- By Kit R. Roane, Retro Report on April 20, 2023
Amid a warming world, these conservationists have brought back a very old and very low-tech drought-busting practice, and they are getting results.
This story created in partnership with Retro Report. View more of their documentaries here.
Narrator: For decades, the Southwest has been crippled by a growing crisis. The worst drought seen in over a thousand years. But in Tucson, one man has been trying to change that narrative, one house, one neighborhood at a time.
Brad Lancaster: Grew up here in Tucson and saw the water situation get worse over time. As the groundwater table dropped, saw a lot of springs drying up. I wanted to figure out solutions. And I just took off and started tracking people down and experimenting.
Rajendra Singh: Now you are in the center of water wisdom.
Lancaster: And that's when I learned about Singh and the amazing work being done to reclaim five dying rivers.
Narrator: In the 1980s, Dr. Rajendra Singh had traveled to one of India’s poorest farming areas to provide medical care, but quickly learned that drought and decades of over-pumping had created a more pressing crisis.
Singh: One old man say, no need your medicine. We no need education. We need water. So he teach me. He show me the way of conservation of water.
Narrator: Returning to an ancient practice once seen as obsolete, Singh began to dig out a large pit, known as a johad, that could capture the monsoon rains and recharge the aquifers for the dry season.
Singh: The British Empire destroyed that culture, that way of water conservation. But the johad is a very simple way, and johad is a, a really connected with the culture of India.
Narrator: With little help, Singh worked to create his first johad. But when the monsoon filled it, others took notice and wanted to learn.
Singh: So, when the people see I created a johad, a lot of people come back and asked what type of the support we can do. And after the self-motivation, the people join.
More than 1,300 villages today I can say they have the water.
The core issue of the challenge of this modern world is water. Without focus of this, this world can't survive.
Narrator: Singh ultimately helped reshape the destiny of large swaths of India. But his teachings also spread far beyond India’s borders.
Singh: This inspiration not only for community, ir not only for me. This inspiration for all.
Narrator: Historical practices like these had also been revived in places like Zimbabwe by visionary farmers such as Zephaniah Phiri Maseko who became a mentor to Brad Lancaster.
Lancaster: It was so different from what I'd been exposed to in college and whatnot, which was typically higher tech, higher cost strategies that weren't really accessible to the individual, the family, or the neighborhood.
I mean, I was blown away by just the incredible positive effect that this work had. But I also realized, wow, I can do this, anyone can do this that has the ability to move a shovel.
The first thing I did wasn't really reducing water use. It was instead making water go further.
What are some examples of that? We raised all our pathways to become catchment surfaces to drain to the adjoining planted areas. We directed the water from household drains to a basin with a tree. I started collecting the water off my roof, and I directed it into a tank, which I then send to my kitchen sink.
It’s like the old TV show, The Fall Guy, I love a bathtub outside. I can use rainwater or city water in this outdoor shower. So with this bucket… Get the water going. Cool off. Allright, that cools me off on a hot summer day.
I learned that with just a 400-square foot roof, I could provide 95 percent of my domestic water needs. The biggest challenge is being able to see what change is possible. But once you make a little change, it's like climbing a rung of a ladder. You can now see the next rung.
Narrator: Tucson had begun to embrace some conservation efforts after a disastrous 1974 drought left wells running dry and diversified its water sources by turning to the Colorado River. But Lancaster wanted to show that rainwater could be a big part of the solution.
So, he began enlisting his neighbors. Among the first lessons was how to make a curb cut, drawing on techniques used by local indigenous tribes who had long diverted stormwater into their crops and gardens.
Lancaster: The water flows along the street gutter here, enters the curb cut, fills this whole basin behind the tree, and freely irrigates all these multi-use native plants.
When we did the first one, this was illegal, ok, or I think a better term is pre-legal. But neighbors saw how well it worked. I mean, the vegetation was doing fantastic.
They'd say, you know, I just love coming by here and seeing new blooms, new growth, things I hadn't seen before. How are you doing this? So, with the inspiration of the past and the desire to change the present, we organized this annual tree planting project. And then we thought, well, how can we plant this forest in a way and tend this forest in a way that helps build a more resilient community? Because everyone that lives around us, they're part of the potential of this place.
Neighbor: Hey Brad, how you doing? Just coming to say hello and that I’ve never seen the goats being milked before. This is Larick right?
Lancaster: Yeah. So what, if you want, we can schedule milk training.
Neighbor: See? See, this is how he is. He's, he is first and most an educator.
Lancaster: So now you walk down our streets. You don't see barren walkways. It's a multilayered forest of many diverse species of plants. And whereas in the past, it was rare to come upon a neighbor as you walked, now you run into neighbors all the time. It’s fantastic.
Narrator: With success building in his neighborhood, Brad consulted on other conservation projects and pushed his city to act. It ultimately legalized curb cutting and incentivized harvesting rainwater.
Lancaster: It was incredible to see. Like we went from a 10-year period where I could count on my hand how many people I knew harvesting water, to the point where there was someone in just about every neighborhood harvesting water in Tucson. And it was great, because what I was observing is health improving all around me.
Silvia Valdillez: My house was the first house here in the neighborhood that got a water harvesting tank installed. And so it was really cool to learn how to do it. And we share skills and then that person can then do that in their neighborhood or their house. And then it does like a ripple effect of this knowledge being shared out.
Rachel Frank: These are indigenous concepts. We, we want to connect with our indigenous, indigenous roots. We want to be able to be sustainable. We want to be able to grow our own food in a way that is part of our roots.
Jesus Romero: All messed up, yeah. Yeah, that’s happened so many times.
You know, so you start looking at the world a little bit differently once you start being a part of these projects. A lot of these lessons, a lot of these strategies are like common sense, you know, but you're not exposed to them. So it's up to us to make it equitable and to share that with everybody else.
Narrator: Through a myriad of conservation efforts, the city has reduced its water usage by more than 30 percent over the last few decades despite a ballooning population.
Blue Baldwin: By adding green stormwater infrastructure we can bring shade, we can increase quality of life sustainability is absolutely part of public health.
It's pretty progressive stuff. And the city of Tucson is one of the most well positioned Southwestern cities as far as water security is concerned, and that is thanks to forward thinking about water conservation and looking to the community and all of these grassroots actions that take water, storm water, off the street and put it locally into the landscape.
Narrator: But as the drought continues, threats are growing – from booming development to a dwindling Colorado River.
Baldwin: In an environment where water is increasingly scarce and precious we need to make the most of all of our various water resources. Storm water is a free resource that is renewable, that we can harness to offset other water needs and put that water to work in the most effective way possible.
Lancaster: The biggest hurdle to widespread adoption of water harvesting in the United States is a lack of exposure to working water harvesting systems. I have not yet found a place where these water harvesting approaches can't help that place, and enhance that place.
Aaliyah Johnson: So while I'm pouring this water into the Olla from the cistern it slowly goes around everywhere.
Lancaster: If you don't have anyone practicing this simple water harvesting, you don't have the cultural seed that can talk to others and say, well, this is how I did it, so people can walk through it, experience it and try and evolve it. So that's what's essential is that you just begin.
Teacher: You're gonna help me teach everybody. Thank you.
Lancaster: We're moving in that direction. We're just at the beginning of the journey. But we have to build the resilience in as many people as possible that are here, so this becomes part of the culture, becomes part of the daily practice.
Mother: My helper right here. She's a smart little girl.
Teacher: Yeah, well, Aaliyah is often in the garden. Oh, are you getting emotional? Oh, Sweet lady. Oh.
Mother: Kids like her are gonna make a change, that's for sure.