Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster

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Important Elevation and Slope Relationships of Eddy or Backwater Basins

Street-Side Eddy Basins

Harvesting Rock Water and More in Kenya

by Brad Lancaster © 2016

Earlier this year, while visiting the Laikipia Plateau, Kenya, I saw some of the worst erosion I’ve yet witnessed, while also experiencing a variety of growing oases. The three oases I’ll describe here are:

1. The capture of rock water (runoff from a large bedrock outcropping) into a cistern and plantings below
2. Twala Cultural Manyatta—a Maasai women-led culture and ecology program
3. Managed livestock grazing in wildlife preserves

1. The capture of rock water
The rock-runoff cistern has a capacity of 79,000 gallons (300 m3) and was built in 2009, thanks to Catholic Sister Katia’s fundraising and organizing work with the Naatum Women’s Group in the Soit Oudo region of Lapikia District, Kenya (figs. 1-4).

Before the tank was built, area women would walk 20 km to get to water that they would dig out of the sand in natural drainages before carrying it back home. The more the watersheds of those drainages were degraded, the less water the water flowed in the creeks, and the farther the women had to walk.

Animals are not allowed in the cistern’s catchment to reduce the chance of animal droppings contaminating the water. And sediment traps precede the inlet to the tank (figs. 1 and 5).

Figure 5. Two sediment traps preceding the inlet of the cistern. The upper sediment trap drops out sediments before water spills down onto the lower, steeper part of the catchment. After a rain the sediment traps can be cleaned out by hand.

Figure 5. Two sediment traps precede the inlet of the cistern. The upper sediment trap drops out sediments before water spills down onto the lower, steeper part of the catchment. After a rain the sediment traps can be cleaned out by hand.

Joseph Lentunyoi of Laikipia Permaculture Centre has since worked with the Naatum Women’s Group to enhance the potential of the system. He secured funding from LUSH Cosmetics to help repair the cistern’s plumbing, repair the land below the cistern by fencing out livestock, and plant rain and runoff via water-harvesting earthworks (fig. 6) to support native aloe secundiflora and other plantings (fig. 7). The aloe is used by the women to make soap and other products, and it is sustainably harvested and sold to LUSH for some of their products. The leaves can also be fed to chickens and used to treat malaria. Production is enhanced with beekeeping (fig. 8) and the capture and reuse of on-site nutrients such as those harvested from a newly-built compost toilet (fig. 9).

The women of Naatum (fig. 10) manage the cistern, its water catchment, and the fields below. While we were there they were in the process of building a traditional home (figs. 11 and 12).

Enough water is currently captured within the cistern to provide 80 liters of water per family per day. Water is free for the women of Naatum, while non-members must pay 50 shillings per month for access to cistern water. Another, upper cistern is desired on a different part of the rock catchment so it can be used for domestic purposes, while the lower cistern can be used for the growing farm.

You can help by attending a workshop with the women of Naatum and the Laikipia Permaculture Centre, and/or making a donation. Information on both can be found here. Donation button is on right-hand side of page.

2. Twala Cultural Manyatta
I was extremely impressed with our guides, Rosemary Putinoi and Priscillah Sente, and all the other women of Twala Cultural Manyatta. They convinced the men in the area to give the women land that the women would control in order to improve the lives of all. This was a coup in this male-dominated society, and very effective.

The women have greatly enhanced the livelihoods of all families in their community by growing native aloe secundiflora and other crops for their own use and sale, making and selling—direct to the customer—traditional Maasai jewelry, leading eco and cultural tours, producing fruit syrup from invasive prickly pear cactus, and much more.

All is done in a way that builds upon and strengthens many of the Maasai traditions, while also consciously evolving in a changing world.

For example, you can join Rosemary as she walks with the baboons.

In the past there was more conflict between area humans and baboons as a result of the baboons’ stealing water and food. This increased as erosion and deforestation of common/wild pasture land increased, due in part to growing numbers of grazing livestock and less-active management of that livestock since kids who used to shepherd the animals now went to school. Then non-native prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) started to fill the voids and take over where native vegetation was disappearing.

The thorns in the prickly pear fruit cause problems for the livestock that eat it, but elephants and baboons love it. Baboons have learned to rub the thorns off the fruit before eating it, and they also eat the prickly pear seed picked out of elephant dung. Thanks to the abundance of this juicy fruit the baboons now rarely steal water and food from people. And the baboons’ health is improving.

Mother baboons now seem to be producing more children with the presence of Opuntia. Prior to the prickly pear, baboons would live 30 years. Now it seems they live 50 years. And the hyraxes that live with baboons among the rock outcroppings have more food as they eat the seed from the baboon droppings.

Maasai did not traditionally walk with baboons; instead they’d kill them if a young goat was killed by a baboon. But now people value the baboons as the guided baboon walks bring in money, which is fairly distributed throughout the community.

Rosemary trained every day with the wild baboons and the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project for 7 months to build trust and to learn all that she now teaches and continues to learn, as on every walk the baboons’ behavior is observed and recorded. Rosemary is now seeking to train younger generations to succeed her.

I had meant to share far more about Twala with you all, but I lost my notes and photos from that part of my journey, though you can go to their link, watch this video, and perhaps even go visit. My stay with all of them was a highlight of my trip.

Figure 13. Non-native cholla (Opuntia sp.) cactus introduced to Kenya to grow living fences. (Cactus is native only to the new world). While the plant was introduced, many of its uses—such as how to cook and eat its flower buds—were not. Thus in my travels through Zimbabwe and Kenya I showed all who were interested how we harvest and cook these flower buds to eat here in the southwestern U.S. (where cholla cactus are native), and how they could do the same. There is huge potential as the flower buds in Kenya are over four times as large as those I find in southern Arizona.

Figure 13. Non-native cholla (Opuntia sp.) cactus introduced to Kenya to grow living fences. (Cactus is native only to the new world.) While the plant was introduced, many of its uses—such as how to cook and eat its flower buds—were not. Thus in my travels through Zimbabwe and Kenya I showed all who were interested how we harvest and cook these flower buds to eat here in the southwestern U.S. (where cholla cactus are native), and how they could do the same. There is huge potential as the flower buds in Kenya are over four times as large as those I find in southern Arizona.

