Brad Lancaster has worked with the City of Tucson and other municipalities to legalize, incentivize, and provide guidance on water-harvesting systems, demonstration sites, and policy. He has likewise collaborated with state agencies to promote practices that transform costly local “wastes” into free local resources.
Lancaster is the author of the award-winning, best-selling book series Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond; the website www.HarvestingRainwater.com; and its ‘Drops in a Bucket’ Blog. He has taught throughout North America as well as in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and Australia.
Mr. Lancaster lives on an oasis-like demonstration site he created and continually improves with his brother and neighbors in downtown Tucson, Arizona. On this eighth of an acre and surrounding public right-of-way, they harvest 100,000 gallons of rainwater a year where less than 12 inches fall from the sky.
Planet Experts: You are the author of the award-winning book series Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. What led you to specialize in rainwater harvesting?
Brad Lancaster: Having grown up here in Tucson and seeing the water situation continually get worse. Everyone seems to be living the paradigm of importing water from further and further away while simultaneously as quickly as possible getting rid of the free water falling from the sky. And it didn’t make any sense to me.
I got into permaculture and gardening and farming and realized, “Wow, if we don’t get the water piece down, this isn’t going to work in the long term.” So I heard about rainwater harvesting, started to pursue it, got really excited by some case studies I came into contact with, but also was quite frustrated that there was not a book or resource that was a comprehensive go-to resource, particularly for the American audience. And that then led me to write the books. I basically wrote the books that I was seeking in the first place.
PE: Please describe how rainwater-harvesting systems work, both on a micro level (i.e., single-family homes) and on a macro level (i.e., major cities).
BL: Well, I’m not just looking at rainwater. My focus is looking at free on-site local waters, and that can be all kinds of different water. Rainwater is definitely one—it falls from the sky, it’s very high quality and tends to arrive in ample amounts.
Another source is stormwater. That’s rainwater after it hits the surface. In the urban environment, it’s falling on roadways and what-not. If it’s going down a street with a lot of oil from cars, obviously it’s not as good as what hits your roof. But we find all kinds of great ways to bioremediate that water with plants and living soil.
Greywater is another free on-site water. But maybe that’s originally utility water: water from the city water system. Once you’ve used it once in the shower or the washing machine, it usually goes down the drain. But instead of sending that immediately out of the system to a sewage treatment plant, we can instead use it and treat it on-site. The great thing about that is, then we don’t need a whole network of pipes sending that water to the treatment plant and then another network of pipes and pumps moving water back where it originally came from.
We can recycle and clean water very easily with no pumps, just gravity and living soil and vegetation.
PE: Would that require a drastic infrastructure change or is it possible to make changes like that at the household and local level?
BL: Oh it’s real easy to make the changes. I’ll give you two examples, one for a home and one for a city.
For a home, anyone who has a washing machine against an exterior wall can often just drill a hole through the wall and install an additional pipe, one that will be right next to the sewer pipe that they have in their wall right now. This new pipe they put in, that goes out through the wall and then you can direct the pipes to tree basins in your landscape. Just slope the pipe 2 percent so the water drains out of the pipe.
If you’re washing diapers or using some kind of toxic cleanser like chlorinated bleach, you don’t want that going into your soil. But if you’re using greywater-compatible soaps and washing stuff that’s not too intense, then you can send it to the tree and you can get free irrigation with your dirty laundry water.
There’s no pumps, there’s no filters, there’s no tank—it’s just the price of that plastic pipe. And you can do similar things with your sink and shower and so on.
On a city level, we have worked with the Tucson city council and staff, and the city now has a new policy that all new homes must be built with greywater-harvesting stubouts. That’s a section of pipe put in at the time of the home’s construction—it’s not hooked up to anything, it’s just sitting there behind a little access door. And if people want to direct greywater from their home to the landscape, they just remove the trap door and connect the greywater pipe to their drainpipe with a three-way valve. And at the other end of the pipe they connect it out to the landscape.
The great thing about that is, they won’t find themselves, worst-case scenario, having to jackhammer their floor, they don’t even have to cut into the walls—it’s already there.
PE: When you describe greywater harvesting, it sounds like a fairly simple process. But I imagine most people aren’t aware of how easy it is to do.
BL: Unfortunately I think a lot of greywater misuse is due to our infrastructure, the way we build, and our policy.
