The Drought Diaries: Innovation

By Eilene Lyon

The Drought Diaries has been on hiatus, but the issue is at the forefront of my mind once again as we head into another season of extreme drought here in the southwestern U.S.

Runoff from the area snowpack is expected to occur quickly and at a lower volume than average. There has been little precipitation – at our house less than 3 inches so far this year – and none in the forecast. It’s liable to be another scary fire season.

This is the new normal.


The number one use of water in the western states is agriculture. That is a subject in itself. For this post, I’m going to focus on innovations geared toward other water uses that can lessen the impact of drought on our lives.


Rain Catchment: Though rain barrels are hardly new, it’s still an underused technology. Because irrigation (including storage for irrigation) is so important in the arid states, water is a serious legal matter.

It might surprise you to know that until recently, collecting rainwater at my house was illegal. Even now, it is restricted.1 Runoff from precipitation is considered part of the adjudicated streams that feed irrigation projects. By collecting rain and snow, rain-barrel users have a presumed impact on the water rights of others.

Rain barrel image by Aqua Mechanical on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In Colorado, residential properties can have up to two rain barrels with a combined maximum volume of 110 gallons. The water collected can only be used for outdoor landscapes. If there is some precipitation, it can reduce the need for drawing well-water or city water for outdoor use. But this is useless if there is no rain.

Some inventors are creating energy efficient devices that can condense water from the atmosphere. If you have an air conditioner, you can capture the water it condenses and use it for your yard.

Warka Water Tower: Developed in Ethiopia, the Warka Water Tower is just one of a collection of systems this non-profit has created to improve the lives of villagers. The towers can operate as rain catchments or condensers in high-humidity conditions. They also have a canopy to provide shade for citizens on hot days.2 You can view a video.

MIT’s solar-powered, low-humidity condenser: This is a product that is still in development, but has been proven in trials at Arizona State University in Tempe. Most systems that harvest water from the atmosphere require humidity levels in the 50-100% range, but this one can pull water from the air when the humidity is as low as 10%.3


Appliances, etc.: Whenever we have the opportunity to replace toilets and appliances like dishwashers and washing machines, we should opt for those that use less water per flush/cycle.

Landscaping: Ripping out a water-hog lawn would be a good first step. Most of our property is just native vegetation. Using drip irrigation on plantings reduces the water used to keep flowers and shrubs looking good. I use a soaker hose on my vegetable garden to place the water directly into the soil and I water deeply, less often. Mulch is also good to help prevent evaporation.

Mulch image by Maddy Baker on Unsplash

Another method to water your flower and vegetable gardens is by using ollas. These narrow-necked clay jars are buried so that just the opening shows. Fill the pot with water and it will osmose through the clay drawn by water tension from the plants, keeping the soil uniformly moist and reducing evaporation.4

Timing your watering can make a big difference, too. I’ve taken to watering as the sun is going down, now that the heat is rising. This give the plants a full day to absorb what they need with less evaporation, too. I find I need to give each pot less water this way.

This book by David A. Bainbridge demonstrates the use of a garden olla.

At Home: Capturing gray water for use outdoors is one way to re-use water. We haven’t needed to resort to this, being on a well and septic system.

Municipally: Most treated wastewater gets discharged into a stream after processing. Places like Singapore have turned to treating it to the point where it is safe to re-use, even for drinking.5 That may sound unpleasant, but when water availability becomes critical, more and more cities will need to consider this type of technology.

Feature image: Angel Peak NRA in San Juan County, New Mexico. (E. Lyon 2015)

26 thoughts on “The Drought Diaries: Innovation

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  1. Good advice. When I was a child we had a rain barrel that filled with water from somewhere above. I was too little to understand the science of it, but now that you mention it I remember it. Funny that

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fascinating post, Eilene. Lots of good tips too.
    We moved from one of the driest parts of the nation to one of the wettest, but I remember how dangerous it could be if it rained because nothing soaked in. Here we live pretty close to the Mississippi, but our chances of flooding were higher in Arizona.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Even living near a river, my chances of being flooded are essentially zero. I really do have to worry about fires. I’ve watched four of them burn visible from my home. The empty patches left behind are a constant reminder.


  3. Wow, those rain catchment prohibitions and restrictions sure surprised me! An I had been meaning to try the ollas, then I forgot, but I think I might give it a go now that they are forecasting a long dry spell around here in Ontario.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So informative, thank you. I’m going to look into Ollas. As I type, we have the first thunderstorm of the season rolling through, so my rain barrel should be filling. We have had a very dry spring and not as much snow this past winter, so this rain is welcome.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I went online to see if I can purchase them anywhere in SK, but it doesn’t look that way. I may try making a couple of homemade ones for one of my raised beds and see how it works.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m always surprised by all the times London has apparently been in drought, even though it seems like we’ve gotten plenty of rain. So if it’s a problem here, I’m sure it’s a problem there! It reminds me of Pa’s struggles with drought (and grasshoppers, and blackbirds, etc) in the Little House books, though I know there’s some schools of thought that say it was the farming of the prairies that caused a lot of the issues with drought in the first place.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, I don’t know if there’s any evidence to support that. They used to say “the rain follows the plow” as justification for ripping up the prairie. That wasn’t true at all, of course. Maybe the reverse isn’t, either.

      Liked by 1 person

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