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Bats Attract for Water Conservation Message

Published October 18, 2009

By Mae Lee Sun
TNAZ Regional Correspondent
earthworks workshop

Participants in an earthworks workshop led by Emily Brott, of the Sonoran Institute, used ancient technologies to build a basin for rainwater capture at the Ward One Tucson City Council office.
Credit: Sonoran Institute
The late summer launch at dusk of 40,000 Mexican free-tail bats from under a Campbell Avenue bridge.
Two new water-harvesting ordinances to go into effect in January.
A group of volunteers working with landowners to repair the ecosystem in a 70,000-square-mile region of the Southwest known as Sky Island.
These three are faces of conservation science applied for Tucson’s future.
The Sky Island Alliance, for example, is working to bring water back to natural areas endangered by off-road recreation, development and inadequate agricultural practices, said Melanie Emerson, the group’s executive director.
“We’re primarily working with private landowners of large tracts in the region on simple, implementable methods,” she said. “That most definitely includes technology that has been used for millennia like one rock dams and gabions (sand-filled cages).”
The alliance melds the science of conservation biology with on-the-ground restoration done by volunteers.
Efforts to restore grasses and native vegetation have created natural habitat that attract insects, birds and mid- to larger-sized mammals and predators, which in turn Emerson said, has helped revive populations of endangered species like the Chiricahua leopard frog.
Sweat Tech

Sweat Tech hasn’t changed much since the Hohokam, but tools look different, certainly.
Credit: Sonoran Institute
Emerson said her group “connects the dots” between conservation planning and conservation action.
The City of Tucson is using the law to put conservation into action.
In January, 50 percent of the water used for landscaping commercial buildings must come from water harvesting. Currently, 40 percent of Tucson’s drinking water is being used on landscaping. Emily Brott, project manager for the Sun Corridor Legacy Program of the Sonoran Institute, described water harvesting in Tucson as a process based on the ancient engineering of the Hokoham and Anasazis, who used systems of dams, canals and terracing to ensure their crops had enough water.
“The first line of defense, if you will, is the application of earthworks,” she said. “That means going back to building berms and basins that use gravity to direct the rain where you want it to go.”
She pointed out that this methodology is cheaper than using more costly gutters and cisterns to gather water off roofs.
“If you do your calculations right, you can gather enough … to use only water harvested from monsoon season and rain to water landscaping that consists primarily of native plants,” Brott said.
Instead of watching water run through the streets — which have essentially functioned as gutters — the city is implementing curb cuts to ease flooding and accommodate landscaping in medians and sidewalk areas. As water gets redirected, it eases the buildup of oil, trash and grim that ends up in washes and overloads the ecosystem.
Additionally a second new ordinance calls on all new residential construction to have a gray water stub-out. “Your washing machine, for example, has to be plumbed to bring the water outside, if the homeowner chooses to do so,” Brott said.
Rillito River gathering

Last month, the dusk launch of 40,000 free-tail bats attracted hundreds in Tucson to the banks of the Rillito River. Hosted by the Rillito River Project, water conservation and diversity were the themes, and large, white balloons helped to depict changing water levels.
Credit: Mae Lee Sun
Gray water is wastewater that can be used for irrigation of gardens and other landscaping.
Now, about those bats.
The Rillito River Project, an arts organization, has had at least four presentations to increase awareness of the vanishing rivers of the Southwest, and this September used the summer flight of the bats to draw attention to the region’s water issues.
Before the 40,000 bats took off from under the bridge that spans the Rillito for their nightly feeding of mosquitoes and other insects, local actor Sean Dupont spoke to the crowd gathered in the dry riverbed of the river’s history, offering a sort of water timeline.
“1775, when the Spanish Presidio was established in downtown Tucson, the Rillito River flowed four feet deep,” Dupont said. “There was water in the river where Saint Xavier Mission stands. “
The water table has risen and fallen during the past several hundred years, starting with how the Hohokam harvested water to grow beans, corn and squash, cholla buds and mesquite beans, Dupont said.
With the increase in Anglo settlers and agricultural development, he said, Tucson established a municipal water system in the 1900s — initially through tapping a spring and directing it through gravity feeds that eventually required pump technology to supply volume.
By the 1950s, the water table sunk from 20 feet underground to 75 feet underground.
For more information:
Sonoran Institute (520) 290-0828
Sky Island Alliance (520) 624-7080
Rillito River Project (520) 955-3429

Written by maeleesun

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