3. Managed livestock grazing in wildlife preserves
This next bit will just be a lure for you to think about and pursue further.

Many of the common pasturelands/wildlands that I saw on the Laikipia Plateau were deforested and degraded by extreme erosion. As I mentioned earlier, this was due in part to growing numbers of grazing livestock and less-active management of that livestock since kids who used to shepherd the animals now go to school instead. This results in the livestock moving less and therefore overgrazing areas, whereas in the past, shepherds and predators kept the livestock moving, lessening the impact on any one area.

But in the adjoining wildlife preserves I drove through, the land was healthy. These preserves were also grazed by the Maasai’s livestock, but the grazing was much better managed. Rotational grazing and holistic management were some of the management methods used.

My point is, the problem was not the grazing itself, but how it was—or was not—being managed. The “how” is essential in our assessment of problems and potential solutions.

So often, all we need is already around us, and within us, we just need to see it, then have the will to act and consciously evolve. The people and communities I have highlighted above are doing a great job striving to do just that.


Thanks to Joseph Lentunyoi of Laikipia Permaculture Centre (which is a whole other wonderful oasis), and to Maite Guardiola for making my Kenya visit and learning possible. And thanks to the TOPS Program and MercyCorps for bringing me to the continent to teach and learn still more.


And for more related to this blog entry…. buy, read, and share these award-winning books:


DIY Steam Harvesting in Rural Kenya

by Brad Lancaster © 2016

Joseph Saitabao saw perennial water where no one else did. He saw it around Mount Suswa, Kenya, where no one lived during the dry season due to the lack of water. During the rainy season, people would get by on rooftop water harvested in tanks, or runoff captured in ephemeral ponds they built. But when tanks and ponds dried up people would leave until the rains returned. Joseph, however, saw untapped water in the form of steam arising from natural vents in the earth.

He got the idea for how to harvest this water by observing a geothermal plant while he was looking for work in another area with steam vents near Hell’s Gate National Park, 100 kilometers away. Undeterred by his lack of formal education, Joseph taught himself how to harvest that steam through innovation and experimentation.

Into a steam vent outlet Joseph inserted a chimney of scavenged plastic pipe that rose a short distance before bending down toward the ground. Steam condensed in the pipe and then started to trickle out the pipe in liquid form. A metal barrel was placed to collect the water.

Joseph discovered that the steam condensed more readily in larger-diameter pipe, and that PVC pipe could handle the heat of the steam. Then he built a new collection chimney of PVC pipes 3 and 4 inches (75 and 100 millimeters) in diameter (figs. 1–3). He was soon harvesting one barrel of water per night in the dry season.

Joseph expanded. He built another condensate chimney at the vent atop the adjoining hill then guttered the water down to a salvaged plastic tank (figs. 4–10). This tank fills with water every two days.

A garden emerges
Joseph first used the water for domestic needs and to water his livestock. Then in 2013, after the installation of a third condensate chimney, he started to grow a garden and food-bearing trees. This installation was his best (figs. 11–13). He found longer lengths of coiled pipe would result in more of the steam condensing, allowing less of it to escape as steam. The condensed water is then directed to a 2,300-liter (600-gallon) buried tank (buried so free gravity could power the water’s flow into the tank). This tank fills every four days.

Water is carried from the tank to the crops with a watering can (fig. 14).

Crops include “Push Awake” kale, cabbage, beans, onions, moringa, pineapple, avocado, and wild food trees (figs. 15 and 16). Our guide Jeremiah, who is Joseph’s brother, explained that the need to grow wild-food trees is growing with more humans and baboons harvesting from those trees. The trees were grown to also act as living fence posts for the garden’s boundary fence. Pruned branches and brush fill out the fence.


Figure 17. Mulch used to conserve water and protect the soil within a waffle garden. Note the waffle garden’s berm to right of planting bed.

To reduce water consumption, as well as the need to carry water, crops are grown in waffle gardens—basins made by mounding up small berms around their perimeters (fig. 17). This prevents direct rainfall and watering-can water from running away from the plants. In addition, Joseph is starting to mulch the surface of the soil (fig. 17). He calls the mulch “God’s Blanket.” He learned of the benefits of mulch in a workshop on water conservation, and has found it helps produce crops larger than those grown in non-mulched soil.

The local community benefits
No one lived in the area year-round until the year 2000 when Joseph created his first steam harvester. Now perennial residents can take water for free from Joseph’s system if it is for their personal use. But Joseph sells the water to others who use it for animals and to outsiders such as tourists. Only Joseph and his family tend the garden, but he sells extra produce to the community and teaches others how to likewise harvest the steam.

I loved the ingenuity and simplicity of the system and was so grateful for Jeremiah showing it to us all (and for Maite and Alberto making the meeting happen, along with MercyCorps and the TOPS program that had brought me to Africa to teach in Malawi). After visiting Joeseph’s site, Jeremiah, along with hosts Maite, Alberto, a friend, and I then departed to picnic by the Mount Suswa crater.

At the crater, Jeremiah disappeared into the bush and returned changed into his traditional Maasai dress. He was then ready to tell another story.

Jeremiah’s story
I had asked Jeremiah why he had received a formal education, but his elder brother Joseph had not. Jeremiah explained that their father had seven sons and fourteen daughters from three wives, at a time when the Maasai did not like sending their children to school. But the government demanded every household send at least one child to school. Jeremiah was neither the oldest nor the youngest—rather he was younger, smaller, and the son of a wife less favored by their father. Thus he was chosen to go to school. This was usually the case with other families as well. The irony is that today the grown “sacrificed” children are now seen as the most successful.

Jeremiah finished high school and went on to found a school in the community in 2002. All of his nine children are receiving a formal education. Funds from guide services support many of Jeremiah’s community endeavors, including a project begun in 2006 to educate the community on conservation. Much of the common land in the area had already been subdivided, but through the project, the community decided to preserve the area caves and inner crater by keeping them as conservation commons owned by no one.

If in Kenya, you can hire Jeremiah Saitabao Tanin to guide you in the Maasai lands of Mount Suswa. His number there is 254 712 244583.

For a different form of condensate harvesting—condensate harvesting from air conditioners—see www.harvestingrainwater.com/condensate-harvesting.

