Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster


August 23, 2008

Farming in the City with Runoff From a Street

by Brad Lancaster, Drops in a Bucket Blog, www.HarvestingRainwater.com, copyright 2008

The following is one of my favorite water-harvesting stories. It comes from one of my mentors, Russ Buhrow, and has inspired me in much of my work. It is amazing what Russ produced with stormwater, something too many people consider to be a waste or a liability, but as Russ shows, is actually a great resource.

In summer 1980, plant sciences graduate student Russ Buhrow decided to take a break from the books to gain “hands-on” knowledge by dryfarming in the middle of the simmering desert city of Tucson, Arizona, where annual rainfall averages 12 inches (304 mm). Taking his cue from the ancient traditions of indigenous Tohono O’odham, Russ raised his crops solely on direct rainfall and runoff harvested from short bursts of sporadic summer monsoon rains. Yet Russ’s situation was somewhat different from his Native American neighbors. He didn’t farm alluvial flats of a healthy desert ecosystem where runoff from surrounding mountains flows down a braiding arroyo to a field. Instead, he farmed a semi-urban vacant lot between a dry riverbed and cinder block apartment buildings. Rather than intercepting runoff from low desert mountains and foothills, Russ learned to harvest runoff from rooftops, yards, parking lots, and a city street.

Russ began by observing the gradually sloping arable vacant lot. Wheel ruts crisscrossed it. Random piles of compacted debris were strewn about, and dense weeds grew in depressions where rainwater and organic matter collected. “Ah ha!” thought Russ. “The weeds grow where the water is, so that’s where my garden will go!”

With permission from the landowner he dug several 8- x 8-foot (2.4- x 2.4-m) sunken garden beds where the weeds grew tallest. Berms stretched to either side on the downslope side of his basins like open arms of a big welcoming hug for rainwater runoff (see Fig. 11, after article, for the multi-year progression of Russ’ fields). He planted seeds as the summer storms rolled in. Thunder cracked, lightening flashed, and the rain came down in sheets. Russ stood in the middle of it all and watched. He saw water pool in the garden basins. He also noticed water pouring off a parking lot just upslope of the basins and quickly dug a ditch as a diversion swale, directing runoff from parking lot to garden.

After 40 minutes the rain stopped. With the soil now saturated, his seeds germinated in just 3 to 5 days. Russ was full of adrenaline. As he says, “When you see the rain flow like that, it’s a EUREKA moment. You see the water and realize, this really works!” The parking lot ditch had just increased his water resources five-fold. He went right to work, expanding his planting area to 700 square feet (65 m²).

From then on, no matter how far away he was, Russ always ran to the garden when rain started to fall. “It’s amazing how much water you can catch in neighborhoods,” he says. “You just need to watch the sheet flow when it rains.” Rain and runoff revealed the land’s subtle slopes and depressions. He saw how much water flowed and where. Then he figured out how to catch and use it.

For Russ this was a rush – like playing “flood” in a huge sandbox, with lightening! The unlocked car was always nearby so he could leap in when the lightening struck too close.

By fall, drought-hardy tepary beans, black-eyed peas, corn, squash, and devil’s claw (a fiber plant with edible seeds and okra-like immature fruit) were harvested–all irrigated only by rain (Figs. 1, 2, 3).

In winter the fields went fallow, but Russ stayed active. Once, standing in the rain, he saw excessive runoff rushing down Columbus Boulevard, an asphalted arterial street that dead ended 400 yards (360 m) from his garden. “FREE WATER!” Russ yelled. He dug a 1/4-mile (0.8 km) long diversion swale/ditch from the street to his garden (Fig. 4A and Fig. 4B). He reworked the old garden beds and added new ones. When finished, the garden basins ranged from 100 to 700 square feet (9-63 m²) each. Together they resembled a series of stepped terraces that directed overflow water from the upper gardens to the lower gardens (Figs. 5, 6, 7, 8). The combined planting area was now 1/2 acre (0.1 ha).

That summer two big storms flooded the long swale with water 8 inches (20 cm) deep and 2-3 feet (60 – 90 cm) wide. Both storms lasted less than an hour and made Russ run through the garden, euphoric from the water, terrorized by lightening, and exhausted by effort. With the diversion swale running above (upslope of) the top of the terraced garden basins, Russ could temporarily divert the flow into a specific field by cutting an opening in the swale’s berm, then blocking the water’s flow within the swale at a location just downslope of the cut, to force more flow into this field. He created this “blockage” by throwing wads of weeds and brush into the swale and packing them down with his shovel, his feet, and rocks, then piling dirt behind the brush. Next, he’d run down the swale to the next field, and make a new cut in the berm and a new barrier just downslope of it. Running back up to the first diversion Russ would wait until the first field was well watered, then remove the original barrier of weeds, rock, and soil, and use this material to plug the cut in the berm so the water flowed down the main swale again. That done, he’d run down the swale to make sure the second cut and barrier were diverting water into his second field. If all was well, he’d dash off to the next field for another diversion cut and barrier. And so on, until the water stopped flowing.

