Our Water Matters

Director and former Marfa resident David Fenster recently released a new film about Tucson resident Brad Lancaster called Water Harvester: An Invitation to Abundance. Fenster moved to Tucson about three years ago, where he and his wife bought a house with a yard “mostly devoid of life.” As he started experimenting with some of the techniques in Lancaster’s book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, he was astonished. “In under three years, our land has gone from bare dirt to a lush, thriving ecosystem, full of pollinators, that requires very little supplemental irrigation,” says Fenster. “After seeing this transformation, I knew I wanted to make a film about Brad.”

Called a “prophet of rainwater harvesting,” Brad Lancaster preaches the techniques he originally learned in Zimbabwe. Zephaniah Phiri Maseko, a water farmer and Lancaster’s main mentor, was an opponent of the all-white government there before independence and had been banished to one of the most barren parts of the country. Maseko observed that rain fell on his land during certain times of the year and the trick was to make it last longer. He experimented with pits to catch the rainwater and then piped the water to other pits at lower elevation on his property to irrigate the soil below. When Lancaster returned to Zimbabwe some 20 years later, he found that the water table had risen so much that Maseko was able to abandon his wells. 

Another mentor, Clifford Pablo, taught Lancaster about traditional Ak-Chin runoff farming. This Indigenous approach involves redirecting floodwaters from a water channel up into adjoining floodplains to irrigate crops. Employing his powers of observation, Lancaster realized that the streets in his neighborhood were functioning like arroyos with concrete curbs that keep “the water in the channel forever segregated from its floodplain.” He resolved to “reunite these two” by cutting holes in the curbs to allow the water to fill recessed basins by roadsides and passively irrigate shade vegetation for streets and sidewalks. 

These technologies have been known to cultures of the so-called developing world for centuries. But Lancaster believes that they provide a way to address many of the issues facing contemporary society, from food scarcity to global warming to drought. In the film, he wonders aloud about the wisdom of pumping water from the Colorado River to Tucson with an elevation rise of over 3,000 feet at a distance of some 300 miles and at a cost of $80 million annually. Meanwhile, “More water falls on Tucson in an average year in rainfall than the entire population consumes of municipal water in a year.”

The film follows Lancaster as he collects the rainwater from his roofs and uses it to bathe and wash his clothing. It also demonstrates how to take “lightly-used gray water, the water that goes down our shower drain to the sewer” and send it to the landscape, thus “using the water multiple times instead of just once and then throwing it away.” Later in the film, Lancaster muses that if everyone employed these practices, “We would be recharging our aquifer with our free, higher-quality local waters [and] at the same time we would be dramatically reducing our need to pump water from the aquifer in the first place.”

In making the film, Fenster was “amazed at how simple and elegant all of the solutions were. They require almost no resources but can have a huge impact.” Others have begun to take notice as well. According to one Tucson official, Kate Bolger, “What [Lancaster’s] doing is important to addressing and mitigating and adapting to the climate change that’s going to hit Tucson … We’re the third-fastest warming city in the nation.” With summer temperatures topping 117⁰F, Lancaster’s techniques are “now imperative.”

And yet, unlike many conservation crusaders, Lancaster inspires us to strive for bounty, rather than scolding us to do without. Anne Audry, another Tucson official, puts it perhaps best: “His framework is abundance, not scarcity … If you organize things right and design them right, you will create abundance. It’ll be self-perpetuating … [It] works and we know it works because he has done it in his own neighborhood.” 

You can watch Water Harvester: An Invitation to Abundance by David Fenster at no cost on YouTube.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He also works as a translator of technical documents from German to English for the German and Swiss pharmaceutical and medical-science industries. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013.  He can be reached at [email protected]