And for more related to this blog entry…. buy, read, and share these award-winning books:


Evolutions Within the Dunbar/Spring Public Commons

by Brad Lancaster © 2016

A bare beginning
When I moved to the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood in 1994, much of it was not a pleasant place to walk.

Most of the public rights-of-way (the area between the street curb and property lines/fences) were just hot, bare dirt, devoid of shade trees and other life. There were few sidewalks, but thankfully there was plenty of room for earthen footpaths. However, many people parked atop the footpaths rather than parking on the street—I’m afraid my brother and I were guilty of this, too (fig. 1A). This choice of parking location was driven partly by a fear that cars would get broken into if parked on the street. This fear was due in part to there not being many neighbors’ eyes on the street, which was due in part to having impassible footpaths—you did not want to hang out in or look out into the bleak street environment.

Yet another problem was the traffic in the streets. The neighborhood at that time was rife with speeding cut-through traffic (especially on the east-west streets) which would often collide with slower-moving pets or cars parked on the street. Thus I did not consider walking in the hot streets to be a viable alternative to walking in the rights-of-way.

But there was much to love about the community, and a number of neighbors saw great potential for simple transformations of the negatives to positives, with the past and present sometimes informing the future. For example, before she passed away, Dunbar School alumna and activist Willie Fears told me that many decades ago when she was a child, trees lined Main Avenue and its footpath to downtown, enabling kids to walk there barefoot in summer from our neighborhood and back.

Those trees were all gone by the time I moved here, but an oasis could (and still can) be found on Perry Avenue between University Blvd and 2nd Street where South American mesquite trees planted by neighbors in the 1980s canopied over most of the street. Then-resident Steve Leal had obtained well over a hundred of these trees which volunteers planted around the neighborhood. Many of these trees were eventually lost as they blew over or were leaning so much they had to be removed. On the northwest corner of Perry and University Blvd grew (and still grows) a different tree, a huge native desert ironwood tree planted many years ago by Elizabeth Upham who had bought it from Target as a seedling in a one-gallon pot.

These and other tree stories and plantings inspired then-newcomers such as me, along with longer-term residents, to begin in 1996 what has become an annual neighborhood tree-planting project that brings neighbors together to plant native, food-bearing trees along our streets, walkways, and property lines. As we began to plant, we found cars moved to the street (figs. 2A and B) and the neighborhood immediately felt enhanced and more cared-for. Native songbirds, butterflies, and pollinators returned to the growing habitat. (We would later discover research showcasing how important native vegetation is for native wildlife. For example, native mesquite trees attract over 60 native pollinators, while non-native mesquites planted here attract only about a dozen.) More people started walking and bicycling in the neighborhood. Crime dropped.

Since 1996, our neighborhood’s annual tree-planting project has resulted in neighbors planting over 1,400 trees! Still more were planted before 1996, or since by individual efforts outside of the neighborhood programs.

And those trees are doing particularly well where individual and/or neighborhood efforts are also passively harvesting rainwater and street runoff (while reducing downstream flooding). Over a million gallons of rain per year falls on a one-mile stretch of a typical Dunbar/Spring street. If that rainwater is directed to street-side basins as opposed to storm drains, there is enough street runoff along our streets to freely irrigate over 400 low-water-use native trees per mile, or one tree every twenty five feet, on both sides of the street.

Beginning in 2004, my brother and I created pilot sites where we made illegal cuts or core holes in the street curb to enable the street runoff get to the street-side tree basins. Vegetation flourished. We dialogued with the city, and by 2007 the practice of cutting street curbs to harvest street runoff had been legalized, and was later even incentivized. Now legal curb cuts spread as pioneering neighbors such as the Jacobses and Turtle and Ian installed them on their blocks.

Interestingly, our neighborhood’s lack of sidewalks proved to be an asset in pioneering this street-runoff harvesting, as it allowed the neighborhood more leeway for making larger basins for stormwater and trees along the street than would’ve been possible if sidewalk placement had left a street-side planting area too narrow for effective stormwater harvesting. Additionally, we did not have the expense of cutting through and then repouring concrete sidewalks. We were also able to pioneer more naturalistic, slightly meandering, tree-canopied earthen footpaths.

In 2009 our neighborhood was awarded a $500,000 Neighborhood Reinvestment Grant for tree planting, rainwater and street-runoff harvesting, traffic calming, and public art—all in the public rights-of-ways, our public Commons. Thanks to that grant, individual efforts, previous small grants, and donations, by the year 2012 our neighborhood’s green infrastructure included:

  • 10 water-harvesting traffic circles,
  • 33 water-harvesting/traffic-calming chicanes
  • Over 85 street-side basins fed by 50 curb cuts and 35 curb cores

All of this harvests over 700,000 gallons (2 acre-feet) per year of stormwater, which used to flood our streets.

Thanks to these growing and culminating efforts, there is now far more life in the neighborhood than there had been in the early 1990s (fig. 1B).

An old challenge reappears in a new form
However, ironically, in some sections of the neighborhood’s public rights-of-way there is now so much life that it is once again becoming unpleasant or impossible to walk along the footpaths—this time due to vegetation blocking the route. Simple pruning can remedy this. Maintaining a minimum standard of a continuous clear walkway area, 5 feet wide by 7 feet tall, enables two people to comfortably walk side by side or pass one another (our neighborhood has mostly 20-foot-wide public rights-of-ways).

Figure 4. Sidewalk/walkway minimum-height-clearance diagram from page 221 of City of Tucson Development Standards

City standards for sidewalk and walkway clearance
City of Tucson Development Standard 3-01.4.0 (p. 278) states that sidewalks/walkways must have a minimum width of 5 feet and a minimum unobstructed vertical clearance of 84 inches (7 feet) (fig. 4).

Best times to prune
According to certified arborist Aleck MacKinnon, we can prune our native trees anytime here in the Sonoran Desert—especially if we need to remove a barrier such as a branch that is forcing people to duck while walking along a pathway.

But he says the least beneficial time is fall (October/November) since that’s when fungal spores are flying, increasing the likelihood of transmitting infection to the trees via open pruning wounds. Moreover the trees are not as actively growing, so their ability to seal off and heal the wounds will be delayed until the following spring.

