Saving Rainwater for a Sunny Day: An Interview with Chris Anderson

Saving Rainwater for a Sunny Day:

An Interview with Chris Anderson

by Wayne H. Purdin

As Arizona continues to suffer from 16 years of the worst drought in its history, it is comforting to know that Arizona is home to some of the world’s foremost authorities and activists on rainwater harvesting and desert permaculture. Chris Anderson of Sedona is one of them. Chris attended the International Permaculture Convergence in Jordan from September 17-23, 2011, which brought permaculture designers from about 30 countries to one of the driest climates on the planet to study ancient and modern water-harvesting sites and regenerative, multi-functional permaculture water-harvesting projects. I recently asked Chris what he learned at the convergence and how it can be applicable to Arizona.

Q: Is Jordan facing some of the same problems that Arizona faces in terms of desertification, urbanization, and agricultural and industrial pollution? How are they dealing with them?

A:  Both Jordan and Israel are facing many of the same problems as Arizona. Like Arizona decision-makers, Jordanian and Israeli decision-makers are dealing with these issues primarily with high-tech approaches, such as desalination, that are one-dimensional. I’m a low-tech guy.  At least three of the four problems you mentioned can be solved locally just by slowing down stormwater in the landscape and encouraging it to soak into the ground with earthworks, thereby dramatically reducing the need for freshwater supplies.

While in Jordan and Israel for 7 weeks, I had opportunities to see ancient vast water-harvesting features and farms designed to maximize the benefits of rain.  Living on this planet is not rocket science, but we’ve been barking up the wrong tree, looking to Western innovation to save us, when all along, simple and effective answers to modern problems were practiced by ancient people. There’s a myth in the developing world that anything Western is good.

Q: Of all the presentations at the convergence, which ones did you feel offered the most practical solutions for dealing with Arizona’s drought?

A:  The drought is a minor issue.  Human mismanagement of land and water are the primary issues we face.  Tucson native, Brad Lancaster, author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, always brings a fresh, lively perspective to the water issues we face in Arizona.  He presented twice at the convergence, once on turning our current “dehydration infrastructure” into “rehydration infrastructure” and again on growing native, food-bearing trees along waterways in the urban core.  I highly recommend Brad’s book and his website,

Owen Hablutzel presented on the work of Southwesterners Bill Zeedyk, Craig Sponholtz, and others regarding induced meandering and management of creeks and rivers, in other words, how to restore compromised waterways by “letting water do the work” with minimal inputs.  This is inspiring work for the washes, creeks, and rivers of Arizona, and I look forward to learning more about it through their workshops.

Q: What are your thoughts on using sunlight and UV irradiation for purifying and charging water?

A: When people use rain for drinking water – which is rare in the Southwest – the industry standard is using a three-stage filter, which includes sediment filtration and UV treatment. Rainwater should be protected from sunlight because of algae growth. If stored and prefiltered correctly it is safe to use on plants.

Q: Are you familiar with Masura Emoto and his work with water? How can techniques be integrated with water harvesting in terms of erasing the memory of pollution in water molecules?

A: Erasing the memory of pollution is treating a symptom rather than the actual problem.  Determining and neutralizing the source of pollution is the key.  Pollution is simply a waste material.  In nature there is no waste.  In the best Permaculture projects, inputs and outputs are balanced; within a system, outputs from one subsystem, such as greywater, are inputs for another subsystem, such as a small orchard.

Q: What are the goals of the Arid Lands Context and Greening the Desert projects? How can people help?

A: The aim of the Arid Lands Context project is to convince municipal officials and other decision makers to begin to think differently about water and water management.  The stormwater management systems in Southwestern communities have been modeled after systems in the Eastern U.S. and Europe, where precipitation is 2.5-8 times higher.  Generally the systems act as drains, increasing surface runoff, which leads to massive erosion and pollution in waterways.

Meanwhile, Western communities pump drinking water from deep wells and the local water tables keep dropping.  Also, waste-water treatment plants produce salty and pharmaceutical-laden water. The Arid Lands Context project’s mission is to educate, encourage, demonstrate, and celebrate our living water cycle and our human role in fulfilling its ability to function naturally.  Ultimately, the vision is that Western municipalities and agencies will implement water management systems that are in harmony with nature and regenerate local resources rather than degenerate them.

The Greening the Desert project is a subproject of the Arid Lands Context project, modeled after a Permaculture project in Jordan designed by Geoff Lawton and others to harvest rain in earthworks, thereby using rain to “re-green the Middle East.”  The Arizona Greening the Desert project will slow, spread, and sink rainwater through a system of earthworks.  The demonstration project will be a model of how to enhance nature’s own regenerative processes in compromised settings.

The Arid Lands Context and Greening the Desert projects are in their infancy and are in need of financial and administrative support.  I am currently seeking land for the Greening the Desert project – the ideal site would be 10 acres of average land.

Chris will be giving a presentation about “Saving Rain for a Sunny Day: Creating Abundance With Permaculture and Rainwater Harvesting” on December 31st from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm at The Hearts Center’s New Years conference in Carefree at the Spirit in the Desert Retreat Center.  A conference theme is experiencing Nature as the platform of evolution and higher consciousness. For more information, call 623-302-3227 or 928-710-5833.

Wayne Purdin is a freelance writer and author of five books. He is editor of The Sun Gazette newsletter at Wayne is keenly interested in this article’s topic, having spent 2 years in the Eastern Environmental Division of the U.S. Geological Survey before going on to graduate study in Hydrogeology at Ohio State University and work as a research assistant with the National Water Well Association (NWWA).

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