People don’t have any connection with where their water comes from, nor where it goes. The vast majority of people have no idea where the water comes from before it gets to their faucet. Then when it goes down the drain, they really have no idea where the water’s going. We’re disconnected to the point that it’s a non-reality. It’s, ‘Well, there’s always water when i turn on the faucet,’ and ‘It doesn’t matter what I put in my water because it just goes to some magic unknown place and everything’s fine,’ it’s thrown away.
When you’re harvesting rainwater and stormwater, you’re reconnected with the source. When we use a greywater system we realize, ‘Wow, I can’t send just anything down the drain—there’s no such thing as “throwing something away.”’ Everything comes back to us in some form, be it our food or soil, and so we then start changing what soaps we use.
We don’t kill our soil, we don’t kill our plants, and the result? Our health improves. It turns out that many of these same products that are harmful to the soil are also harmful to our skin and to our bodies.
PE: Drought, particularly in California and Texas, is all over the news these days. Rainfall has been minimal in these regions, but how much of our water shortage is due to our own inefficiencies in water capture and usage?
BL: There’s all kinds of stuff we can do to help prevent and respond to drought. In my desert community of Tucson, where we only get 11 inches of rain a year (that’s in a year of normal rain—we haven’t had a year of normal rain in many years), it turns out that more rain falls on the surface area of Tucson in a year than the entire community consumes of utility water in a year. It’s the same throughout California. So right there, we as people are making these droughts far worse, because we’re not holding onto the rain when it falls. And the more we pave with streets and rooftops and sidewalks, the more quickly water drains out of the system at rates that far exceed what happened pre-development.
Pre-development, at least 85 percent of the rain stayed on-site. And now it’s more like 90 percent of the rain leaves the site.
PE: What can people do to counteract the effects of urban runoff?
BL: The great thing about rainwater harvesting is that it not only minimizes drought but it also minimizes flooding. If we hold onto the water when it falls rather than getting rid of it, we have more water to last us through those dry periods—while also reducing flood flows downslope.
Here on our site we’ve been getting only half the normal rainfall for the past 3-4 years, but nonetheless we have been able to harvest more than an average year’s worth of rainwater on our site each year. How’s that possible? Well, look at an average home site.
You’ve got a house and then you’ve got a yard—and in the more urban settings, your roof area equals your yard area. So if you were to direct your roof water to your yard, as opposed to the streets and the storm drains, you could double the rainfall in your yard. Because your yard would be getting whatever rain falls on it, and you can multiply that by two with the runoff from the adjoining roof surface.
In the urban setting, you have far more pavement than roofs. We also have the streets, driveways, and patios. So if we take all our hardscape surfaces that drain rather than infiltrate water, and direct their runoff water to what unpaved areas of soil we still have, we can double or triple our available rainfall. Even in drought.
PE: You have worked with the desert city of Tucson to implement water capture systems. How receptive are local governments to your proposals and have you seen an encouraging shift in their approach to water capture?
BL: Initially they were… not receptive. But once they saw how effective these systems were, things changed.
PE: How so?
BL: So, in the beginning, we illegally cut the street curb to make openings to allow runoff into street-side basins, which would then irrigate the street trees that shade and cool the street, and also reduce flooding and grow food and wildlife habitat. When we initially did that, the city was not into it at all.
But then we set up meetings with the city and we asked them, ‘What are your issues along the street?’ And they said, ‘Well, we have a lot of crime, we have a lot of pollution and litter, we have a lot of potholes and maintenance problems, we have the heat island effect—it’s getting very hot, which further erodes the street—and we have flooding.’
And we said, ‘Wow, okay.’
Once we knew what their problems and concerns were, we could help reduce the flooding—because we’ll pull water off the street rather than add water to the street; we could grow these street-side shade trees which will shade and cool the street, lengthen the life of the street, and also improve the lives of the people in or alongside the street; we’ll get community people to do a lot of the work, get people to know one another, which then drops crime rates because people are looking out for one another; and also people will take a sense of ownership and pride and then they start picking up the litter.
So what shifted it was the city saying, ‘Wow, this doesn’t create more costs or more problems, this actually reduces costs and generates a lot of solutions.’
PE: What could a major city like Los Angeles do to better manage its water supply?
BL: Many years ago, the city of Los Angeles paved many of the waterways from the mountains right to the sea. The L.A. River’s paved for long stretches. That wiped out a lot of the natural infiltration of the water. And then when the city was built out, it did so even more.
