
"I find it frustrating," Lancaster says, "that Tucson is putting the bulk of its resources into taking its water from others before Tucson does all it can to make the most of the free local water it already has, but is currently draining."
Which brings us back to Pete the Beak. Conservation is working in Tucson not just because of the policies of the city government, but because of the commitment of its residents to adopting those policies. Tucsonians are more likely than the average American to worry about global warming and to believe it will harm them personally. (Compare that to their neighbors in Phoenix, who are less likely to be concerned about global warming by almost every metric) Mayor Rothschild says this is part of the city's culture. He thinks that education -- including plush spokes-ducks -- is paying dividends in the form of active citizens.