Planting the Rain to Grow Abundance | Brad Lancaster | TEDxTucsonJan 07, 2022
growing up here in Tucson, Arizona, my favorite game was flooding. So I'd go out in the sandbox and spend hours and hours building these elaborate cities of sand and then I'd turn on the hose and wash it all away with a catastrophic flood. I can still remember the cries of all the imaginary people, "Please help me!" and then… but don't worry, no one was hurt because right at the last moment, before their part of the ruined city fell into the riptide, I envisioned pulling them all up to safety. And then when everything was destroyed, I would, of course, rebuild and do it over and over again because I loved this game.
But I think it might have affected the water bill (Laughter) because it wasn't long before I was banned from using a water hose in the litter box. I was devastated at first, but then I decided to find a different way. And I did it. Because I realized that there was another source of water, ignored, free: the
rain! Because, you see, we had this dry creek bed or 'creek' in our front yard. That thing was dry most of the year, but when it
rained hard, that thing flowed like a torrent. So, I said, "Okay! I'll build my cities of sand again on these dry creek beds." So all I had to do was wait for it to rain.
And I waited and waited. But eventually, the storm clouds built up and then when the rains came, the flooding was epic. I mean, there was a volume of water that far exceeded anything you could get from a hose. So, "Oh yeah! I don't need a stinky hose! I've got the rain! The flood is at it again!" (laughs) I got pretty passionate about it. (laughs) Even though I no longer play the flood game, that lesson in how much potential we have in the rain, that has never left me. continues to inspire my work and play to this day.
So here in the desert community of Tucson, Arizona, it only rains 11 inches a year. However, more rain falls on the surface of Tucson each year than the amount of municipal water consumed by all of Tucson and all of its residents in one year. Do you understand? More rain falls on Tucson in a year than Tucson consumes of water per year. We already have everything we need, and it is delivered to us for free from heaven. But you wouldn't know because we extract the vast majority of the system. So, let's take a look at that. In 1904, the Santa Cruz River still flowed year-round through Tucson, Arizona.
Not just after a big rain, but all year long. We still had these forests like sponges along the river that would soak up that rain and plant in the living soils. Compare that to today and due to over-pumping of our groundwater, we have killed the river and the spongy forests that used to line it and help recharge it along with the groundwater. And then, we replace those sponges of vegetation with pavement from streets, buildings, and compacted bare earth, which causes a lot more flooding, because now water runs off those hard surfaces much faster than before. To replace all that rain we drained, we pump water 300 miles and 3000 feet in elevation and elevation from the Colorado River to Tucson and Phoenix at a cost of over $80 million a year, and the death of the downstream reach of the river Colorado.
I hate this story because it's not unique to Tucson, I see it almost everywhere. We waste the natural
abundancewe already have, and we spend vast amounts of resources trying to replace what we waste by taking it from other people and other places, making scarcity worse for everyone. So what do we do? It turns out that everywhere in the world that has a dry climate or even a humid climate with only one dry season has a rich history and traditions of investing, of harvesting rain rather than draining it. This was largely forgotten when we got mechanical pumps that could move water uphill, so I was pretty much unaware of the potential for collecting rainwater until I got a chance to travel to Africa and visit family and then explore on my own. .
It was in the driest region of Zimbabwe that I met the water farmer Mr. Zephanaiah Phiri Maseko who taught himself, then his family and many others including me how to harvest the rain or as he puts it , plant the rain. . He followed this path many years ago when he found himself struggling to support his family of eight with no job or income. How was he going to feed them? So he resorted to the only two things he felt he had to get out of the situation: a eroded seven-acre parcel of land and the Bible, which he used as a kind of gardening manual.
Because you see, he was so inspired by the story of Genesis and the Garden of Eden, that he got to thinking, "Well, I should
growa garden like that. And the water resources that will sustain it." How do you go about doing that? The same way we all can: with a long, thoughtful observation. So. every time it rained, he was outside running, watching, seeing what was happening. And, as he said, get very wet but be very happy. (Laughter) Because he was learning. He saw the areas where things were not working, such as where the rain did not infiltrate the ground, but instead flowed too fast, causing erosion and flooding downstream.
He learned to fix that by looking at what worked, like where there were rocks or vegetation perpendicular to the slope and the flow, slowing down, spreading that flow, allowing sediment to fall, moisture to remain, seeds to germinate, and vegetation to grow. So, a living sponge began to form where there used to be a sterile drain. So the creation of such living sponges, that's what it means to plant the rain. So Mr. Phiri did this from the top of his basin and the beginning of the water flow to the bottom of his land. Everywhere slowing down, spreading and infiltrating the water.
And by doing this, however, he was much more manageable, and he could move all the water with the free power of gravity; no bombs needed. Here he would direct runoff from this road into the adjoining watershed, fringed with multi-use vegetation, turning this into this. And so, once the water infiltrated the soil, the soil was the tank, and the water would be lost to a much lesser degree through evaporation. Then he could access the water from the soil tank through live pumps of vegetation, and its fruits, its shelter, its fodder for livestock, and more. And by doing this, even in a year of drought, the Phiris were able to get two to three harvests of their crops, when others who did not sow the rain were lucky to get only one.
And they could also access the rain they planted in the form of rising groundwater, which created seasonal springs and filled their hand-dug wells. And the rain that the Phiris planted, also filled the wells of their neighbors adjoining and downriver. And so rain seeding started to become popular because people saw that there were others in the community whose wells went dry when they were not seeding rain. Because the difference? The difference is that those whose wells were running dry simply kept taking in water but never gave it back, while the phiris made sure to keep putting more water into the system than they took out.