Aleck says the best time for maintenance pruning of pathways, etc., is late spring (April/May) after the flush of spring growth. Such timing also allows trees to prepare for monsoon growth and get the best bang for the buck when the rains come. Also, if you prune too early in the growing season you often end up with two sprouts where you tried to get rid of one.

Another good time to prune, as needed, is post-monsoon (August/September).

Additionally, Aleck notes, late winter (January/February), when leaves are gone, is the best time for structural pruning and young-tree and fruit-tree pruning, when you can more easily see the branches and help develop good structure before the growing season begins.

How to prune, while enhancing community
See here for a video on how to prune. See here for more.

However, some people don’t know how (or are not physically able) to prune, or are unmotivated.

To try to remedy these living barriers, the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood has organized free pruning workshops taught by certified arborists (such as Aleck MacKinnon, fig. 5), after which workshop participants and instructors all help prune sections of the neighborhood rights-of-way and their footpaths. The results have been wonderful, and the neighborhood has become more walkable (figs. 6 and 7). Still, there are still a number of areas with barriers that remain.

Turning “waste” prunings into an on-site fertility resource
As an additional incentive, we have made a chipping service available to chip up the green prunings into mulch (figs. 8A, B, C). This way none of the biomass and fertility leaves the neighborhood. This has been a reaction in part to the twice-per-year Brush and Bulky program, which just takes everything (fertile prunings included) to the dump. We wanted to play with transforming the Brush and Bulky waste streams into Chipped and Mulchy resource cycles.

There is a free pruning workshop in Dunbar/Spring Saturday, October 1, 2016.
See here for more info.

Also, there is a chipping service to turn the prunings into mulch Sunday, October 2, 2016. See here for info on how Dunbar/Spring residents and businesses can register for the chipping service.

All of this doubles as preparation for our neighborhood tour on Sunday, October 16.

We, along with University of Arizona researcher Mitch Pavao Zuckerman, PhD, (fig. 9), have found the mulch helps to:

  • Dramatically increase the rate of stormwater infiltration into the soil
  • Reduce soil moisture lost to evaporation
  • Reduce weed growth
  • Increase soil life
  • Naturally filter or bioremediate toxins from street runoff—basins mulched with organic matter were found to bioremediate over 10 times as many pollutants as an unmulched or rock-mulched soil in street-side basins, and
  • Enhance the growth rate and health of associated perennial vegetation

In the early days, working with local non-profit Watershed Management Group, we got a grant to pay for a local landscape company to chip up the prunings. Though as of late, with grant money spent, neighbor/landscaper Omar Ore-Giron has been renting and operating a chipper after the workshop, charging a nominal fee (suggested $30 donation) to cover the cost of the equipment rental and some of his time. It is then up to those who requested the chipping to promptly distribute their resulting mulch within basins or around vegetation.

And of course one can hand-cut prunings into mulch with hand pruners or loppers (fig. 10). It is best to cut prunings into pieces 6 inches or shorter so the resulting mulch will look better, easily compact down, and beneficially decompose by maximizing soil-mulch contact. Prunings that are not cut up appear and act as brush piles.

Different mulches for different places
Note that while the mulch from the chipper is great for water-harvesting basins, it is not appropriate for public footpaths because it is too coarse and can make walking more difficult for those with less-sure footing, those pushing baby carriages, or those in wheelchairs. My brother and I made the mistake of mulching the footpaths of the public right-of-way adjoining our properties with woody mulch that was too coarse (particle size up to 3 inches or more). It worked great for the soil and vegetation, but not accessibility. We mistakenly thought people walking on the coarse mulch would quickly break it up into finer pieces, but the coarse wood chips proved more resilient than we had anticipated. So we will replace the coarse mulch on the path with finer mulch (1/2-inch and smaller particle size) in time for our neighborhood’s home tour.

Good and bad path materials
The following materials on public paths were found to be barriers to public access:

  • Loose rock or gravel
  • Decomposed granite larger than 3/8-inch in particle size
  • Course organic material (woodchip) mulch larger than 1 inch in size
  • Broken concrete/sidewalks

Thus we ask that these materials be removed where needed to maintain a continuous 5-foot wide footpath in the public right-of-way.

Sloping or grading all pathways helps the path shed water, avoiding puddles on the path. Path runoff can be beneficially directed to adjoining lower-elevation planting basins.

The following path materials maintain public access:

  • Compacted native soil—free and already on site!
  • Screened organic-material mulch (woodchip) no larger than ½ inch in particle size. (Do not apply in a depth thicker than one inch. Thicker depths bog down wheels of carriages and wheelchairs). One supplier is Tank’s Green Stuff.
  • Compacted or stabilized1/4- to 3/8-inch minus decomposed granite (DG). There are natural polymers that can be mixed in with the decomposed granite to hold it together better and stabilize it. DG is available from local landscape material suppliers. (Gary Wittwer, Landscape Architect for the City of Tucson Transportation Department, told me DG can be implemented to be American Disabilities Act (ADA)-accessible.)
  • Pavers/brick, which can be installed within the grade/slope tolerances of the ADA
  • Maintained concrete sidewalks (ADA-accessible)

A history of neighborhood resident-led efforts
For decades this neighborhood has been striving to enhance our individual health, safety, and make the community more walkable and bikeable with tree plantings, community prunings, traffic calming, public art, enhanced bike/pedestrian crossings of major streets, and festivals such as Porch Fest and the Mesquite Millings. Most recently our neighborhood worked with the Living Streets Alliance to do a Walkability Study for the neighborhood.

Other community-planning endeavors have included:

…Which brings us to the present
Looking back 10 and 20 years, it is amazing how much more greenery, bird life, beauty, food, and shade we now have in the public realm of this neighborhood. Coupled with this is a dramatic increase in people walking, running, and cycling through the Dunbar/Spring community, which very often results in community-building, face-to-face interactions where people slow down and stop to talk. This contributed to the city’s decision to reclassify University Blvd, and parts of 9th Ave and 10th Ave from higher-speed, higher auto-traffic streets to bicycle boulevards.

All this has inspired many other neighborhoods and communities (in Tucson and beyond). I’m grateful for this transformation, and I’m grateful for all the neighbors who helped make it happen. Momentum for so many of these efforts was generated from the questions, “What kind of community do we want to live in, and how can we help make that happen?” And, “What potential, already inherent in the neighborhood, can we partner with?”

