Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Dry Monsoon

It has been a strange summer here in Tucson. Or maybe I've been spoiled during my limited habitation here. There's been almost no rain during our monsoon season and everything is parched. Usually by this time the mountains surrounding Tucson are green with vegetation rather than their usual brown. It's soothing to look up at them, even when the temperature is near 100 degrees on a daily basis. But they're still brown this year.
My lemon tree, filled with promise in the yellow-white blossoms that covered it during the spring, now has no fruit and the leaves are yellow and dry even though I've tried to remember to dribble water on it at least once a week. I know I should do it more often, but it's supposed to be monsoon season and hope springs eternal that we'll finally get those soaking rains.
Monsoon rains are always spotty at best, but usually you can count on several times when the water arrives in gallons and lets you turn off the drip irrigation for a few days. Not this year. Even Wednesday, when the weather forecasters swore the monsoon break was over, promising an unheard of 60 percent chance of rain, Tucson got nothing.
I find myself checking weather.com and the NOAA site several times a day, looking for a sign that those longed-for thunderstorms are coming closer. Sometimes they tease us from the south; so far nothing has arrived. Today the chance for rain is—zero percent. For an area that only gets rain during two brief seasons, this is close to disaster. It reminds me of that old Twilight Zone episode where a cosmic calamity has pushed Earth closer to the sun and people are sweltering in the heat. Only this isn't a Twilight Zone episode. This is the reality of living in the desert.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Civano

Ten years ago, before the current green craze hit the media and gained the public's attention, the City of Tucson and a long list of agencies realized a goal for a sustainable community named Civano. The goals were visionary for the time: reduce the consumption of energy, water, and pollution to levels significantly below baseline levels for Metropolitan Tucson. These goals were to be achieved by building structures for shade, use of reflective building materials, using native plants for landscaping, and using gray water for irrigation. The community design was intended to favor walking and biking rather than driving, with less private land and more community land than was customary in subdivisions in the Southwest.

This may not seem so revolutionary, but Tucson, because of its warm climate, is very popular with retirees from other areas. Too many wanted to recreate some of the features where they came from, including grass lawns. With an annual rainfall of only twelve inches a year, grass lawns and palm trees (another water-thirsty favorite) require too much supplemental water to be practical. With the Colorado River drying up from over-population and unwise water usage, using water for landscaping is not something we in the Southwest can afford to do.

Homes in Civano use water harvesting for the native and desert-adapted plants allowed in the community. This can be as simple as directing rainwater during our brief, but intense, monsoon thunderstorms toward the plantings around our homes by grading and placement of rocks at the end of downspouts, to cisterns that catch this same rainwater from roofs and store it for later usage. This maximizes the little rainfall that we do get.

On the other hand, we have an abundance of sunshine. Every home in Civano (and Civano II and Sierra Morado, neighboring sections of the original community) has hot water courtesy of the sun. In addition to solar hot water, many homes have added solar panels to supply electricity.

Some things haven't worked out as planned. Decreasing automobile usage is one of them. In the original Civano, a central area with space for businesses was part of the plan so people could walk to work. There haven't been many businesses that have enabled those jobs. And, ironically, the community has been unsuccessful in persuading SunTran, the Tucson bus company, to extend a route to the community where the usage per capita would probably be higher than anywhere else in the city.

But there are still people who believe in the dream. On Saturday, October 17, there will be a day-long party for all of Tucson and the surrounding area to celebrate 10 years of sustainable living. I plan to be there.