Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

How A Little Rainfall Can Turn Into A Bountiful Resource

Overview of Lancaster-Homestead Water-Harvesting Strategies
How A Little Rainfall Can Turn Into A Bountiful Resource
Harvesting Rainwater Makes A Lot Out Of A Little Rainfall GUESTS:Brad Lancaster is the author of several books including, "Rainwater Harvesting for Dry Lands and Beyond." He's lecturing in Encinitas on Thursday night.

Maureen Cavanaugh: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. San Diegans will spend much of this month and the next watching the skies; will be hoping for rain for a decent winter rainy season both here and in Northern California Mountains where much of our water supplies still come from. But we may not have to spend all of our time just hoping. Innovative water harvesting techniques have the potential of turning even a little rainfall into a bountiful resource. Earlier today, I spoke with Brad Lancaster. He is the author of the book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. He is lecturing in San Diego tomorrow night, here is that interview. Brad many San Diegans are getting into the habit of putting out water barrels when it rains, but you say there is a lot more that we can do such as just give us an overview if you would. Brad Lancaster: Sure, the first thing I’d say is we can harvest water for no more than the cost of a shovel by harvesting that rainwater not only in barrels but even better yet in the soil like creating the simple basin-like shapes, bowl-like shapes within our landscapes that harvesting infiltrate water as opposed to hill-like shapes that drained it away, because our soil is our single largest tank if you will or a storage mechanism of water. It’s far more than a tank. The trick is how do we get the water back out and for that we grow pumps in the form of living vegetation that pulls it up for us. Maureen Cavanaugh: I want to ask you much more about that to get into detail, but first let me take a step back. Brad you know our lifestyles are based on the idea that our water comes from a faucet, I think that’s – what do we need to learn about our water? Brad Lancaster: Well, to connect to more of how did that water get to the faucet and how can we access other waters. And so, I love to look to the free water falling from the sky and being delivered to us free of charge, now it’s not falling everybody. Maureen Cavanaugh: No. Brad Lancaster: But it’s a great opportunity when it does fall to catch it. Maureen Cavanaugh: How much energy do we spend in dry areas like the southwest, importing water from one place to another? Brad Lancaster: Well, it varies on communities, but the average in the State of California is about 20 percent of the state’s electricity consumption goes to pumping and treating water. Maureen Cavanaugh: Wow. Now, you come from Tucson, Arizona and that’s an area that’s not known for great amounts of rainfall, how did you start becoming a rainwater harvester? Brad Lancaster: Well, it was just from growing up here and seeing the water situation steadily get worse through our over pumping of our ground water and mismanagement of the watershed, we basically killed off the Santa Cruz River that no long flows where it used to flow year-round and we killed off abandon springs and artesian wells and our groundwater table dropped over 300 feet. So, I was really frustrated, I didn’t want to be part of this problem, I was seeking solutions and then I came through some travels and so in Africa, this amazing water farmer who had, he is a subsistence farmer who taught himself how to plant the rain and by doing so, he converted this wasteland into a relative oasis and he’s become a hero in the region showing people with no money how to transform the landscape in their farms into abundant sustainable production. Maureen Cavanaugh: How much rain does Tucson get? Brad Lancaster: We just get a 11 inches a year, an average year, but the past three years, we’ve been in severe droughts, we’ve been much less. Maureen Cavanaugh: Even with that though you say that the amount of rain that Tucson gets is enough to service their water needs of the population? Brad Lancaster: Yeah, did simple calculations to see how much rain in an average year falls on the surface area of our community and then divided that by the population that lives here and we found that far more rains falls on our community than the entire population consumes of utility water in a year and actually did the same thing for Encinitas, California and also San Diego and we find that it’s very similar. So you get actually about the same amount of rain falling on both communities that you have been consumed by both communities. So we’re spending huge resources importing water while unfortunately almost completely ignoring the free water that we already have that we instead send to the storm drain and out of the system. Maureen Cavanaugh: I’m speaking with Brad Lancaster. He is the author of the book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. He’s also got a really great website at Now, Brad, you produced a video about how you’ve used rain water on your own property and the pictures we have them on our website at of what started out as a dusty little corner property is now a lush garden sport. Can you give us an idea of how you did that? Brad Lancaster: Yeah, well being inspired by this African water farmer, he told me, well I told him I was frustrated of the situation in my community and I wanted to leave because I didn’t want to be part of the problem, he gave me this challenge. He said no, you have to go home and set the roots deeper than you ever thought possible. If you can figure out solutions, you will plan solutions everywhere you go instead of problems, which would have happen if you ransom your problems. So, I took that challenge and I started planting the rain by creating the simple rain garden basins and started planting food-bearing native vegetation that can thrive on a rainfall and then I saw in storms we had our street return into a creek a temporary creek, so that wow, this is an abundant amount of water, so it was illegal at the time, but we cut the street curb to direct street run-off into street side basins, in which we planted food-bearing native trees and it works so well that a bunch of our neighbors wanted to do likewise. We saw how all the vegetation is thriving and we weren’t using any water, any city water, just free rainwater. And so, we approached the city, it took a number of years, but through the thriving example and public demand, we’ve changed city policy. So now, it’s legal to cut street curbs to utilize street run-offs for street side trees and not only is that legal, the city now mandates it in all new road construction and roads being significantly renovated or redone and we have a $2,000 rebate for anyone harvesting rainwater at home. