Desert dwellers are often reminded to take shorter showers, buy water-efficient appliances and choose xeriscape over lush lawns.

A new University of Arizona program is creating a more direct link between that kind of conservation and an improved environment.

The UA Water Resources Research Center runs Conserve to Enhance, now in its pilot phase. The program is giving subsidies of between $500 and $1,000 to 50 local volunteer homeowners to install rainwater-harvesting equipment such as large cisterns. Fifteen additional homes will participate without subsidies.

But homeowners won't just save water and money. Through quarterly donations, they'll directly help the environment: Volunteers will give what they've saved to support a local riparian-restoration project.

The idea evolved from environmental-restoration research, said Joanna Nadeau of the UA water center.

"There was a survey of restoration projects that found many environmental-enhancement projects didn't have sufficient water supplies," she said. "Out of that came the search for how can we address the lack of water for the environment."

The project's original concept was actually using the conserved water, Nadeau said. However, in most cases, it's hard to set aside the actual water.

Aside from the UA, the program is managed by the Watershed Management Group, the Sonoran Institute and an independent advisory board. The project is funded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Currently, the program will fund the restoration of Atterbury Wash, near Chuck Ford Lakeside Park on the east side, said Emily Brott, project manager of the Sonoran Institute.

Brott said the restoration will entail revegetating the wash with native species to improve habitat for wildlife. The wash has been designated as a bird and wildlife sanctuary and is an important conservation area, she said. The members of the Conserve to Enhance program also are interested in creating a demonstration site for the methods being used, she said.

Brott said there are three possibilities for how the money will be used.

The first is to add a half acre of restoration to the 55-acre Atterbury Wash project through the Tucson Audubon Society and the City of Tucson Parks & Recreation.

The second is paying for the water currently being brought to the site, which is now funded through a youth-employment program. Brott said funding has dried up, and it's becoming difficult to get people on site to water plants by hand.

A third, and more expensive, option is to build lines to get reclaimed water to the site. The water currently used is potable because of a law that prevents the handling of reclaimed water.

Nadeau said the main requirement for becoming a volunteer was the participant's willingness to track water savings. The team didn't just give away subsidies, but did ensure that those who were interested received what they needed financially to get started, she said.

"We were offering (subsidies) to offset what effort needs to be made to conserve water so they could donate to the fund," she said. "They're really geographically spread up, divided up by wards. We made sure we had as many in each ward as we could, with low-income subsidies, too."

Volunteer Pat Procaccio said Tucson's overuse of water prompted her to join the program.

"I have a pool, so our water bill is high," she said. "I have two low-flush toilets; I have a rain barrel; and I use drip irrigation, but I'm still trying to find as many ways as I can to save water."

Procaccio said the fact she knows where her money will go is an added benefit.

"As I go into retirement years with a fixed income, I need ways to help the environment and myself," she said.

For volunteer Ezra Roati, it's a family affair. Roati said his father got him started on water conservation and now both are involved in the project.

"I think of it as a way to kill two birds with one stone," Roati said. He's already completed a gray water project for his washing machine and installed a steel culvert for water harvesting, and said he'll use his subsidy to continue finding ways to save water.

Lisa Shipek, executive director of the Watershed Management Group, said the project will hopefully help residents understand the effect water choices have on local ecosystems.

"I think a lot people who move here don't realize that we used to have running rivers and streams, and we've killed these functioning systems," she said. "We have an opportunity to bring that back."

Victoria Blute is a NASA Space Grant Intern. E-mail her at