This neighborhood’s evolution is neither perfect nor complete. Evolution and change are constants. But we can consciously strive to evolve in the direction we desire in a caring way that enhances life and health for ourselves, our neighbors, and the larger community. Many of us have been trying to do so for years, and we can aim to get better still.

…And the very near future
Saturday, October 29, 2016, will be our neighborhood’s 21st annual tree planting.
Check our neighborhood website and this website for upcoming details, and come plant with us!

We plan to have two free pruning workshops per year in the neighborhood, aligned both with certified arborists’ recommendations for best pruning times, and with the typical times of greatest need for pruning: One in late winter (February), and one in late summer (August/September).

The day after each we’ll offer a chipping service to turn the prunings, otherwise wasted, into beneficial mulch. Please join us! As always, the pruning workshops are open to anyone and everyone. Invite friends and family, whatever neighborhood they live in.

Check back to this website’s calendar of events closer to the pruning times for more info.

As to planting the rain, fertility, community, and more, you can get your hands on, read, and implement the strategies in my award-winning book series, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond.



How to Make a Bucket Light: A DIY Dark-Sky-Compliant Outdoor Light

Night-Sky Harvesting

by Brad Lancaster

Where are we? There is so much light we cannot see.

According to NPR, nearly 80 percent of people in North America cannot see the Milky Way in the night sky due to light pollution.

I love seeing the stars at night. It reminds me of where we are in the universe. It reminds me that we live on a planet. The night sky in its full glory is an open door to the infinite and to wonder.

The stars also enable me to find my way. I use the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Cassiopeia, or the constellation Orion—or all of them together—to find the north star, and thus the direction north. In the southern hemisphere I use Orion and the Southern Cross constellation to find north and south. (See appendix 7 of my book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1, 2nd edition, for how to use constellations and our sun to find direction.)

I relish the different stories and myths told by diverse cultures about how the various constellations came to be, and how those stories can guide us in life on the ground. The constellations even act as calendars (e.g., in the Sonoran Desert when Pleiades appears on the eastern horizon at dawn, it is time to harvest saguaro fruit1) and timepieces.

But I don’t want to have to leave my neighborhood to see the stars, and as a kid in the suburbs on the north side of Tucson, Arizona, I did not have too. I now live on the north side of downtown Tucson, where light pollution is extreme, but I’m taking action to reduce that light pollution while making the neighborhood safer.

I start at home
I got rid of the outdoor porch lights that shined light in all directions. The damn things would blind me from the glare, allowing my brother Rodd to easily hide from me in the shadows then jump me. He got me every time.

I replaced the old lights with dark-sky-compliant lighting that shines all direct light downward, dramatically reducing blinding glare. Thus, with the new lighting in place, my brother (and all others) could no longer surprise me.

Initially I bought dark-sky compliant light fixtures. Later, I made my own fixtures out of buckets and salvaged chicken-watering cans.

See here for how you can make your own dark-sky-compliant bucket light.

Then the neighbors, friends, and family
I could see so much better I next worked with my neighbors by offering to change all their heavy light-pollution-emitting front-porch light fixtures with dark-sky compliant replacements. Within a month, all front porch lights on my block had been changed. We could see better on the ground, we were not blinded by the porch lights when visiting each other after sunset, we no longer needed to close curtains to make our rooms dark at night, and we could see somewhat better when we looked up at the night sky.

Working on policy level
Parking-lot lights and security lights were still a problem in our neighborhood, along with, in some areas, streetlights. One developer blanketed three blocks of neighboring properties with orange light from security lights that shine outward into the neighborhood from his three-story Sahara Apartments building. This apparently did little if anything to deter crime as a month later, in all that light, someone broke the windows of most of the cars parked on the street. Streetlights were installed in other parts of the neighborhood at intersections where there were crime concerns. After their installation, I observed a dramatic increase in people conducting drug deals and soliciting prostitutes under the lights. I suppose it was easier to see the money and goods.

See here for studies showing how increasing lighting has not been found to reduce crime, and how such lighting can even increase crime.

Neighbors and I fought the proposed installation of streetlights on our blocks, and largely won. To fight crime, we got to know one another better and directed our eyes outward. We looked out for one another, and spent more time on our front porches socializing, reading, and greeting those who walked by. We planted native food-bearing street trees, made walking paths, and installed traffic-calming strategies in the streets to encourage more beneficial street life and interaction. And we called each other and the police if we saw any crime take place. But we had no success getting rid of or deflecting the lights from the student apartments because they were legal under city lighting policy. What was needed was a dark-sky lighting ordinance. Turns out Tucson has one, but in my view it needs to be updated (especially on commercial property) and better enforced.

I saw great success with this in Eagle Mountain, Utah, where mayor Chris Pengra and council implemented an effective dark-sky lighting ordinance in 2014, thanks to which the Milky Way is still visible in the middle of town. Driving through a residential tract-home development at night it was obvious which homes had been built before the ordinance, and which had been built after. I did not want to approach the homes built pre-ordinance due to the painful glare of their seemingly prison-yard-like outdoor lights compared to the very welcoming subdued and romantic outdoor lighting of the post-ordinance homes.

Seeing more
In the subtle light I can see more. This was made delightfully clear when I spent time earlier this year with the great people of the Muonde Trust in rural villages of Zimbabwe where electricity and therefore artificial lighting are minimal (usually just a single solar panel with two car batteries per household to power a couple of indoor lights, a laptop, cell phones, and a stereo). When outside, my eyes did not need to adjust from extreme artificial light to starlight. Thus I could, and did, walk through the villages and forests by starlight alone. Your eyes attune to the low light conditions when that is the norm, and you see well. It was so beautiful and peaceful I became addicted to these nightly walks.

But best of all was the brilliant night sky. Every day we would be working all day long—sharing, teaching, and learning various water-harvesting, fertility-harvesting, and community-building endeavors—and we would return to the village exhausted well after dark. But our energy and spirits were immediately renewed when we brought our chairs outside to sit looking up into the night sky, the Milky Way, and distant galaxies. So beautiful, so enlivening! The endless stars were always a source of renewal. And after connecting so deeply with people throughout the day, it was a delight to connect so deeply with this Place at night.