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now, do you maintain the trees and the gardens on your property just with harvested rainwater or do you use any supplemental water to keep them going during the dry times? Brad Lancaster: Well, all the food-bearing native plants only get rainwater. Maureen Cavanaugh: Okay. Brad Lancaster: But we do have exotic fruit trees like an orange street, pomegranate, fig and so on and those require more water and they are not as hardy as the native so they require water in the dry seasons. So, for those, we direct drain greywater, water from our household drains in the dry times. Our rain garden basins become greywater basins when there is no rain and this way we don’t use any virgin drinking water to irrigate our plants and this is huge because nationwide 30 to 70 percent of the drinking water typical household consumes, it sent directly to the dirt just using drinking water to irrigate landscapes and in Southern California it’s much closer to 70 percent. So, that’s why we started focusing there. It’s like how can we change the water source for our landscape to reduce or eliminate the consumption of that high energy, high-cost drinking water. Maureen Cavanaugh: I would wonder Brad if you could just say a word about the kind of mulch that you use when you talk about planting water because I think that’s fascinating and that’s really a crucial part of how you hold on to this free rainwater and how it’s used by the plants that you have. Brad Lancaster: Yeah, well with in all our basins, we don’t want bare dirt because with bare dirt we create puddles and if the puddles stuck around we’d have mosquitos. So we want to get the water into the soil not sitting on top of the soil, so we create sponge like conditions with lots of organic matters and mulch. So, anytime we prune our trees, we cut up the pruning and drop the pruning beneath the plants, just like chop and drop and whenever the leaves fall we don’t break them up and export them away to the garbage, we instead leave them because leaves are called leaves because we’re supposed to leave them, this is part of the natural system, the nutrients break down and feed the plant once again, it’s a wonderful nutrient loop. So, we’re just mimicking the natural system that way and we’re greatly reducing the amount of solid waste going to the dump because 12 to 14 percent of the solid waste going to a typical city dump is pruning. So we’re keeping all the pruning onsite and even taking pruning of my neighbors, so we’re helping reduce that waste stream and instead converted into a resource stream. Maureen Cavanaugh: As you know Brad, California is in one of the worst droughts in its history. Isn’t it kind of too late to try to start turning that around by harvesting at this point? Brad Lancaster: There is no better time than now. So, if you’re in a drought, it’s just ever more important to do this and the key is it doesn’t matter how little, if you get any rain and you’re getting some, you’ve got to capture it, you’ve got to capture as much as you can so that you’ll have more longer into the drive spell that’s coming and it’s very easy to even in drought years, increase your rainfall, your available rainfall by three times. How you do that? Well, we collect all the water falling on our gardens and our landscapes within these rain garden earth works, but we also collects the water coming off the roof and the area of the roof is about the same as the landscape area, so that way we’re doubling available rainfall to the landscape and then we direct the water from the street and that area is about the same as the landscape area, so we triple it by directing run-offs from adjoining hardscape surfaces to the planted non-paved area and by getting a 3:1 ratio or more we can increase rainfall by three or more times. Maureen Cavanaugh: How much effort, energy and time does this take? I mean is this something you have to be dedicated to doing? Brad Lancaster: Well, it’s definitely my passion, but no, you don’t need to be dedicated to this. What’s wonderful is when we started doing this, we were the only ones in the neighborhood and one of very few in the city doing it, but now, there is over 75 percent of my neighbors just on my block alone are doing this. You can go to any neighborhood in Tucson and see people doing it and it ranges from the style, the static and the maintenance from all styles. So you can do it in a way that’s extremely low maintenance or you can do it with really high maintenance. It just depends on what kind of gardener or landscaper you are, but it’s super easy to do it with the least amount of inputs. It’s basically just change the topography, the surface, so you’ve got bowl-like shapes as opposed to hill-like shapes and then let those leaves drop and stay where they are. Maureen Cavanaugh: It’s also a change of mindset too, isn’t it the way of using water that you are talking about takes – that take new harvesting methods? It’s a change in philosophy. We’ve all grown up believing that the faucet brings us water and that’s never going to run out. So, you’re talking about doing things different way, but also thinking in a different way, isn’t that right? Brad Lancaster: No, you’re absolutely correct and the biggest challenge has always been that it’s a 180 degrees shift in our thinking, if you take it as far as we have. We’re using rainwater as the primary water sources and all too often the conventional way of just using the faucet as you say. So, that is a big shift, but the amazing thing is once you start doing it and see how well and easily free it works, you just get more and more excited and that’s why in just 10 years, we’ve jumped from being the only one in our neighborhood to there being many people because it is so easy, people get so enticed and there is a little bit of a danger here because you can get so excited as we do and our neighbors do that when the rain does fall, doesn’t matter if it’s 3:00 AM, you’re going to run outside in your pajamas and your underwear and do a little dance as you see your tanks fill up, your earthworks fill up and just celebrating this abundance that you’re capturing for free. Maureen Cavanaugh: Brad Lancaster is the author of the book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. His website is Brad thanks so much for speaking with us. Brad Lancaster: Yeah. Thank you all. Maureen Cavanaugh: Be sure to watch KBPS Evening Edition at 5:00 and again at 6:30 tonight on KPBS Television. And join us again tomorrow for discussions on Midday Edition on KBPS FM at noon. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh and thank you for listening.

