Water: The Multifaceted Jewel of the Desert

To many, the desert may at first look unassuming: brown, “barren,” and a landscape that seems as if it is yearning for some inkling of moisture–and if you’re comparing the Sonoran Desert to a lush green landscape like that of the tropics or the east coast, well, I’d see how you’d come to that conclusion. However, as you strip away the dried up outer layers of this metaphorical onion, what you’ll find is an ecosystem brimming with life and unique adaptations.

The impending rain clouds as shown in the left picture isn’t the only sign of water in the desert. Take a better look and you’ll see a variety of cacti such as the mighty Saguaro, barrel cacti, prickly pear, and cholla. Despite their prickly exterior, many desert animals have managed to meet their daily water requirements by feasting on the juicy flesh of these plants. When fully hydrated, a Saguaro cactus can store over a thousand gallons of water! Its pleated surface allows it to contract and expand according to its water consumption. They have thick, waxy skin to reduce water loss through evaporation and their spikes help ward off animals from eating it while also providing shade from the sun. Unlike most plants that respire (take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide through their pores) during the day, Saguaros, like all other cacti, respire at night to reduce water loss.

Ok, so clearly the native plants and animals know how to cleverly manage with little water, but how desert-adapted and water savvy are the humans that have made Tucson their home? What are some actions we as individuals can take to conserve water? These were some of the topics that were touched on during our field trip to the Watershed Management Group in Tucson, AZ. I learned that the average American uses 120 gallons of water per day and the average Tucson resident uses 80 gals/day. Although this is definitely a good start, there is always room for improvement, especially considering the anticipated future water challenges in the face of global climate change. One of the coolest things I saw were human compost toilets! I know what you’re thinking, but once you move past the stigma, they’re actually a great way to reduce a household’s number one water user while also conserving energy and returning nutrients back to soil.

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