Russ estimates he was harvesting as much as 2-3 acre-feet of runoff water a year. That’s 653,400 to 980,100 gallons, or 2,970,000 to 4,455,000 liters. “You had to be there when it rained, and haul ass!” Russ explains. “All could be over within 30 minutes of the first raindrop.”

Russ was passionate about harvesting water, but he made sure he didn’t collect more than could infiltrate into the soil. If water sits on the soil’s surface for more than two or three days it can activate a denitrifying bacteria (caused by a lack of oxygen in the soil), which can decrease soil fertility. Yellow spots in fields where water ponds for several days indicate denitrification. Russ prevented such problems by spreading water throughout the landscape, improving the soil’s water-absorbing capacity with organic matter and vegetation, and having adequate spillways for overflow water.

As surplus water overflowed from his fields and moistened the soil beyond and below his gardens, Russ expanded his garden by constructing new sets of terraced fields, each with raised berms to retain overflow water from the fields above (fig. 11). He soon had a full acre (0.4 ha) cultivated with corn, tepary and lima beans, Mixta and Moschata squash, devil’s claw, watermelon, sunflowers, cow peas, and, in a wet fall and winter, I’itoi onions and artichokes (Figs. 12, 13, 14).

Just two decent summer storms, spaced well apart, were enough to support his crops. Russ planted hardy heirloom seeds of dryland crops in coordination with the first good summer rain (see Notes 1 and 2 at end of article). He harvested runoff from rainfalls as light as a tenth of an inch.

Only once in five years did Russ’s fields fail. The rains just wouldn’t cooperate. They were too little, spaced too close together, or too far apart. But when they did cooperate the fields were very productive. One year, he harvested 2 tons of mature squash along with another ton of calabacitas (immature squash) – 400 lbs (180 kg) picked on one day alone. Harvests of 17,000 devil’s claw (the young fruits are eaten like okra, the dried fiber is used for traditional basket making) in a good season were common.

Russ had no money for tractors, pumps, pesticides, or water. But he also had no debts since he took no loans. Working with natural cycles his only significant investment was his time. Russ describes those times as some of the happiest of his life.

For 10 years Russ farmed within the sprawling city of Tucson, relying solely on runoff from desert rains for water. He did not contribute to groundwater depletion and provided a lot of fresh produce for his family, friends, and neighbors. He was connected with the natural elements–”If you’re not, you fail,” he says. For Russ, this connection was perhaps the greatest benefit of his work, making him feel rooted, part of the natural flow of wind, rain, and sun. Through daily observation he gained numerous insights into the cycles of the Sonoran Desert.

Russ is rarely concerned about food these days. He knows he can grow it – even in the low desert. “All you need is rain,” he says, “and we have enough.”

Enough, that is, if we recognize and value it.

In 1990 Russ went to the Cape Verde Islands, off West Africa, where he used his experience as a reference for part of a USAid study of the islands’ forms of agriculture and diversity of locally adapted food crops. After 3 months he returned and took a full-time job as grounds curator at Tohono Chul Park, where he has created a number of water harvesting features – including the Jardin Sin Aguas. Russ gives presentations on water harvesting and has a private consultation and design business.

Rain-irrigated cowpeas

Fig. 1. Rain-irrigated cowpeas. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow

Rain-irrigated tepary beans

Fig. 2. Rain-irrigated tepary beans. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow

Rain-irrigated squash

Fig. 3. Rain-irrigated squash. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow


Fig. 4A Diversion ditch dry

Fig. 4A. Diversion swale - dry. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow

Fig. 4B. Diversion ditch wet

Fig. 4B. Diversion swale full of captured runoff. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow

Fig. 5. Runoff irrigated gardens. Roof runoff from building in the background is caught in the diversion swale, and directed to the gardens. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow

Fig. 6. Runoff flowing from upper terraced garden to a lower garden. Christopher City apartment buildings in the background. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow

Fig. 7. Harvested runoff flowing from an upper field to a lower field. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow

Fig. 8. Spillway from upper field to lower field stabilized with rock. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow

Fig. 9. Watershed or catchment for Russ' farm. North-south road, left of apartment complex is Columbus Blvd. East-west road above apartments is Ft. Lowell. Dotted line through Christopher City apartment complex represents ridgeline of subwatershed draining toward Columbus Blvd and Russ' diversion swale. Area in rectangle is enlarged in next figure. Rillito river bed is at the bottom (or north end) of the drawing. Illustration by Silvia Rayces

Fig. 10. Close up of Russ' farm (bottom right), parking lot and it's diversion swale draining to farm, and drainage ditch directing Columbus Blvd runoff to farm. Illustration by Silvia Rayces

Fig. 11. Multi-year progression of Russ' farm from a single garden bed in upper left corner to a 1-acre farm in lower right corner. Dark, wide lane appearing in 4th progression, represents the diversion swale and its expansion. Illustration by Silvia Rayces

Fig. 12. Russ standing in field. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow.

Fig. 13. Child in a bountiful field of cowpeas. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow

Fig. 14. Kids in fields of squash and devil's claw. Photo courtesy of Russ Buhrow

NOTE 1: SOURCE OF DRYLAND-ADAPTED FOOD CROP SEEDS
Native Seeds/SEARCH, 526 N. Fourth Ave., Tucson, AZ 85705. www.nativeseeds.org.

