Bri Hernandez Rosales is a graduate research assistant at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada and did her graduate thesis on the feasibility of rainwater harvesting for a local tribe. I interviewed Bri two days before she walked the stage to receive her master’s degree in hydrologic sciences.
“I was born in Mexico, but raised in Southern California. I started rock climbing when I turned 20 and I put school in the background because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I started going to these beautiful places and realized, how did these things get here? How did the Colorado River carve this giant canyon? And that was the interest in water. So I went back to school and got a degree in geology and then wanted to do more applied work, more research, having to do with water security and working with underserved populations and communities and strengthening their right to water security.
When I came to the University of Nevada, Reno, I was able to partner with my advisor, Dr. Alexandra Lutz, who has done a lot of work in Africa, providing water security measures to rural communities there. And I started looking at her research and her affiliation with Native Waters on Arid Lands, a project that’s run by Dr. Maureen McCarthy, that partners researchers and tribal members, farmers, ranchers, and tribal extension agents in building more climate resiliency among these tribal communities.
And so coming into this, we were asked by the federally recognized tribal extension program agent if we could assess the feasibility of rainwater harvesting for one of their buildings. They had a new 4H building and they wanted to see if they could actually collect rain water. So I assessed the feasibility of collecting rainwater from such a building and if so, how much, and how that water can actually be used for food production and how much can be cultivated.
It’s actually feasible. Northwestern Arizona gets the edge of the North American monsoon. So they get summer rain. And because the growing season is from April to September in that area, they can actually collect a lot of water from just one single building. The building that I was looking at, the gutter system was set up, it has galvanized sheet metal. So already, the runoff coefficient was already pretty high. They get an average of about nine and a half to eleven and a half inches per year of rainwater. So if we look at just the minimum amount of water that can be collected from that building, they can probably collect about 7,700 gallons just during the growing season.
It’s a simple equation. And then I looked at precipitation data for about 40 years and established what would be considered a dry year in the area, a normal year and a wet year. And I was able to assess how much water can be collected during those three scenarios.
I can’t talk for every rural or tribal community that’s experiencing these things, but from my research, you can see patterns in underserved communities or underrepresented communities that get kind of the brunt of everything. So for the past 20 years, the Southwest has been experiencing drought. There’s been research that just came out recently that mentions how the current drought that we’re experiencing has been the worst since the year 800.
That’s incredible to me. Communities are trying to thrive, but the climate is changing so rapidly that they don’t have the time to adapt. And it’s being felt along the Southwest, especially in these areas that are considered food deserts, areas that don’t have access to good reliable food. One thing will be connected to something else and it just becomes exacerbated. So when it comes to the drought, finding other ways of augmenting or diversifying water portfolios, I believe is pretty important being able to assist, if this help is wanted by the tribal communities or the rural communities. I think it’s important for research to be done with granted permission, to be able to address questions that they need answers to right now.
I’ve seen a lot of things change. Growing up in Southern California, population is one of the biggest ones. Increased occurrence of drought, the occurrence of fires. When I was little, we had a fire season, but it was one week in September, maybe October pushing it towards Halloween. But you never got wildfires before September, and now they’re happening all the time.
They’re tied to the ongoing yearly droughts that we’re experiencing. Another reason I wanted to get into water was in 2012 to 2016 the drought was pretty bad. We had to conserve and luckily a lot of Californians are awesome and they came together and they did cut their demand for water by nearly half, which was great. I feel like when push comes to shove, people actually will get together.
But you get 2017, 2019, which were really huge precipitation years. So you get a lot of vegetation growth, but then you get 2020 that’s dry again. And you have so much fuel. The fires that were going on last summer in the Sierras were running really hot. They were doing things that scientists had never seen before. They were crossing over ridges, it’s been crazy.
The work that I’ve been doing here at DRI and at UNR has really opened up a desire to want to continue working on water security issues and being a part of the solution of how we can move forward and how we can get a lot of these communities that don’t have access to these resources, how to get them access to resources so that they can become climate resilient and drought resilient.
The municipalities and the metropolitan areas will feel the extent of this as well, but there’s resources in those areas that they can pull from, while a lot of the tribal and rural communities are kind of on their own. And so being able to address some of these challenges is something that I really want to be a part of and help.
[Researchers need to] listen to what is needed from these communities. Being okay with being told what to research, instead of doing it your [own way]. Science for the sake of science is great and we’ve moved and propelled forward a lot. But I feel like we’re at a crossroads where we have to also include how this science is going to be applicable or how it’s going to benefit all individuals and influence policy.
