It's a sunny Saturday morning, and Ezra Roati is working in his yard. A small group of people work along with him, digging, building and planting. Mounds of dirt and rock are piled high, and the sound of a power tool fills the air.
This isn't ordinary yard work. Roati and crew are "planting rain and growing shade."
This is an expression Richard Roati, Ezra's father, uses as we talk in the front yard. They are members of the Watershed Management Group Co-op, a group of volunteers who build sustainable systems in the community. Volunteers are assisted by WMG (watershedmg.org) staff members skilled in rainwater-harvesting, cisterns, greywater systems, food production and waste management.
With assistance from co-op volunteers, Ezra decided to harvest rainwater and greywater to irrigate his yard. "A lot of the rainwater was moving toward the house, so I wanted to move the water away from the house and drain it out into large tree basins," he says. "I saw it as a good opportunity to plant some fruit trees and ... in the front, have some live trees."
As I talk with Ezra, co-op volunteers are hard at work, digging basins, planting trees and cutting down the curb in front of the house. Washing-machine water will irrigate newly planted fruit trees in the back. Rainwater from the roof and street will be routed to several trees and native plants in the front.
The WMG Co-op is free to join and is reminiscent of barn-raisings in that members volunteer at private homes. Accumulate enough work hours, and a crew will come to work at your home. You pay for supplies, vegetation and the workshop leader's time; you also pay a small fee.
Richard Roati has volunteered for two years and sees people surprised at "how a yard can be transformed from a barren dirt pile to an inviting shady environment in one morning, with a group of people helping out. It's like an extreme makeover for your yard.
"It's amazing how (the) co-op helped to popularize this. It used to be just a few people could afford to do this. ... The co-op has made it so that it's more affordable for more people," he says.
Although a cistern—a storage tank for rainwater—is not being installed at Ezra's house, a 1,000-gallon cistern was installed by co-op members at his parents' home about two years ago. Ezra's mother, Susan Silverman, says their yard has gotten lush, with trees growing quickly.
There's also another benefit: The cistern has a large mural of blooming fruit trees on it, painted by Michael Schwartz. (See a photo at tucsonartsbrigade.org.)
"A lot of people might choose not to do a water-harvesting project, just because they don't want an ugly metal (cistern) standing in the yard," says Silverman. "This demonstrates that it's possible to integrate fine art with energy conservation."
Back at Ezra's house, WMG workshop leader Blue Baldwin explains the different water-harvesting systems. "Basins are a way of harvesting rainwater passively. ... We are creating something and letting nature do its thing. We're encouraging water to stay on our property to increase soil moisture and also the potential to grow vegetation. Cisterns are a means of active water-harvesting. We're engineering a system to catch the rainwater ... and use it as a water source."
Later, during a phone interview, co-op coordinator Matthew Bertrand makes a case for using greywater to irrigate trees, as Ezra has done. "A standard top-load washing machine uses 40 gallons of water a load. For a family of four doing four loads a week, that's a significant amount of water—in the course of a year, (more than) 8,000 gallons. You could save $200 or $300 on your water bill."
Bertrand says the co-op began in September 2008, offers a water-harvesting-certification program and has 120 member households. Work has also been completed at several City Council offices, the Nature Conservancy, the Community Food Bank, a 4-H site and the Rincon Heights neighborhood, where a festival and fundraiser for WMG will take place from 4 to 7 p.m., Saturday, April 10. Tours of the neighborhood, focusing on WMG's green works, will be offered. Additional events take place in April, including a co-op bazaar and workshops. Visit watershedmg.org/earthmonth for details.
Watching Ezra and the crew work to make use of rainwater reminded me of a past monsoon season when I drove down a flooded midtown street, praying to make it through. As water-harvesting increases, we'll have fewer flooded roadways, greener landscapes, more shade and cost savings.
It's a great example of working with Mother Nature instead of against her.