At first glance, it seems the Watershed Management Group’s headquarters doesn’t have many displays of sustainable living projects.
Its Living Lab seems to consist of a couple of small cisterns next to outbuildings and solar panels on an office building. There’s a large back patio on the midtown property, surrounded by native plants.
It’s only after a guided tour starts that you realize that what you see is just a glimpse of what’s really happening.
The entire complex of low-slung buildings — a converted home and apartments — integrates a lot of systems to reduce the organization’s use of electric and water utilities.
Once you realize how much water harvesting and recycling goes on unseen, you also could think that your home doesn’t have to use landscape-busting systems that may ruin the look of your yard and home.
“The whole thing is a living lab that demonstrates systems on a residential-lot scale,” explains Karilyn Roach, community relations specialist for Watershed Management Group.
“I think what this shows is how possible it all is,” Roach adds. “It’s not a big infrastructure problem.”
In 2013, Watershed Management Group began converting the donated residence and adjacent apartment building, which was purchased, into a sustainable office and education complex.
The efforts already are paying off for the group, which helps residents, communities, businesses and agencies live in ways that are friendly to the environment.
Last year it collected enough rainwater in its 10,000-gallon cistern buried under the patio and in the two aboveground cisterns that it turned off its Tucson Water connection months ago.
A filtration system lets the staff of 12 use the stored rainwater indoors, including in the shower, sinks and washing machine.
Used water from those sources is sent out into the yards through shallowly buried pipes. This gray water helps irrigate the edible garden, where the staff grows grains, fruits, vegetables and tangerine, grapefruit, fig, peach and pomegranate trees.
Gray water also supplements rainwater in the pollinator gardens out back. Both water sources also are used in a children’s play area.
Deep, targeted irrigation of the gardens is possible because basins, swales, berms and other earthen features guide water flow directly to plants.
Mulch covers the ground everywhere, including the old paved driveway, to keep rainwater from running off into the street. Mulch also covers the basins so that a casual observer can’t tell there are big holes in the ground.
While the office buildings have indoor bathrooms, outdoor facilities help plants thrive.
Water used in the outdoor shower, fed by collected rainwater, helps irrigate a cat’s claw vine that in turn masks the shower stall.
A composting toilet provides enriched soil for the gardens. The toilet, hidden in an outhouse, has three covered containers.
One is the active toilet into which users add sawdust to their waste. The second is a previously used toilet that is full of waste that is composting. The third is another used toilet that holds compost ready to be spread in flower and garden beds.
Two covered urinal stations are piped to the beds to amend the soil with the nitrogen found in urine.
Put together, these systems provide food for staff to eat and trees and flowering shrubs for birds, bees and other animals to use.
“This is a vision of what happens when you have all of these elements,” says Roach.
Separately, solar panels allow the organization to eliminate Tucson Electric Power usage except on the hottest days, when air conditioners in the former apartment building are turned on.
Those panels, as well as the aboveground cisterns, were installed when benefactor Marguerite Fisher owned the house.
A professor of accounting, Fisher came to Tucson in 1989 to do research at the University of Arizona, recalls artist Nancy Martin, who rented a room to Fisher and became a friend.
“We both enjoyed traveling and she was just an interesting person,” Martin says.
Legally blind since childhood, Fisher moved back to her family home in New York for two or three years because of major health problems. She returned to Tucson to live out her life.
When asked why Fisher came back, Martin says, “Strangely enough, it had to do with the light. As a person with limited vision, she just felt really well here and she loved the light.”
Fisher lived simply. She installed the solar panels and never turned on her heater or air conditioner.
“She didn’t have an electric bill,” says Jennifer Mills, Fisher’s financial adviser and a member on the Watershed Management Group board.
Fisher would chat with the organization’s founders, Lisa and Catlow Shipek, who bicycled through the neighborhood, Mills remembers. They helped her install the cisterns.
Fisher died in 2012. Without heirs, she donated her money to several charities, including the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and Tohono O’odham Community Action.
To Watershed Management Group she gave her property and some funds with which to buy the adjacent property.
“She was someone that wanted to walk on this world with a light footprint,” says Martin, “and give back.”
A small tile pays homage to Fisher, but Watershed Management Group plans a much more visible tribute: a native food heritage garden where people can learn how to farm in the Sonoran Desert.