Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster

Historic Rainwater-Harvesting Systems at the Shrine of Santa Rita in Vail, Arizona

by Brad Lancaster © 2017


Southern Arizona has a rich water-harvesting history that is too often forgotten or lost. Though sometimes gems are dusted off, unearthed, remembered, or even celebrated—and they can inspire and inform us in both the present and future.

One such example is this Saturday’s event at the old Vail, Arizona, post office and Shrine of Santa Rita.

Fig. 0. Vail Store and Post Office, ca. 1935. Image courtesy of the Vail Preservation Society.

The old post office in Vail operated for decades without its own source of water. During that time it was dependent on the trains for bringing in water as, according to local historian J.J. Lamb, there was no well at the town site until 1992. The Santa Rita Shrine on the other side of the street, however, captured the rain falling on its roofs and landscape.

Fig. 1. Shrine of Santa Rita. Below-ground cistern is behind the low wall on the left.

Built in 1934, the shrine captures rainfall from its terracotta tile roof and, via a gutter-and-downspout system and an underground pipe, directs that water to a 8-foot-diameter, 10-foot-deep, concrete-lined underground cistern on the east side of the shrine. Its storage capacity is approximately 3,700 gallons; it was half full when we inspected it. The top of the cistern has a 3-foot-high ring that used to be covered by an ornate roof designed to look like an old well from which water was accessed with a rope and bucket.

We could not find a separate overflow pipe when inspecting the system; it’s possible the overflow might be through the screen box.

Two other systems can be found southeast of the shrine. The shrine staff told us that the smaller, 12-foot-diameter cistern (11,380-gallon capacity) captures water from roofs, similar to the shrine’s roof-catchment system; it had ample water at the time of inspection (observed via a hole in the cistern’s roof). The second, larger 20-foot-diameter cistern (42,600-gallon capacity) captures runoff from the landscape.

Again, it seems both tanks’ overflow might be through their inlet screen boxes, as we could not find other overflow routes. (Though we’d likely have had better luck if we could have viewed the cisterns from the inside. The day of inspection the locks could not be unlocked. But the locks have since been replaced, so inspection is now possible with shrine staff.)

I love touring such old sites, and then figuring out how they worked—or in this case, still work. Seeing what did/does work well, and what may not, informs better practices in the present.

Unlike wells that extract groundwater, or pumps and canals that divert surface flow, these rainwater-harvesting systems do not deplete the flow of the nearby Cienega Creek Natural Preserve. Instead, they help enhance those flows by not extracting from our groundwater or creeks in the first place.

While I love these systems, there is a key piece missing: passive water-harvesting earthworks or rain gardens. There is huge potential for such passive systems capturing runoff from other roofs—such as the old Vail Post Office roof— as well as from streets, parking lots, sidewalks, footpaths, the overflow from cisterns, and even putting-green runoff. Each of these hardscape surfaces could direct its runoff water to adjoining mulched and vegetated basins or rain gardens that could then grow native, food-bearing trees to shade and cool the convex or hard surfaces from which they got their water. Water not used by the native plants will infiltrate below their root zone, helping recharge the groundwater.

Fig. 12. Google Maps screenshot of Vail, AZ. Shrine of Santa Rita is flagged in upper left. Cienega Creek Natural Preserve is to the right of the shrine. Note where the dense green vegetation in the creek bed stops near right-hand side of the image. That is where a historic dam site diverts the creek’s flow out of the creek to irrigate what used to be the Rancho del Lago and its farm, but today is the Del Lago Golf Club, which now uses the diverted creek water to irrigate its grass. About 20% of Tucson’s groundwater comes from the Cienega Creek watershed.

By planting, harvesting, or infiltrating the rainfall (rather than draining it) this site and many others could naturally and regeneratively grow more sustainable abundance—living oases irrigated with nothing more than the rain.

We’ll talk about how you can do this at the workshop this Saturday—come join us!

And the books in my Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond series are the best guides out there.

Brad Lancaster: Keynote Speaker at 4th Biannual Russian River-Friendly Landscaping Event “Supply in the Sky: Stormwater as a Resource,” January 24, 2017 — Santa Rosa CA

rrfl-logoWhen: Tuesday, January 24, 2017 | 7:30 am – 12 noon

Where: City of Santa Rosa Utilities Field Operations, 35 Stony Point Rd, Santa Rosa, California

Cost: Free. Click here to register and secure your spot.

The Russian River Watershed Association is pleased to present the 4th Biannual Russian River-Friendly Landscaping Event “Supply in the Sky: Stormwater as a Resource,” in Santa Rosa. Join them on Tuesday, January 24, for practical advice on utilizing stormwater as a valuable resource to enhance the ecological health of local landscapes and water supply.