Is your interest in night-sky harvesting piqued? See here for easy steps you can take to enhance our night skies.

For still more:


1. Stars of the First People: Native American Star Myths and Constellations, by Dorcas S. Miller, Pruett Publishing, 1997, p. 204.

For more related to this blog entry…
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Evolutions on Mr. Phiri’s Water-Harvesting Plantation, 1995–2016

by Brad Lancaster © 2016

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to return to Zimbabwe and to the farm of some of my prime water-harvesting mentors, Mr. Zephaniah Phiri Maseko and his family. While in the region, I also visited the farms of many other innovative farmers who are enhancing their soils’ hydrology and fertility by cooperating with natural systems. In this blog entry, and some to follow, I will share some of the inspiring things I saw.

I was in country with fellow colleagues Warren Brush and Thomas Cole to share and learn with model farmers affiliated with the Muonde Trust, and to work with a USAID-funded program that facilitates the training of technical field staff working with smallholder farmers (small-scale family farms).

My trip began with revisiting the farm of Mr. Phiri and family. In 1995 Mr. Phiri set me on my water-harvesting path by way of his productive example of numerous innovations and applications of very effective and accessible systems that plant the rain throughout his land with simple water- and fertility-harvesting earthworks. From that experience, I realized we all already have what we need to enhance our lives and those of others wherever we live—we just need to learn to see what is naturally and freely at hand, and then to live and work cooperatively with those resources and opportunities, rather than against them. For example, we need to plant/infiltrate/invest rainfall within our soils, vegetation, and watersheds rather than wastefully drain it away, and to do so in a way that enhances the health of all life, rather than benefiting some at the expense of others.

Since Mr Phiri’s learning kept pace with him over the decades, through this blog entry I will share a number of photos comparing what I saw on his farm in 1995, again on a visit in 2014, and on my latest visit this year (2016). Things kept getting better and better—not because of more and more investments of money into the farm, but due to better and better cooperation with the natural systems at play.

This blog entry is meant as a supplement to chapter one of my award-winning book, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1, 2nd Edition, where you will find Mr. Phiri’s story, his water-harvesting evolution, and universal water-harvesting principles that were derived in part from his innovations and learning. I recommend you read that story first, then read on here to see how things have evolved.

Figure 1. Map of the Phiri family farm, drawn in 1996.

Figure 1. Map of the Phiri family farm, drawn in 1996.

On the eroded hill slope above his farm, Mr. Phiri noticed that rocks placed across the slope could slow down stormwater-runoff flow, allowing sediment to drop out of the flow and accumulate behind the rock. Thus soil was captured, rather than lost. Moisture lingered. Seeds germinated. Plants grew, and a living sponge started to form on what was previously a bare bedrock drain (figures 2A, 2B, 3, and 4).

At the keypoint of the land, where the steeper, erosional section of the slope becomes more gradual, soil starts to settle out of the runoff flow and creates deposits.

Above and below the keypoint, Mr. Phiri created low, unmortared stone walls (figures 5A & 5B) to slow and spread the flow of stormwater runoff (thus gathering sediment behind the walls). Just below the keypoint he created a small ephemeral reservoir dug down to bedrock. He digs out the sediment that accumulates behind it after a storm, then uses that sediment elsewhere for building projects, berm reinforcement, etc.

Many of the livestock pens (figure 6) are placed just below the keypoint of the slope, where the steepness becomes more gradual, and soil begins to settle out of runoff flow, rather than running off with it. As these pens are located above the farm’s fields and orchards, it is easier to work with gravity when moving the manure and its fertility downslope.

Mr. Phiri calls his larger ephemeral reservoir his “immigration center” for the rain. See Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1, 2nd Edition, for why he named it so. If this reservoir fills three times in a year, he knows he has enough water stored throughout his soil to last him through a two-year drought—due to hundreds of small structures and plantings throughout his land which all slow, spread, and infiltrate rainfall and runoff into his soil and the root zone of his plants.

See Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volumes 1 and 2, for many other inexpensive, effective greywater-harvesting systems.

Mr. Phiri made “fruition pits” within a government-built drainage swale beside a dirt road (figures 11A and B) to turn the water-draining swale into a water-harvesting structure. When a pit fills with water, the excess overflows to the next pit in the swale. Once rains stop and water stops flowing, all pits are filled with water that infiltrates into the on-site soils.

They are called “fruition pits” because as Mr. Phiri explained, he grows many food-, medicine-, and fiber-bearing plants on the water harvested within the pits—thus they are very fruitful structures. He then picked some fruit from one of the bushes and gave it to me to eat.

Eat your rainwater.

Due to all the water-harvesting earthworks and plantings on the farm, the well (borehole) overflows in the wet season (figure 12). The surrounding trees use that water, accessed via their roots, with excess directed via plastic pipe to different contour and diversion swales to further spread and cycle/recycle the water across the farm (figures 12–16).

12 Well and hand pump 2016 IMG_5446

Figure 12. Well and hand pump on Mr. Phiri’s farm, 2016 wet season

^Figure 13. Qaphelani Phiri explains how excess water overflowing from the top of the hand-dug well is directed via plastic pipe to different swales below, 2016 wet season

There are a number of hand-dug wells on the Phiri farm into and from which water is both deposited and withdrawn. In the wet season, excess water from Mr. Phiri’s contour swales is directed into the wells below via plastic pipe, as well as in the form of moisture migrating more slowly within the soil itself (figures 17A and B).

Mr. Phiri plants, infiltrates, and invests much more rainfall into his soils than he extracts or withdraws from his hand-dug wells. As a result, the water level in his wells keeps rising. He is continually increasing the amount of water he has stored in the savings account of his soils and on-site groundwater table. Thus he does not run out of water.

Mr. Phiri’s adjoining neighbors and those downstream have also benefitted from the Phiris’ work, as their well levels have also risen due to how much water the Phiris are inputting to the watershed.

However, others farther off in the area who do not harvest their rainwater find that their well levels continually drop and they must continually dig their wells deeper—and yet they still go dry since they extract or withdraw more water than they invest or deposit within the system.