San Diegans will spend much of this month and the next watching the skies, hoping for a decent rain season, both here and in the Northern California mountains, which still supplies much of our water supply.

But we may not have to spend all of our time just hoping. Innovative water harvesting techniques have the potential of turning even a little rainfall into a bountiful resource.

Rainwater Lecture

Author Brad Lancaster will give tips on how to use rainwater and gray water for local harvests.

When: 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Leichtag Foundation Ranch, 441 Saxony Road, Encinitas

Brad Lancaster is the author of the book, "Rainwater Harvesting for Dry Lands and Beyond." He's giving a lecture in Encinitas on Thursday night about strategies for harvesting natural resources such as rainwater and greywater.


"We can harvest water for no more than the cost of a shovel by harvesting that rainwater, not only in barrels, but even in the soil," Lancaster told KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday. "I love looking to the free water falling from the sky and being delivered to us free of charge. It's a great opportunity for when it does fall to catch it."

Lancaster, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, said every year he's able to harvest more than 100,000 gallons of rainwater at his home.

"More rain falls on our desert community than people consume in a year," Lancaster said. "Every drop of rain that falls on our eighth of an acre, we harvest in tanks or soil."

The effort has been transformative, both at Lancaster's home and in his neighborhood. When Lancaster bought his property in 1993, the home was on the verge of being condemned.

"It was a solar oven-like experience," he said.


Lancaster organized an annual tree-planting project in the neighborhood. Over a 10-year period, he said he was able to convert the neighborhood through the simple planting of trees and harvesting of rain.

"Crime has dropped and now two dozen native bird species live here because we have regrown their habitat," Lancaster said.