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Permaculture expert to lecture on making the most of rare rains

September 18th, 2014 under Top Stories
Brad Lancaster

Brad Lancaster



ALPINE, MARFA – “The basic gist is trying to show how to make the most of what we have in abundance: free, high-quality water,” drylands permaculture designer and educator Brad Lancaster said of his upcoming lectures and workshops in Alpine and Marfa.

Lancaster, who has traveled extensively speaking on the subject and demonstrating his designs for rainwater catchment throughout the United States, India, and Middle East, has researched and experimented in the process of using rainwater and grey water (used water from washing machines, bathtubs, and bathrooms sinks that are free of solid waste) to design systems that reduce the consumption of potable water from the tap, as well as maintaining flora that could dramatically reduce energy usage.

“You not only save money on water. In fact, the biggest savings are on heating and cooling,” Lancaster said. “It helps maximizes summer shade and winter sun access using shade trees that could produce food, creating an edible cooling/heating system.”

In his neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona, a city with an average yearly rainfall of around 11 inches, for example, rainwater-harvesting methods designed by Lancaster helped reduce the summer temperature by around 10 degrees. In one year using these methods, he also harvested over 100,000 gallons of fresh water.

Some of that water, he explained, was diverted from the streets by cutting into the roadside curbs, a practice that was legalized through efforts led by Lancaster.

“After a rainfall, I noticed all the water runoff that was just going into storm drains, where the water couldn’t serve any purpose, and I had a theory of how I could use that water,” he said. “I waited until Sunday morning when nobody was watching, and cut into the curb. It worked so well that all my neighbors wanted to the same and we made it a legal process, though it did take around three years.”

According to Lancaster, the use of grey water was also banned by the city until around 2001. Houses built in Tucson after its legalization are all now outfitted with grey water sub-out pipes, which connect appliances and some drains to different parts of the landscape.

The city even began to offer incentives for such practices with rebates to promote the conservation of the city’s dwindling water.

Other methods used, he said, are simple, using only earth manipulation that can be achieved with everyday tools and have been practiced in many historical contexts.

“The best part about harvesting rainwater is that you don’t need to invest in any tanks or heavy, expensive equipment. The investment can cost no more than the price of a shovel. Throughout the U.S. Southwest, there are many historical sites that show where natives harvested water. If you want to go across the ocean, there’s a 4,000-year history of doing it in India. There has also been discovery of long-forgotten Roman cisterns found cut into the limestone in the Middle East.”

The use of rainwater, he explained, fell out of favor in modern times as plumbing became more and more common. The overuse of water, which has caused a decline in quality, he said, has brought the practice back.

“Modern convenience definitely resulted in water harvesting becoming passé,” Lancaster said. “The reasons for its resurgence are that water sources are going dry and the ground water is becoming saltier as the water table falls. In my community, for example, the water table dropped around 300 feet in 100 years.”

The saltier water produced from wells, he also explained, has left plants even more susceptible to drought; as the salt extracts moisture and affects synthesis.

Lancaster’s methods of harvesting of water, he said, has had many positive effects in his part of the southwest to maximize rainwater and mitigate flood, and would do the same in ours.

“Just like Tucson, West Texas has been hit hard with the drought. But our site and the people we’ve been working with, we have not been suffering. We’ve got great results and the same could happen in Marfa and Alpine.”

Lancaster will hold a lecture in Alpine at 7pm Friday at the Granada Theatre and will hold a workshop from 8am – 2pm on Saturday at the Alpine Public Library. He will appear in Marfa at 7pm Saturday at the Crowley Theatre for a lecture, with a workshop from 9am – 3pm Sunday at the Marfa International School.

Reservations for the limited seating can be made by e-mailing

All events are free.

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