Near the bottom of the Phiri farm are three ephemeral ponds stocked with fish to provide food, mosquito control, and fertilizer. In figure 18A Mr. Phiri is standing here beside his largest. If one pond goes dry, the fish are moved to the other ponds. If all ponds go dry, there is a community fish fry.

I found it amazing that some farmers in the area had dry wells, while the Phiris had full ponds with fish—another benefit of the abundant harvest of rain throughout the farm’s earthworks and soil.

In 1995 Mr. Phiri was using a pump typically powered by a donkey to pull water from the reservoir below to irrigate his field in dry times (figure 19). Now, water harvested within the swales above, along with that in the reservoirs, passively infiltrates into the root zone of the plants. Thus the donkey pump is no longer needed or used.

Something I found very troubling in Zimbabwe, and which I find to be the case almost everywhere including in the United States, is how destructive agriculture can be in the way it is so often practiced. The land for the field in figure 20 (and decades ago those of the Phiri farm) was cleared of productive native forests to grow annual crops. With perennial vegetative cover gone, the natural water-harvesting sponge of the forest was replaced with a drain of seasonally bare, disturbed earth. Erosion increased greatly and huge amounts of soil and fertility were—and continue to be—lost.

The Phiris have done a tremendous amount of work to try to undo that destruction. Water-harvesting earthworks now provide much of the sponge-services the forest vegetation and its mulch once provided. The planting of food-bearing perennial crops along those earthworks is also establishing a new forest of different species that continues to grow. Since 1999, the diversity of perennial plants on the farm has increased by 25%. Though what I find particularly insane is that many of these healing practices were illegal not that long ago. When Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia, farmers were fined for having trees in their fields.

Thankfully the Phiris and many other rebellious, innovative farmers have proved the benefits of less harmful, and even healing strategies; thus these positive examples are helping change laws and practices for the better.

I plan to feature a number of these other farmers in upcoming blog entries. One of them is Lucy Dube (figure 21). Lucy was one of about a dozen women farmers who apprenticed with the Phiris in 2013 and 2014, and she has gone on to generate amazing water-harvesting examples, innovations, and teachings in her own right.

I donated money to the Muonde Trust to help make this apprenticeship happen, and recently did so again for a new round of such collaboration.

You could do the same, at Muonde.org.

And I strongly recommend that you do, as your contribution will go very far with this tremendous grassroots organization.

Mr. Phiri passed away in September 2015. His wife Constance, son Qaphelani, and grandson Amon are carrying forth the legacy as they continue to plant water and fertility on their land—and that of others—through their teaching, sharing, and inspiration.

Such teaching-by-example and sharing inspire many other Phiri-ites, who inspire still more. I consider myself one, as I do the many thousands who have read my books and are now practicing the planting of rain and the ecological growing of food in their lives.

The Phiri Award annually highlights such leading practitioners and innovators in Zimbabwe. (I plan to blog soon on some of the winners I visited (keep checking back)).

Similarly, in Rajasthan, India, a village of water harvesters, Laporiya, has inspired hundreds of other villages to likewise create sustainable oases in the desert by planting, not draining, the rain. They too have created an annual award, the Diamond of the Land award, to recognize leaders and innovators in their area. See their story in the introduction of my second book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 2: Water-Harvesting Earthworks.

Who could be the spark in your neighborhood or watershed?

It could be you!

For more see my award-winning books

The Passing of Mentor and Master Water Harvester Mr. Phiri

by Brad Lancaster © 2015

In September 2015, I got word from Ken Wilson of the Muonde Trust that an incredible mentor of his, mine, and of thousands around the world, Mr. Zephaniah Phiri Maseko, had passed away.

Mr. Phiri had set me on my path in 1995 (and his story and teachings became the core of my first book, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1, 2nd Edition) when I spent one day with him on his farm in the driest region of Zimbabwe. Over the course of 30 years, he and his family had turned a wasteland into an oasis by planting the rain. I was inspired to the core.

And when I told him how concerned I was with the water situation in my community and watershed, and how I was thinking of leaving my community because of this, he presented me with this challenge:

“You cannot leave. You must set your roots deeper than you ever thought possible. Because if you run from your problems, you will just plant problems everywhere you go.

“You must instead try to find solutions. If you succeed, you will then have the ability to find solutions anywhere.”

I returned home determined to do just that, guided by the example of Mr. Phiri and his family.

In 2014, nineteen years after spending that day with Mr. Phiri, I had the opportunity to return to Zimbabwe to his farm. I was excited, but also fearful. I wondered if what he had done was really as wonderful as I remembered. I wondered if my vision had been clouded by his incredible storytelling.

The oasis that greeted me shattered my fears, renewed my memories, and furthered my learning. Mr. Phiri and his family had continued to evolve their practices and, with them, the farm. By working in partnership with natural patterns of living systems, more wonders had flourished. Water was everywhere seeping out of the earth. All was incredibly verdant. In some areas of the farm the song of nesting birds was so thick you had to raise your voice to be heard. It reeked of rotting fruit along the swales where the mango trees were so productive that family and visitors could not keep up with the harvest. And in an area where big wild animals are seldom seen due to all the human activity, many of these animals could be seen walking the perimeter of Mr. Phiri’s farm. Zebra were the latest visitors before my last visit.

And while Mr. Phiri had slowed physically with age, he was as whip-smart and joyful as ever. Teaching, challenging, sharing, and storyweaving constantly.

But more impressive still was what others had done—inspired and taught by Mr. Phiri. Ken and others from the Muonde Trust showed me amazing projects and introduced me to the local innovators who were responsible for them. These, like the Phiri farm, were lushscapes where those living on the land were actively planting the rain, observing natural patterns, and working with them. Some of them, like myself, had also spent only one day with Mr. Phiri, but the inspiration spawned by that meeting carried on for the rest of their lives.

Additionally, I got the opportunity to spend time with a number of women who had recently been apprenticing with Mr. Phiri, and to whose apprenticeship program I had donated funds through the Muonde Trust, www.Muonde.org. These women had become leaders in their communities by walking their talk, planting the rain, and seeking and practicing solutions informed by observing the natural systems in which they lived. These women are the best teachers I’ve ever witnessed. They teach by their example, their song and dance, and the principles they hold strong and share. In 10 years or less I am confident they will easily surpass what Mr. Phiri accomplished in 30 years, thanks to his guidance, their drive, and the community of practitioners that is building.