Then it caught on, and I was able to visit dozens of other farmers inspired or taught by the Phiris who had also turned dying drains into vital sponges. This inspired me and I told Mr. Phiri how scared I was about the water situation in my community and that I no longer wanted to contribute to the depletion of water by consuming that depleting water, I wanted to leave and asked him. on his advice. At which point, he patted me on the shoulder and said, "Well, you can't just walk away, because if you run from your problems, you're just going to sow and grow problems everywhere you go.
So, you have to try and figure out how." turn those problems into solutions. And if you're successful at that, well, you'll have the ability to do it wherever you are." That challenge, that resonated with me. He knew this was a challenge that could be met because he had seen it in the example lived by the Phiris and those they had inspired. I just had to figure out how to modify things to fit the unique conditions and context of my home. So, I came home to this: a dry and run-down one-eighth-acre property that my brother and I had just purchased north of downtown Tucson.
And how do we start? Well, the same as the Phiris. With observation. So, in the first big rain, we ran out and watched, seeing what was going on. And we lost so much water in the street, but even worse, much more water entered the house. (Laughter) I mean, I was a victim of my childhood flood game. (Laughter) So my brother and I are like, "Man, we've got to flip the game, man! Turn flood into harvest!" So, we did that, and we diverted the water from the house into these sponge-like ponds with mulch and vegetation, which would absorb it quickly.
And then, in times without rain, we redirect our domestic greywater, which we once used as wash water from showers, laundry or sinks, to the landscape, turning that wastewater into another free water resource. In this way, we discovered that all we needed to grow the vegetation that would shade, shelter and beautify the house was the water that ran off the house. This allowed us to break an unnecessary addiction pervasive in the US So it turns out that the average single-family household in the US consumes 30-50% of its drinking water to irrigate its landscape. This is what happens when we use hose water or drip irrigation water to replace wasted rainwater.
So we don't do that. Instead, we plant climate-appropriate, native, food-producing plants that can thrive on just our harvested rainwater and greywater. We do not throw or vacuum our sheets. The leaves are called leaves because we are supposed to put them down! (Laughter) So, we harvest them, along with the cut prunings, in our water collection ponds creating these fertile sponges of mulch that quickly absorb water, so we don't lose it to evaporation and we don't have puddles or mosquitoes. We also don't have flooding, because we make sure we always have an overflow path, in case there is a massive storm that exceeds what we can contain and infiltrate.
And even that overflow water is used as a resource, because we direct it to multiple downstream strategies. So in eight years, we were able to turn this into this, and there's no drinking water used, no city water, no imported water, no well water. Only rainwater and runoff from the roads and the street. And because we planted so many native plants, many or dozens of native bird species have returned, and the pollinators, and the shade from the trees reduces summer temperatures by ten degrees, also reducing the cost of cooling the houses next door. And it's become so popular with many more neighbors doing this that we now have a lot of people walking and bicycling, which has reduced crime.
Because now there are more friendly eyes on the street. And inside the street, we found that the street gutter would flow like a rivulet when it rains heavily, so we cut the street gutter to direct street runoff into the street-side ponds. Now, this was illegal at the time, okay? (Laughter) So, we cut the sidewalk on a Sunday when no one in town was looking. (Laughter) But the results were amazing because we found that every street everywhere can be a shady corridor of native edible trees and other life, irrigated by nothing more than rain falling on the street, controlling flooding at the same time. .
So, we went to the city to legalize and improve the practice. And then we incentivized it, and now it's even mandatory in the construction and renovation of new roads in the city. (Applause) This, this advocacy work is key. This advocacy work to change practice, policy and law Because without will, there is no way. So, to further awaken that will, I wrote and published how-to books, gave countless talks and workshops with others, and organized annual rain and tree-
plantingprojects in our neighborhood and others. And just in our neighborhood, since 1996, we've planted more than 1,400 food-producing trees. (Applause) We harvest over a million gallons of rain each year that previously ran out of the neighborhood.
But this is just the beginning! I mean, we can and need to harvest tens of millions more gallons just in that neighborhood and billions more gallons throughout the community. So you don't have to own a home to do this, or even have a garden. Because most of the
plantingwe do is in the public arena, along the street or in the street, common goods, like here with the roundabout to calm the water collection traffic, or here, a chicane to calm water collection traffic. You can do it on school grounds, church grounds, you can even do it in parking lots and parks.
And it can be done in all climates, wet and dry, as it mitigates against extremes. Reduces flooding in wet seasons, reduces thedrought in dry seasons. The only thing that changes as the job shifts from one climate to another are the plants you use. And you can do it on all scales. When you start collecting rainwater and you experience that in your landscape that leads to collecting rainwater for washing, cooking, drinking. Sponge neighborhoods lead to sponge cities. Revived streams lead to revived rivers. So what drains do you have in your life that you could turn into sponges?
The job is easy. What is difficult is the change of thought. Because planting the rain is a 180 degree change from how we do things today. It is about moving from a scarcity mentality to an
abundancementality. It's about using what you already have, not what you buy or import. It is about partnering with natural systems, not fighting against them. It's about cultivating more life and potential, not paving it over. And as soon as you do this, as soon as you experience it in the rain, you immediately see how it all works, it all makes sense. You see how you are a key part of a solution and not a problem.
But this carries a serious risk because even if it's three in the morning and it starts to rain, you'll probably run outside in your underwear only to watch your sinks and tanks fill up with water, and when you see all that bounty piling up, you'll drink these buns and you'll do a little bun dance on the way to a bun-dance! When he sees it all happen, he'll yell, "I don't need a stinky hose. I've got the rain! The harvest is on!" (Applause) Thank you. In memory and gratitude for Mr. Zephaniah Phiri Maseko 1927 - September 1, 2015 (Greetings) (Applause)
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