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Adelaide, Australia, could teach similar Tucson a thing or two about permaculture

When I told Tucson permaculture guru Brad Lancaster that I was headed to Adelaide, South Australia, this month to visit my long-lost half-brother, his eyes lit up, and he quickly responded that the place was a global hotspot for rainwater-harvesting.

I was aware that South Australia is the driest state on the driest inhabited continent, and that extraordinary steps had been taken in the past decade to deal with a serious water crisis. But it wasn't until I came here and dug a bit deeper that I realized how instructive a comparison between Adelaide and Tucson could be.

When I e-mailed an Aussie friend to tell him that my partner and I were in Adelaide, his immediate response was to draw a disparaging parallel between the "bad water" here and in Tucson, where he used to live. Adelaide's water quality is apparently infamous, and the butt of many jokes. Having sampled it, I will testify that its aesthetics suggest a saltwater fish tank in need of a good cleaning.

Tucson's water is nowhere near this bad. On this trip, we spoiled Yanks have been drinking water from bottles, filters and anything but straight from the tap. The truth is, none of these options is really any better. Exhibit A is the foul odor that quickly developed in our Nalgene bottles, disturbingly reminiscent of the dead mouse I fished out of my closet a while back.

Both Adelaide and Tucson find their water security on the ass end of salty, polluted, over-allocated and alarmingly dwindling river systems. A plain-talking denizen of the Outback or Oklahoma might say we're suckin' the hind tit on a couple of very skinny, 2,000-mile-long dogs. Despite being two of the longest river systems in the world, both the Murray-Darling and the Colorado carry relatively small amounts of water, and what they do deliver to downstream users is threatened by a fundamentally changing climate.

Some of the leading climate research comes from both Tucson and Australia, the results of which indicate that the new 21st-century baseline in these places will be more or less permanent drought. The Colorado and the Murray-Darling are expected to lose anywhere from 15 to 33 percent of their base flows to reduced precipitation, a profound disruption of rain and snowfall patterns, higher temperatures and increased evaporation. Meanwhile, the United States and Australia rank at the top of all industrialized nations in population growth—i.e., new water consumers. Something's gotta give.

That's where Mr. Lancaster comes in. The simple tools and techniques Brad has written about and taught for many years would allow Tucsonans to get much of our water from the sky, as they do here in this coastal city, which does not have the luxury of masking unsustainable use by mining groundwater from deep aquifers as we do in Arizona. Outdoor watering in particular, which can make up half or more of domestic use, is now almost entirely a matter of carefully spreading captured rainfall across time and space.

Water tanks are ubiquitous here, in both urban and rural areas. In the city, some are huge, holding as much as 30,000 gallons. Far out in the countryside, it seems like all homes, sheds and stables are rigged with gutters, spillways and catchments to retain every precious drop. Even the tiny roofs of information kiosks and outhouses in the national parks we visited had small tanks next to them.

However, despite hundreds of millions of dollars poured into such infrastructure by South Australians and their state and federal government, the situation here was already so dire that more desperate measures remain on the table. Adelaide has succumbed to the lure of seawater desalination, and has begun construction of a multi-billion-dollar plant that is sure to perpetuate an ongoing, exponential rise in local water bills.

On Brad's website, www.harvestingrainwater.com, he lists eight principles for rainwater-harvesting success. The first one reads, "Begin with long and thoughtful observation." I fear that this skill is becoming increasingly rare and difficult in our addled, tweet-a-minute society, but if we were to integrate such principles into our lifestyles, we could take a huge step toward sustainability and true water security.

Of course, at that evolutionary stage, we would also radically alter the incredibly wasteful social behaviors and overblown economic structures that drive over-consumption and create shortages in the first place. At the moment, we're not even close—my spell check still thinks "permaculture" is not a real word—but if we could somehow do it before we dry up our aquifers, kill the rest of our rivers and send ourselves to the poorhouse in the mindless pursuit of infinite growth, we could boast some responsibility, too.

More by Randy Serraglio

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