There are efforts to de-pave numerous sections of the waterways, and to also plant rain gardens in people’s yards to reduce the pavements—like if they have a solid concrete driveway, they take out all but the wheel strips and then expose soil once again to the air and the rain and then plant it out with sponge-like vegetation. So they’re starting to shift the paradigm. And it’s only just begun.
Another thing is, instead of being so reliant on the car and then having to have wider roads and bigger parking lots, cities can create more mass transit, more bicycle infrastructure, better walking infrastructure and zoning, thereby encouraging work to be close to living space and so on. When people become less car-dependent, then we become less pavement-dependent, and then we have more space to infiltrate more water and grow cooling, food-producing, resource-generating vegetation. The other thing is policy development. Standards can be changed. So, when building a home, you encourage greywater harvesting like Tucson did.
Plus, when I’m in Los Angeles—or anywhere in southern California—it’s amazing to me to see how much urban drool there is.
PE: ‘Urban drool?’
BL: Urban drool, or nuisance runoff. It maybe hasn’t rained in months, and yet there’s water flowing down the L.A. River, it’s flowing down the streets. Where does it come from? It comes from sprinkler systems that are over-irrigating the lawns, it’s coming from people washing cars in the driveway—it’s water that should have stayed on-site but it’s just being drained wastefully away.
There’s great potential to change our landscaping and building practices. Let’s say in every front yard, instead of having these hill-like mounded landscapes, let’s create bowl-like or basin landscapes that don’t drain but rather infiltrate water. Then the car-wash water sticks around, the sprinkler water sticks around. Then we can take it further: Well, why are we planting grass in our front yard when people barely hang out there? Let’s do more appropriate vegetation for the climate in the area, such as low-water-use native plants, which can be just as lush but in a different way and require far less water.
And then we can use shade trees in such a way that they shade us from the summer sun. We put them on the east and west sides of our buildings to shade us from the rising and setting summer sun, but we leave the south side open for the winter sun. So we can get free free summer shade and winter heat, and this then reduces our energy consumption for heating and cooling our buildings. Anytime we consume energy that’s been generated at the power plant, we consume water, because most power plants will turn water into steam to generate electricity through a thermoelectric process. So this can lead to water savings at the power plants as well.
PE: Is there a tipping point for water-harvesting systems? In other words, could the American West (and other drought-prone regions around the world) reach a point where even the most efficient water-capture systems would be unable to meet demand?
BL: Yes. In any system’s there’s such a tipping point. But it’s an ever-moving tipping point. If the population of our communities and the consumption of our communities gets to the point that they exceed the natural limit of the system, that’s the tipping point.
And we’re actually already there. Let me give you an example.
Tucson, because of the way we currently manage our water and drain most of it away, is now reliant on the Colorado River and importing that river water at great cost to Tucson. We do not live within the constraints of our local water system. So if something happens to that canal, things can go down very quickly.
We don’t really have a lot of resilience in the system, and yet there’s the potential for a lot of resilience. If we didn’t drain 90 percent of the rainfall out of the system, but instead kept it within the system, that would greatly reduce our need for and reliance on the Colorado River. And that would then improve the health of the Colorado River and the Sea of Cortez.
We are active participants—as are San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas—in the death of the ecology of that river as we divert ever more water away from it. It’s not improving. It’s getting worse over time. And that’s something we all need to look at.
PE: Have you seen a significant amount of technological improvement in rainwater-harvesting systems over the years?
BL: The improvement in rainwater-harvesting systems has not been technological, it’s been biological.
What I love about these systems is, the best ones are alive. They’re living systems. You have to have living soil as a foundational component of the system.
When we first moved here, our yard was basically a barren urban lot and the only wildlife we had were a few exotic pigeons. Now there’s abundant shade, abundant food, there’s butterflies and birds all over the place. There’s over two dozen native bird species that have returned and set up residence because we replanted their native habitat. People are walking under the canopy of the trees, so we know more of our neighbors. It’s alive.
I don’t have to get in my car and drive to a trailhead to experience the natural world. Instead, we planted it and are growing it right around our home and doing so in a way that’s reducing flooding, reducing effective drought, improving the comfort of our community—the air quality, the water quality—generating food, reconnecting with a sense of place, and so much more.
What this all about is planting the water. Planting the rain, planting the storm water, planting the greywater. Not draining it, planting it. And we plant it as close as possible to where it falls, to grow living, regenerative potential.