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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When driving rains slammed the West earlier this week, there was fear and celebration, fear of mudslides, celebration for all that water. In western residential areas, much of it will run off and go to waste. And Brad Lancaster is on a crusade to keep that from happening. He lives in parched Tucson, Arizona and has written a book of tips on how you can harvest rainwater. We called him to find out exactly what that means.

Mr. BRAD LANCASTER (Author, "Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond"): It could mean one of three things. The easiest is if you just harvest that water in the soil and use the soil as your tank. You create these bowl-like shapes in the landscape that collect water. You mulch the surface and plant them so the water quickly infiltrates. And then the plants become your living pumps. So you then utilize that water in the form of a peach, a pomegranate, an apple, wildlife habitat and beauty.

MONTAGNE: What would be the second way that water is harvested?

Mr. LANCASTER: Well, number two would probably be what most people think of. And that's the harvest of rainwater from a roof into a tank or a cistern. The third would be then harvesting our household wastewater. That would be our gray water - the water from our shower, bathtub, bathroom sink, washing machine. That's an excellent source of water that we can reuse to passively irrigate our landscapes in times of no rain.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. There is a statistic that you cite that is pretty astonishing as to how much drinking water is used for landscape irrigation, generally.

Mr. LANCASTER: Yeah. Thirty to over 50 percent of the potable drinking water currently consumed by the average single family home in America is used for landscape use. And we found that you can provide all or at least 95 percent of the irrigation water needs just with rainwater and gray water.

MONTAGNE: Does this make sense in our cities that are not in, say, real dry areas but may be going through droughts? And I'm thinking here of Atlanta, Georgia, and the whole Southeast where it's been in the middle of a drought. Is this viable for these places when really, at some point, the drought will be over?

Mr. LANCASTER: Absolutely. Because the great thing about rainwater harvesting is that it works in both wet and dry contexts. In the wet context, it greatly reduces flooding downstream. And then in the dry context, it buffers the droughts of the dry seasons.

MONTAGNE: How hard is it to start harvesting rainwater?

Mr. LANCASTER: Well, I don't think it's...

MONTAGNE: What's the start-up cost? What's involved?

Mr. LANCASTER: Yeah, the price of a shovel, basically.

MONTAGNE: Oh, no. It's at least the price of a big barrel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANCASTER: No. No. No. You can start just by changing the topography of your yard. Just create some basins around your trees. Or if you don't have any trees yet, create some basins beside which you can plant a couple low-water use native trees. That's the easiest way to start. And then if you want to step up, then you can put in a barrel or a tank. But there is a risk if you do this. You'll get so excited that even if it rains at 3:00 a.m., you'll likely find yourself running out in the pouring rain in just your underwater just to watch the tanks and earthworks fill up.

MONTAGNE: All right. Now, you're speaking from experience?

Mr. LANCASTER: Oh yeah, absolutely. I've got a bit of a reputation in the neighborhood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, Brad, thank you very much for talking to us about this.

Mr. LANCASTER: You bet. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Brad Lancaster is the author of "Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond."

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: To see how Brad Lancaster turns Tucson's 12 inches a year of rain into 100,000 gallons of water on his property alone, check out npr.org.

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