Water Equity Clearinghouse

Sonoran Environmental Research Institute

Tucson, AZ

The Sonoran Environmental Research Institute (SERI) is a community-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing unbiased research to disadvantaged and marginalized communities, in order to address their environmental challenges and build healthy and safe neighborhoods. For over 20 years, SERI has partnered with neighborhoods that are under economic, environmental and health stress to assess and reduce these risks. As part of this work, SERI conducts risk reduction and healthy homes interventions, provides technical assistance, conducts community participatory research, offers educational opportunities, responds to community needs, and implements programs to make immediate and long-term impacts.

Efforts to Advance Water Equity

Despite conservation efforts, water scarcity is still a risk as the climate gets hotter and drier. There is a need for increased investment in water systems, while keeping in mind affordability challenges for vulnerable communities. One in five families in Tucson lives below the poverty line, with 30 percent of Latino households and 18 percent of white households living in poverty. The city is also home to a large undocumented immigrant community. Warming temperatures create urban heat-island effects, often in neighborhoods that are home to vulnerable communities. One of SERI’s areas of focus is encouraging lower-income households’ participation in rainwater harvesting. A simple sustainability strategy, rainwater harvesting has the potential to create multiple benefits, including lowering water use, reducing the risk of flooding, and irrigating plants that keep the air cool. SERI has partnered with Tucson Water to strategize ways to make rainwater harvesting more accessible. Tucson Water offers its customers rebates and technical assistance to install their own rainwater harvesting systems. In partnership with Tucson Water and the University of Arizona, SERI created a pilot program to encourage low-income and minority households to participate in rainwater harvesting. Supported by an EPA Environmental Justice grant, the pilot program was very well-received, and served as a model for Tucson Water’s Low-Income Rainwater Harvesting Program.

The Low-Income Rainwater Harvesting Program offers qualifying households zero-interest loans to build systems, in addition to being eligible for the existing rebate. Very low-income families—at or below 50 percent of the area median income—are eligible for grants as well as loans. SERI conducts outreach and education around the benefits of rainwater harvesting, using its longstanding connections to vulnerable communities to make sure the program reaches the households that need it most. The organization guides customers through each step of the process, from design and purchasing materials to hiring local contractors to install the systems. The partnership between SERI and Tucson Water taps the expertise of the utility and the community organization to connect low-income households to the resources they need to build rainwater harvesting systems. Neighborhoods benefit from more greenery, reducing the urban heat-island effect. As more customers supplement their water use through rainwater harvesting, there is the potential to lower water bills and reduce overall pressure on the drinking water supply.