Water in the Desert

A Firsthand Report from a couple in an Arizona desert whose off-the-grid house includes a rainwater collecting system.

| June/July 2004

At our off-the-grid Arizona home, we conserve water to help protect this fragile ecosystem.

When we moved from rainy Portland, Ore., to Cochise County, Ariz., in 1999 to build a 1,200-square-foot solar, straw bale, completely off-the-grid house, we went one step further than most folks and decided it would be easier on the local environment if we didn't drill a well. We live in the Chihuahuan desert, an area that only gets an average 11 inches of rain per year (for the past few years the average has been closer to 7 inches!), so rather than depend on an already overtaxed aquifer for our household water needs, we decided to install a rainwater harvesting system. We conserve water carefully, but we live quite comfortably with this limited supply.

Protecting the natural beauty and rich wildlife habitat of the nearby San Pedro River, which is directly dependent on water from the aquifer, is our motivation for saving water. We live in the upper San Pedro River watershed, near one of the few cottonwood-willow riparian corridors in the Southwest. The river is familiar to many birders and scientists, and National Geographic featured an article on it in April 2000, written by the well-known author and Tucson, Ariz., resident Barbara Kingsolver. More than 300 species of birds visit this corridor during their seasonal migrations.

Sadly, the San Pedro is going the route of many other Arizona rivers: It may be in the early stages of drying up. Perhaps foretelling disaster, the growing number of people who reside in the upper San Pedro watershed use more than double the amount of water that is recharged into the aquifer each year. As the aquifer's level drops, increasingly larger portions of the river are disappearing, leaving dry gravel beds where Sonoran mud turtles and Gila topminnows once swam.

Going Off-the-Grid

With money we saved while living in Oregon, we built our straw bale house, doing almost all of the construction ourselves, with some help from family and friends. We lived in a small camp trailer on the property for more than a year while building. During most of that period, we were able to take some time off from work; then as money ran low, we transitioned to part-time and then full-time jobs. Right now, both of us work as counselors for the county health department.

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