When neighbours work together to conserve water

When the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona looked at water conservation in 2008, it examined what motivates people to save water, and discovered they often ask:  “Why should I conserve my water just so it can go toward enabling more development?”

That led the Center to develop a program called C2E (Conserve2Enhance) “as a way for people to make a more direct environmental impact in their own community.” C2E encourages consumers to take steps to conserve water–like upgrading to a low-flow toilet or installing a rainwater harvesting system–and then donate their savings to support the program. They can also check a donation box on their water bill. 

C2E then reinvests in conservation by providing grants for local environmental enhancement projects that beautify degraded land and restore damaged washes in urban neighborhoods. It is an innovative program that addresses a problem that has recently been flagged as one of the world’s largest challenges – the disruption of the natural water cycle.

Conserve2Enhance provides the mechanism to raise funds and the Dashboard to educate participants, track water savings, and secure donations, but projects are driven by local priorities. “People who make personal changes to conserve water often want to make a bigger impact beyond saving a few bucks,” says ecologist Claire Zugmeyer. “By adding their donation to a whole city’s worth of contributions through C2E, they can be part of something much more meaningful.”

WIth WRRC, Tucson Water, and Watershed Management Group, the Sonoran Institute helped launch a pilot project to test the concept in Tucson, Arizona. After Tucson C2E became the first Conserve2Enhance program in the nation in 2011, five other C2E communities have formed, four in Arizona and one in Mexico’s Colorado River Delta.

Participation is key to unlocking C2E’s enormous potential. Research shows that if just 5% of customers in the Tucson Water service area joined Tucson C2E, they would conserve an estimated 250,000,000 gallons of water annually and provide more than $500,000 for restoration projects each year.

The Palo Verde neighborhood used a Tucson C2E grant to transform a weed-infested, asphalt-covered lot into a treasured community space. Photo: Tucson C2E and participants

The Sonoran Institute, which has worked on water issues in the southwestern US for a long time, describes it as “harnessing the power of neighbors to fix flooding problems.” In fact, it says, a statewide survey of C2E programs in 2015 found that C2E has been extremely successful as a community-building tool.

In Tucson’s Jefferson Park neighbourhood, a brigade of neighbours built four rainwater harvesting basins along the side of the street and cut into the curb so stormwater flows into them and then seeps slowly into the ground. The soil filters and cleans the water and the water irrigates the trees and shrubs the neighbourhood planted in the basins, and slowing down the water prevents flooding.

Neighbors in the Palo Verde neighborhood in central Tucson came together on a C2E project to converted blighted land into the neighborhood’s only park. Now, neighbors who met each other while digging basins, planting trees and shrubs, and installing benches and signage, enjoy the park with their families, and maintain and improve the park each year.

Schools have also played an important role in C2E projects. Mike Bagesse, a teacher at Sky Islands High School applied for a grant in the spring of 2015 with the goal of harnessing stormwater that flows down the school’s driveway and diverting it to beautify the landscape, while using it as a teaching opportunity.

Capturing 200,000 gallons of rainfall a year (based on 12 inches of annual rainfall), or roughly the amount of water seven people would need in a year, water harvesting basins have created a beautiful outdoor learning space at Tucson’s Sky Islands High School.

He and colleague Allie Silber designed an arid land management class that taught students how to develop the rainwater harvesting site into a working landscape. The curriculum included earthworks, berms and basins, curb cuts, native plants of Arizona and their various water requirements, irrigation, and how arid land management differs from land management in different climates.

Since then, the school has planted shrubs, cacti, and over 40 trees. Native grasses and small shrubs have sprouted on their own.. Teachers throughout the school use the landscape as a teaching tool.

“For me, one of the coolest parts about the project is that we’re creating something beautiful by bringing more native plants to the space, and as a result, more butterflies,” says Silber. “The environmentalist in me loves that, and the teacher in me really loves that I have space, a three-minute walk away, that I can bring my students to explore all sorts of ecosystem functions.”

The largest and most complex Tucson C2E project began when rainwater flooded the wash running through Swan Park near Changemaker High School, cutting off a main pedestrian thoroughfare and route to school. The school built a footbridge over the wash so people could get back and forth safely.

Then, challenged by their science teacher, a group of students took on the Swan Wash Bridge Project as a citizen science project. Students and educators became experts themselves – alongside community members and environmental allies that were willing to share knowledge.  In 2016, Changemaker received funding from Tucson C2E to reshape the flow of the wash to reduce flooding and bring the western part of Swan Park back to life. Students, alumni, and community volunteers created four massive water harvesting basins, reinforced by 130 tons of rock, and planted native trees and grasses to keep water in the wash instead of the street.

All of this came out of the school’s mission to change the face of education by creating the conditions where young people can turn their ideas into action. “Imagine what our communities would look like if every school would adopt their local community within a one to three mile radius,” wote Luis Perales. “Imagine for a second that the school and its resources not only worked within their own gates to teach students to read, write, and do math, but with equal importance, taught students the skills necessary to transform the look, feel, and potential of their community.”

The students who worked on the Swan Wash project “not only created real world impact, they also demonstrated that a new model is possible and that dependency on experts and consultants is not always necessary,” he said. “These young changemakers proved that they could become the experts, that they could turn an idea into action, and that if done at scale, that their efforts could be replicated by schools everywhere.” 


Conserve2Enhance: Harnessing the power of neighbours to fix flooding problems. Sonoran Institute.

Conserve2Enhance website.

EcoChangemaking and Scaling Environmental Sustainability: A Changemaker Educator’s Approach. Luis A. Perales, Mar. 3, 2017

Changemakers show us the way. Jana Segal, Mar. 8, 2017

Changemaker High School: Where Students Are In Charge Ashoka

Cover image: Neighbors get together at the Palo Verde neighborhood project dedication. .Photo: Tucson C2E and participants. All photos from the Sonoran Institute article.