Investigating and improving water conservation programs in urban Tucson, AZ with Dr. Lucero Radonic

Dr. Radonic examining Ocotillo flowers
Dr. Radonic examining Ocotillo flowers

Over the past six years, Assistant Professor Lucero Radonic has conducted ethnographic research on the strategies used by cities and urban residents to adapt to climate change and make a home where drought and extreme heat events have become protracted conditions. Dr. Radonic’s research has specifically focused on people’s intimate relationship to water by examining water management policies and practices in Tucson, Arizona. In collaboration with the city, Dr. Radonic has worked on analyzing some of their water conservation programs and identifying ways to improve them.

One of these water conservation programs promotes the use of rainwater harvesting, which is a simple and ancient technology that is making a comeback. As an anthropologist, Dr. Radonic sees how this most minimal of infrastructure offers a lens through which to study how people relate to each other and to a changing urban environment. Some of the questions her research explores include: How do people conceptualize and use rainwater in their everyday lives and home space? What motivates people to collect rainwater? How do people relate to different sources of water and make decisions accordingly? What are the barriers for implementing rainwater collection and other water conservation measures?

This research has definitively shown that individual motivations for adopting rainwater harvesting need to be studied, and not assumed. Dr. Radonic and her research team learned that peoples’ motivations for adopting rainwater harvesting vary, as they are informed by people’s cultural background and did not follow a standard economic model. People were not primarily motivated by the idea of financial water savings, even when that is how the program was originally promoted by water managers. Understanding what drives different sectors of the population to adopt this technology helps design a program that meets the needs of users and can contribute to equity in implementation. Dr. Radonic’s research emphasizes that what appropriate support looks like for such programs will vary for different sectors of the population. Therefore, a single approach is unlikely to be effective.

A house set up for rainwater harvesting
A house set up for rainwater harvesting

These findings offer important considerations for environmental justice issues. The literature shows that incentive programs, such as the one studied by Dr. Radonic, disproportionally benefit middle to upper income residents and residents who have the cultural skills and competencies to interact with government bureaucracies. By understanding different motivations and tailoring programs accordingly, Dr. Radonic’s research contributes to social justice in the distribution of environmental amenities that could increase quality of life in the city. The results of this project offer immediate impacts in informing the redesign of these programs and shaping outreach and educational materials to improve their reach and efficiency.

With the intent to make her work accessible and relevant to anthropologists and interdisciplinary scholars working on resource governance, Dr. Radonic has published on her research in Human Organization, Economic Anthropology, and Water Alternatives. Dr. Radonic has also presented at the American Anthropology Association, the Society for Applied Anthropology, the International Association for the Study of the Commons and Tucson’s Citizen Advisory Board.

Dr. Radonic’s inspiration for this project stems from a book—“Water is for fighting over: And other myths about water in the West” by John Fleck—which made her think about the importance of applying ethnographic methods to explore cooperative behavior and institutions in water governance. The efforts around water conservation fit this mold and she developed this ethnographic project, eventually being contacted by the city to work with them. As her work progresses, Dr. Radonic finds it very exciting, and satisfying, to see anthropology in dialogue with public policy.

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05.26.21