From precipitation to percolation, each event speaker will focus on different aspects of stormwater in landscaping. Brad Lancaster, keynote speaker and author of the award-winning book series, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, will present Planting the Rain: Principles, Practices, and Tips for Water-Harvesting Earthworks and Rain Gardens. His books will also be available for sale and signing. Additional speakers include Water Resources Engineer Angelique Fabbiani-Leon (Department of Water Resources), Water Systems Designer and Cartographer Sebastian Bertsch (Permaculture Artisans), and Environmental Specialist Sean McNeil (City of Santa Rosa).

A continental breakfast will be provided.

For additional information on Russian River-Friendly Landscaping, please visit:



Brad Lancaster: Guided Home and Neighborhood Tour Showcasing Integrated Harvests of Water, Sun, Wind, Shade, Fertility, Carbon, and Community, December 22, 2016 — Tucson AZ

Brad Lancaster, author of the award-winning, best-selling book series, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, will lead this 2.5-hour tour of his home property (the only home property that will be toured) and sites within the public rights-of-ways of the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood.

A portion of the proceeds from the tour will help fund ongoing integrated water-harvesting, native food-tree planting, traffic-calming, and education efforts within the public realm of the neighborhood.

Tickets are $20 per person—please see Fine Print down below before purchasing:

Select multiple tickets in shopping cart:

Some of the many features to be included in the tour:

  • Low-tech, low-cost, gravity-fed (no pumps) potable rainwater-harvesting system providing for household water needs (including drinking water)
  • Rainwater-harvesting tanks doubling as summer sun- and winter shade-harvesting systems, privacy/property fences, fire breaks, and more
  • Passive, gravity-fed greywater-harvesting systems that reuse all household drainwater for safe irrigation of food plants that also help passively shade/cool buildings in summer while retaining the sun’s heat and light gain in winter.
  • Flood-controlling, heat-island abating, and carbon-sequestering public gardens and orchards irrigated ONLY with on-site rainwater
  • A tiny-house one-car-garage-to-cottage conversion resulting in a passively heated and cooled garottage
  • Numerous strategies on how to maximize the harvest of winter sun AND summer shade in a way that reduces your water consumption, carbon emissions, and costs—these strategies work in ALL seasons, rather than working in only one season at the expense of others
  • Sculpture that celebrates the seasonally changing path of the sun and the design of homes and gardens that make the most of the winter sun and summer shade
  • Solar cooking, power, hot water, heating, lighting, and clothes drying
  • Low-tech, low-cost, legal site-built compost toilet
  • Self-regenerating living mulch machines that naturally bioremediate pollutants from street runoff
  • Novel urban-wildlife habitat such as pollinator fences and shade screens
  • Neighborhood-history sign project
  • Neighborhood-scale water harvesting, native food-tree planting, traffic calming, and art—all celebrating and enhancing the story and potential of Place

For visual previews of some of the above features:
Click to enlarge the images below, check out these sun- and shade-harvesting and water-harvesting & cistern set-up videos, &/or read this enhanced stormwater-harvesting blog post.

Also available for sale at the tour will be signed copies of Brad’s books (including the newly revised and expanded second edition of Volume 1), specially priced for tour-goers at $20 for Volume 1 and $30 for Volume 2, as well as kid-sized Rainwater Harvesting t-shirts.

**The Fine Print**

  • Unless maximum attendance is reached before 8 am MST on December 22, tickets may be purchased via PayPal up until that time. (PayPal will not allow you to purchase tickets after maximum attendance has been reached.)
  • After 7 pm MST on Tuesday, December 20, ticket fees are non-refundable; your ticket purchase becomes a donation (in the event you are not able to attend or sell/give away your ticket).
  • Tickets are transferable (you may give/sell your ticket to another person). When you arrive for the tour, simply provide the name of the original ticket-purchaser and we’ll check you in on our tour list.
  • After you complete your ticket purchase, you will receive an automated confirmation email from PayPal and be brought back to this page. When one of us humans sees your purchase, we’ll generate a second confirmation email via PayPal. Thanks for your interest and support!

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The Umbrella: Summer 2020

THE UMBRELLA: A catch-all of resources, events, media, and more from Brad Lancaster In this time of Covid-19 and spending more time at home to be safe, I’ve been grateful for the solace, inspiration, and bountiful sustenance my water-harvesting gardens, landscape, and neighborhood forest has provided me, my family, friends, and neighbors. Record summer heat […]

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