It was my turn to post on the Border Studies group blog this week, about our visit to Tucson native and rainwater harvester, Brad Lancaster. This post originally appeared on the BSP Fall ’12 blog.
A watershed is “that area of land, a bounded hydrological system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”
— John Wesley Powell
Did you ever consider that we pee into clean drinking water? No, really, it’s clean and you can drink it. That’s why your cat does – it’s probably fresher than the water you leave out for her. Not only is this a common practice, in the United States we are mandated by law to turn clean water into toxic waste however many times a day nature calls us to, without considering what sort of impact this has on our community or environment.
Brad Lancaster is a Tucson native who has spent the past 20 years turning his property into a rainwater harvesting system and teaching others to do the same. We walked over to his house from our classroom last week, and came to think a little differently about borders.
Tucson is in a water crisis. The water table here has dropped 300 feet in the past 100 years, and continues to fall at an average rate of 3 feet per year. 44% of the energy the city of Tucson uses goes to pumping and filtering water. According to Brad, if Tucson used its rainwater as a resource instead of shooting it out of town through sewers and drains, this city in the desert would no longer have a water crisis, and we’d be more connected to the land and each other.
On Brad’s property, he uses very little or no city water; from what I gathered, the only energy used in the consumption of water is the energy used by his washing machine, which functions as a community laundromat. He gave us a tour of his composting toilet, his natural clay water filter, and his sunken garden beds, which collect water, rather than shed water like raised beds do. He led us in a “sun dance” to teach us how he developed passive heating and cooling systems for his house without blocking his neighbors’ winter sun. He also showed us the systems he’s created on his street to reduce flooding, by directing rain into roadside gardens of native plants. Brad’s house is a living laboratory of how Tucson could reimagine the way in which it uses the water that floods its streets every time it rains. “Turn a problem into a solution,” Brad says.
Brad took us on a virtual tour of neighborhoods in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA which have changed the way they interact with rainwater by narrowing streets and planting native plants that use the rainwater that falls into the soil that has replaced pavement. It is worth noting, however, that in these neighborhoods in Portland and Washington, innovative flood-control implementation has coincided with gentrification. I don’t personally know very much about these areas, but the question of access to the resources that allow these rainwater harvesting systems to be implemented and maintained was definitely in my head throughout Brad’s presentation. Most of the techniques he showed us rely more on community organizing, observation, and creative thinking than spending power. Still, “green living” is a buzzword these days, and when a neighborhood becomes more environmentally conscious, property values come up, and it becomes more difficult for low-income people to continue living there.
But perhaps if Brad’s methods were to become the norm, access wouldn’t be a problem anymore. Radical shifts in how we think about water are hard to imagine as reality, but around the world, as water becomes scarcer, people are beginning to think differently. Grey water harvesting is now legal in Arizona, California, and New Mexico, and the composting toilet in Brad’s yard is actually part of a trial to see if that specific composting system can become legal in Arizona.
Radical shifts in the way we think about water also require reimagining the way we think about borders. The way water rights work, especially in the southwest, where water is both scarce and in high demand, is a complicated maze of laws and dams and regulation, because state and international lines cut straight through watersheds; sometimes they are rivers themselves. Reimagine: borders drawn along watersheds, as John Powell said. If we imagine our communities as all of the people living within our watersheds, political borders fall away. Suddenly, we’re not only connected to Tucson, but we’re also connected to the greater Arizona community, and beyond, into Mexico. Water doesn’t stop at the border wall. If our borders come to be about the resources within an area whose bounds are defined by nature, we can start to think about working together to use those resources in a way that makes sense: harvesting the rain, only making use of what an aquifer can recharge on its own, and not peeing into drinking water, but rather into a pile of sawdust that can become compost for fruit trees.