NOTE 2: SPACING PLANTS TO STRETCH SOIL MOISTURE AND BUFFER WINDS
Russ spaced his plantings according to how much moisture was in the soil, the ability of the plants to withstand strong winds, and the expected size of plants at maturity. Spring plantings were spaced further apart than summer plantings, since the plants had to survive on residual soil moisture until the summer monsoons. Plants that were easily blown over or snapped by the wind, such as tepary beans and corn, were planted in clusters to support one another. By using wide spacing that took into account the plants’ size at maturity, Russ had easy access for weeding between plants with his roto-tiller and could avoid the use and expense of herbicides.
Tepary beans were planted in groups of 5 seed, each group 4 feet (1.2 m) apart.
Squash seeds were planted in clumps with three seeds each, with clumps spaced 8 feet (2.4 m) apart, or just 4 feet (1.2 m) apart if planted late in the growing season, since they wouldn’t get as big before frost hit).
Devil’s claw seeds were planted in clumps of three seeds, each 8 feet (1.2 m) apart.

Plants can be spaced closer if soil is deeper and can infiltrate more water. A silt/loam is good for this, while sand is often too porous. Heavy to medium clay soils can work, but watch the percolation rate. Most roots and nutrients will be in the top 2 to 4 feet of the soil.

NOTE 3: HOW MUCH RAINFALL PRODUCED HOW MUCH PRODUCE?
In 1981, Russ planted seeds at the end of March after the danger of frosts had passed. He germinated the seeds on residual soil moisture from February storms that dropped 1.02 inches (25.9 mm) of rain, and another 2.1 inches (53 mm) of rain in March. The plants got an additional 3.6 inches (91 mm) in April, and 0.45 inches (11 mm) in May. Although this was a wet year for the desert, the plants had to survive without any more water for over a month and a half. In July the rains started again, with 2.71 inches (68 mm) falling that month, 0.26 inches in August (6.6 mm), 0.47 inches in September (11.9 mm), and no rain in October. On that rainfall alone, the garden produced 9 tons (8.1 t) of Mixta squash per acre and 26,000 devil’s claw along with corn, watermelon, tepary beans, and sunflowers.

NOTE 4: THE LOSS OF ARABLE LAND
Russ Buhrow’s runoff farm no longer exists. It has since been built over with a new housing development. Houses built within the floodplain upon some of the area’s most fertile soils. If we keep building on, and paving over, our best agricultural land – where will we grow our community’s food?

NOTE 5: POTENTIAL CONTAMINANTS IN STREET RUNOFF
I think more research is needed in the area of street runoff toxins, and where they end up. Russ tells me he experienced no problems on his farm or with his produce grown a 1/4 mile from the road itself. I have never had any problems with plant health where plants have been irrigated with street runoff. The plants have thrived. In street-side, street runoff harvesting basins I harvest the fruit from the plants irrigated with street runoff, but I make sure none of the fruit has come into direct contact with the street runoff. Thus I harvest fruit from trees (mesquite pods, desert ironwood seeds, olives, pomegranates, etc). I do not grow leafy green or tuber crops in these basins. More info on my experiences can be found in

NOTE 6: MORE RESOURCES
Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape by Brad Lancaster. www.HarvestingRainwater.com
Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 2: Water-Harvesting Earthworks by Brad Lancaster. www.HarvestingRainwater.com
Water-Harvesting from Low Standard Rural Roads by Bill Zydeek. www.QuiviraCoalition.org
• “Street Orchards for Community Security” found at the bottom of the webpage http://www.desertharvesters.org/pressvideostories/

2 Responses to “Farming in the City with Runoff From a Street”

  1. The Long Water Emergency? « The Tin Foil Hat Society Says:

    [...] The first, sunken beds, is a fascinating idea. The use of berms and earthworks to channel water into the beds is such a simple yet brilliant idea I really don’t know why the pioneers to this area didn’t look at it more closely — other than the fact that they were convinced that the natives were ’savages’ who had to be civilized and saved, or exterminated in competition with the land. On the Tohono O’odham reservation south of Tucson there are many such farm beds nestled between hills that form small valleys within the larger ones. They are mostly fallow now, and many of the natives that still farm at all have taken to using Western methods using large petrochemical fertilizer inputs and heavy machinery, but the yields honestly aren’t any better than what their forefathers/mothers got using ancient technology. I can see a potential for going back to the old ways as food gets scarce and fuel gets expensive. Brad Lancaster, author and permaculture designer has a wonderful story including pictures of successful use of this very technology on his website Farming in the City with Runoff from a Street [...]

  2. mindtangle » Blog Archive » Harvesting Rainwater Says:

    [...] a great piece about a guy who was able to produce a bumper crop on a vacant lot in Tuscon, Arizona by harvesting [...]

Leave a Reply

Drops in a Bucket Blog

 »Read all blog posts...

Upcoming Events

Also see the full list of upcoming events.


Like what this website offers?

Donations are greatly appreciated as they enable us to continuously update this expansive resource and generate new content. Thanks!