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AP Photo/John Locher
Every gallon counts.

Five things you can do to deal with water shortage in the American West

Cecile McKee
By Cecile McKee

We live in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. It’s not a Mad Max landscape, but there’s a water shortage around here. With drought and warming summer temperatures, we decided to share five ways we’re conserving water.

1. Make berms and basins

We learned this a few years ago from Brad Lancaster—rainwater harvester par excellence. On his recommendation, we spent a few storms outside watching the water in our yard. Where’d it pool? Berms and basins are a cheap but labor-intensive way to collect rainwater. Berms reroute rainwater, and basins hold it long enough for some to soak into the soil.

We put one berm along our backyard to slow rainwater as it moves down to our front yard towards the street. A berm we can walk on now transects the basins around our olive trees. If you’ve ever experienced acqua alta in Venice, you can imagine what it’s like to walk from our door to our gate during Tucson’s monsoons. Another basin runs along one side of our yard, supporting a live oak and an Arizona black walnut. Overflow from our roof that doesn’t make it into a tank goes into that basin, as does graywater from our laundry.

2. Use water tanks

If you have more money than time, consider gutters and tanks. It took us several years to save a few thousand dollars for those systems, but we can now store 4,300 gallons of water. Even after a month of over-100-degree days, the tank water is cool. Our trees and vegetables love it, and so we manage desert gardening without city water for several months a year.

Connected tanks

3. Bury ollas

Ollas
Buried olla
Buried olla

Less expensive, and probably less well known outside desert areas, are ollas. You bury these unglazed pots in your garden and plant around them. They seep cool water as needed to the plant roots, using less of our precious water than surface-watering systems and reducing weeds because ollas irrigate below the surface.

YouTube is full of do-it-yourself, money-saving olla-making lessons. We use about a dozen ollas from Albuquerque’s East Central Ministries for lettuces in the winter and tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in the summer.

4. Shower outdoors

The favorite adjustment we have made to Arizona’s desiccation is our outdoor shower. Building this also took a few years, but only because we used components from a salvage yard. Half a metal culvert made one wall of our shower, and plant shelves built into discarded French doors made privacy screens. The shower drains to perforated outflow pipes under the olive trees. A long hose on the roof provides hot water, so from May through October, our showers water our olives instead of going down the city’s drain.

Outdoor shower

5. Buy a bucket

Finally, we keep a bucket near an indoor shower. When it’s too cold to shower outside, we collect water we run while waiting for the hot to kick in. When our bucket’s full, we empty it in a garden. Just last week, we ate five artichokes from plants that survive on that water.