I feel like there’s such a big disconnection between the policy makers and the scientific researchers and the communities that need this to be changed. Looking at water rights and knowing that there is a crisis in our hands right now with drought in the west, just destroying people’s livelihoods and crop production and water quality. I think it’s important to have policymakers look at what needs to be done and actually have the facts from the researchers to make the decisions that are going to help these communities.
People have certain agendas that they want to push forward, but it is definitely disheartening and frustrating when you have people who are creating these policies that are not experiencing the stuff that these communities are really experiencing. And then the research is just brushed aside. We could be doing more, I think.
I’ve always had access to water. And it’s not the same case for a lot of people, especially people in indigenous communities throughout the west or rural communities. Areas where they don’t have access to proper sanitation or access to just indoor plumbing. I haven’t had to experience that myself, but I have lived in low income and understand that there is a need to be able to help communities. I think everyone should have access to water.
COVID 19 has been a huge thing, the injustices that are being seen throughout the U.S. and the world, the energy that people are putting forward looking at the injustices and trying to do things with diversity, equity and inclusion. I’m not a huge social media fan, but I feel like that’s what’s driving these pushes. It’s driving these changes. It is podcasts, journalists that are doing good work and shining light to the issues that you don’t really see in the mainstream media that’s available.
I think we have lost a lot of our critical thinking, like asking questions and not just readily accepting something that’s shown to us, but actually doing a little bit of research. My curiosity, I will dig deep into things and I’ll go on forever just to make sure that what I believe in is factual. And it is credible. The place where I got this information is credible and reputable. And that’s something that I wanted to do with my project is make sure that it’s reputable science that anyone can actually use and be able to grab the science that I created and be able to then see if it’s feasible to collect rainwater and augment their water security a little.
We should be able to do all we can to harness or capture rainwater. What I learned is that you can have a 2000 square foot home and still collect a sizable amount of rain water for outdoor water use. It doesn’t have to be indoor. You can still rely on the municipalities or if you have a well on your well, but for outdoor water use, you can actually collect a lot of water given even a small catchment area.
And I believe that it can be applied throughout the west. And this is where policy also comes into it. It’s not legal in a lot of areas to collect rainwater. Luckily, a lot of that is changing. In California, you can collect it mostly throughout the state, but you can’t use it for drinking water because of water quality issues.
A lot of these laws are changing. Colorado just changed. That was huge. It was illegal to collect rainwater in Colorado because in the west, the water belongs to someone downstream. They started realizing, maybe people should be collecting. There are caps on how much you can collect. And there is research that looks into how is this going to affect downstream users, if neighborhoods collect this much water.
Water policy is so complicated. It’s so interesting. As a researcher, we are super proud when it propels things forward, like, “Oh my research was able to contribute to this.” You see an impact. I want to help. And the way for me to help is by doing something that is needed by a community.
I think one of the most important things is shining the light on how rural and tribal communities should have access to clean or reliable water, like most Americans. One in 10 Native Americans tend to lack access to safe, reliable water in sanitation. That’s a huge disparity. You have 40% of the Navajo nation who does not have access to indoor plumbing. We live in a great country. But we don’t realize that people are being affected by certain things, a lot worse than others.
We don’t even think about it. We go turn on the tap and it’s running and you don’t think about it never flowing, but then you start thinking about the drought and that might become the reality for a lot of us. There’s this new study that I was reading today that was published yesterday, where they’re saying that millions of Americans are going to start living in water scarcity.
We’re going to face increasing temperatures, the unpredictability of precipitation and over pumping of groundwater. We’re going to start seeing that this is not just going to affect rural communities, but everyone. And so we have to start becoming resilient and making sure that we bring everyone with us and not leave people behind.
Once the comfortable become uncomfortable, that’s when things get moved. I feel like a lot of people are becoming uncomfortable with the way things are.
Make sure that we protect the place that we live, because we only have one home. Becoming informed, being open minded, is really important. Having a little bit of compassion is going to go a long way. And I think just putting yourself in other people’s shoes is very important when it comes to what’s going on with the environment, the climate and communities. Understanding that injustices are occurring and they’re affecting groups of people that it shouldn’t be,
We should aspire to be more compassionate and do better.”
-What are your passions? What led you to these interests?
-Have you tried rainwater harvesting for any purpose?
-Have you seen discrepancies in clean water access in your community? In the news?
-What are some of the systemic issues that exacerbate economic and health disparities? How can they be overcome?
-How do you see climate issues differently today than you did 10 years ago? What changed your perception?
-Do you listen to different news outlets today than you did before the pandemic?
-Are there new voices and experiences that you have become aware of and that have helped you see the world in a new way?
-Bri talks about change being more likely when “the comfortable become uncomfortable.” Are there ways that you have become uncomfortable with the status quo?