Re-conceptualising water conservation: Rainwater harvesting in the desert of the southwestern United States

Lucero Radonic
Department of Anthropology and Environmental Science & Policy Program, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA; radonicl@msu.edu

ABSTRACT: Water conservation technologies and programmes are increasingly important features of water governance in urban areas. By examining people’s situated understandings and relationships with water, this article expands research on the human dimensions of water conservation beyond its traditional focus on uptake of technologies, incentives, and single metrics for evaluation. In the American Southwest prolonged drought conditions are boosting the popularity of small-scale rainwater collection systems, which are becoming formalised primarily through water conservation programmes. In Tucson, Arizona, one such programme was a success in terms of user uptake and public support; however, paradoxically, rainwater harvesting did not always result in reduced potable water consumption. To understand why this was the case, I draw on qualitative and semi-quantitative data describing how people manage their rainwater harvesting systems and how they understand and value their diverse benefits. This study contributes to ongoing policy debates over water conservation and in particular emphasizes the need to broaden our working definition of conservation beyond volumetric reduction in potable water use. Based on the observed motivations, values and practices of water users and experts, I suggest water conservation could be understood to include factors such as the reduction of waste across all water sources and the repurposing of captured water for diverse beneficial uses in urban environments.

KEYWORDS: Water conservation, urban water governance, green infrastructure, rainwater harvesting, US Southwest, Arizona