I missed Mr. Phiri the moment I left his farm. But his laugh, caring, his endless fight to live and be what he feels is right, his stories, and what he inspires—these infiltrate you. They germinate within. They grow. And they spread.

Thank you, Mr. Phiri, for all you have given me, your family and community, the watersheds, and the world.

You can read still more on Mr. Phiri in my next blog entry—Evolutions on Mr. Phiri’s Water-Harvesting Plantation, 1995–2016—and in his Book of Life presented to him in 2010.

Within his Book of Life, I wrote the following tribute to him.

You can also visit Muonde.org to learn of many others he inspired who are now carrying on similar work in Zimbabwe.

Mr. Zephaniah Phiri Maseko, photo credit Brock Dolman

Mr. Zephaniah Phiri Maseko, photo credit Brock Dolman

Multi-Use Rain-Garden Plant Lists: Invitations to Deeper and More-Connected Relationships

by Brad Lancaster © 2015

A story of early motivation
I grew up in the suburbs of Tucson, surrounded by lush desert vegetation. I would climb it, hide in it, and play around it. But I rarely knew any of the plants’ names, and I did not have much of a sense of what their roles (or mine) were in our shared community. It was a pleasant, but fairly shallow relationship, as the knowing of the other, the understanding of the other, was just at the surface level.

It didn’t help that my family had moved here from elsewhere. We were all greenhorns with no shared history or understanding of this place and its life.

But my play began to instill a wonder, a love, and a desire to know and share more. What did the early people of this place eat? What could I eat? Where did they get the things they needed? What could I provide? What would the wildlife eat? How come there were horned lizards, hummingbirds, big trees, water, butterflies, archaeological ruins, and/or dragonflies in some places, but not in others?

These answers and so many more came to light as I took the time and interest to delve deeper, to investigate, and to get to know these patterns and lives. I began to simply take note of where different plants lived—what microclimate (soil type, sun exposure, proximity to a watercourse, etc.) they seemed to prefer. Then I learned their names—through plant books, identification signs at botanical gardens, the local herbarium, or an introduction by a knowledgeable friend or guide on a plant walk.

It’s like getting to know a neighbor seen on a regular neighborhood walk. You learn their patterns, what route they like to walk. A familiarity grows with more interactions, and then you introduce yourself, ask their name, conversation continues, and the relationship grows.

And often you hear a story or learn of a detail that really hooks you. Wait, you were a major food source of the prehistoric people of this area, and you are still eaten today? Can I eat you? Could I try? Oh wow, you are delicious! Oh my, and so many other birds and animals like to eat you. No wonder I see them and their tracks all around you. No wonder I see your seed in their scat (as it soon will be in mine). Interactions, investigations, conversations, and learning continue.

Such was the case with the native velvet mesquite tree, as the conversation and relationship kept evolving… You mean to tell me that you freely fertilize the soil with tiny nitrogen-fixing organisms that live on your roots? That’s amazing, you could help fertilize my garden and shade it from the hot afternoon sun if I planted one of your offspring on the west side of my vegetable plot or orchard. You also attract over 60 native pollinators, while non-native mesquites planted in Arizona attract only about a dozen?! Go co-evolution! Oh man, those pollinators will also help further boost my garden’s production. And what’s up with how I often find the best-tasting mesquite pods are on trees whose pods looked stripped, or shredded? Birds that like sweet pods do that—cool, I’ll let them lead me to my tastiest harvests! No way—migrating neotropical songbirds can increase their body weight by 10–20% in just two to four days by chowing on the insects that are in a single blooming native mesquite tree?! You are an epic provider, especially when you’re growing bigger along a watercourse or within a roadside swale. Oh, that gives me an idea—I’ll create some water-harvesting earthworks beside you to similarly harvest the water pouring off my roof and walkway. That’ll put an end to the flooding against the house, and an end to my having to water the landscape via hose or irrigation line. And those rain-garden basins will also catch and hold your leaf drop—for free and fertile mulch!

A tool and an invitation
Such experiences have been wonderful for me, and I want to make them easier for you and others. Great tools in this endeavor are multi-use rain-garden plant lists. I developed mine from the experiences described above and more.

These multi-use rain-garden plants lists are invitations to collaborate with and enhance living systems in our shared designed/built environments.

They list many human, livestock, and wildlife uses for each featured plant. Each use is a unique invitation into a deeper connection and opportunity for greater potential.

These lists promote multi-functional plantings of rainwater, stormwater, and vegetation which, when done well, will not require supplemental irrigation after the plants get established (the establishment period can take 1–3 years). Thus the water-use and microclimate info in the lists can help us create net-positive water landscapes, meaning the landscapes and their plantings can reinvest more water back into the ecological system than they take out. The lists can help us select and grow local food plants irrigated solely with free on-site local water, rather than with costly water imported from great distances and/or pumped from great depths.

These lists have been created for different bioregions by experts that live, work, play, plant, explore, and experiment with water-harvesting landscapes within those bioregions. And we’d love more. Check out the lists accumulated thus far here. Let us know if you have such lists you’d like to share from your bioregion and climate. Look to the template for what info we recommend you include. Help us evolve these lists/tools. Generate lists, or bring to light great lists others have made for your place. That’s what we are trying to encourage with our Multi-Use Rain-Garden Plant Lists page. It is meant as a platform to share, to give credit to those doing the hard and thoughtful work in generating these amazing resources, and to lift the quality and potential of landscapes being designed today.

Share the lists. We’d love to see plant nurseries, designers, and landscapers post them, group and place plants by their rain-garden zone(s) within water-harvesting earthworks, and list/learn/share the uses of the various plants so more people will get the info, put it into practice, and grow more resilient, deeply beautiful, and productive landscapes.

Get more info on how to get the most from your efforts from my award-winning books, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond.

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The Umbrella: Winter 2019/2020

THE UMBRELLA: A catch-all of resources, events, media, and more from Brad Lancaster   Rain Planting E-BOOK now available! Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1, 3rd Edition now available in E-BOOK format Plant the Rain gifts Get holidays gifts that spread the word and practice on how we can make the world a […]

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