Live through a Tucson summer – sustainably!

Climatologists and environmentalists have worked for years to understand the causes and effects of global climate change, but what about the rest of us? They face the tricky task of convincing people that climate change is real, and the even trickier task of explaining to us all that our own lifestyles and habits may be making the problem worse.

But it’s not only rising panic about climate change – there is good news. Once-unthinkable legislative and industrial reforms (think of the auto industry beginning to convert to electric vehicles) are now becoming a reality. Wind and solar farms are sprouting up everywhere. And in a free market system, a new generation of homebuyers with a “greener” orientation are nudging the construction industry toward more sustainable materials and energy-efficient designs.

But can you and I slow down or begin to reverse some of the damage to the planet?

Absolutely! Here are three very simple ways to do your part, and it won’t even seem like a sacrifice! So to begin, here in the desert, especially in summer, it’s especially important to think about…..

  • WATER : Conserve it! The very simplest thing you can change is the way you brush your teeth. Do you leave the water running while you scrub? Turn it off and you could save 6 to seven gallons of water per day! And speaking of personal hygiene, baths use way more water than showers, so choose a shower when you can. Also, as they do at the Reid Park Zoo, how about using “gray water” – that is, recycling water from your washer, shower, or bathroom sink? Think about directing it outside to water your landscaping.
  • BOTTLES: It’s absolutely crucial that we drink enough water daily here in the arid Southwest, so it’s not surprising that a lot of Tucsonans go through numerous plastic water bottles, every day. And we’re NOT saying you should drink less water! Although major soft-drink companies are advertising new plastic bottle designs that are made from recyclable materials, how about avoiding single-use plastic bottles altogether? You can buy your own reusable bottle and carry it with you everywhere, but if you forget and need to buy some water, how about buying it in an ALUMINUM bottle or can? You can try one at the Reid Park Zoo!

    Brands like Rain, Just Water, PathWater, Aqua Hydrant, and Alkaline88 are already selling water in aluminum, and giants like Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nestle are also developing aluminum bottles for popular brands like Dasani and Aquafina. Aluminum can be infinitely recycled, and it also costs less to recycle an aluminum bottle than to manufacture a brand new one. It goes without saying that this will only be helpful when you recycle. So bring your own water bottle, or try an aluminum one, then find the Zoo’s water station and stop there frequently for a fill up as you visit the Zoo this summer!
  • ENERGY: At home, pay attention to the echoing voices of your parents: turn off the lights, the computer, the TV, your phone, and any other devices whenever you’re not using them! Experiment with the temperature you keep your home – could you be comfortable with it at 75 degrees rather than 72? Can you use fans to circulate the air so that you use your energy-hungry AC system a little less? If it’s time to replace a major appliance, can you choose a new one with a great energy efficiency rating? Can you choose some locally-sourced food when you stock your kitchen? Also in the kitchen, is there a way to re-use a bottle or container? If not, please pay attention to recycling rules to be sure you’re recycling all you can.

Any or all of these small changes, multiplied by millions of us (or hundreds of thousands of Tucsonans) can translate into not only a more sustainable lifestyle for all of us, but also a healthier planet!

For more sustainability tips and examples, as well as a lot of cooling shade this summer, take a trip to the Reid Park Zoo! You’ll also get to see the many amazing species who like us, will benefit from our efforts to slow down climate change. And read the signs carefully – the beautiful and highly sustainable Reid Park Zoo expansion is coming our way soon!

Born for the Night Shift

As our group entered the cave-like area from bright summer sunlight, I stumbled slightly, allowing my eyes to adjust to the dimming light. Without any prompting, our laughter dissolved into cautious whispers. The glass panel we faced was slightly obscured by condensation—on our side, a cool summer breeze, on the other, a moist tropical atmosphere. There they were, hanging upside down, like furry brown birds in long trench coats, nibbling on pieces of nectarine and mango: my first glimpse of Rodrigues Fruit Bats, up close and personal. I was mesmerized. No, enraptured.  

It was like peering into another universe. Our group watched in silence as the bats walked upside down on the wire-mesh ceiling, foraged for fruit, chased one another, squabbled, and then rested together. More secluded spaces housed mother bats, nursing their single offspring upside down, pups clinging to their mothers’ armpits. It was a topsy-turvy universe, disorienting but exhilarating, and easily the most memorable part of my visit to the African rainforest habitat in Portland’s Oregon Zoo.  

Until that moment, I hadn’t thought much about bats. They are night dwellers, invisible, secretive, and maybe a little scary. I’d seen them before in caves, high up and hanging by the merest foothold along some rocky crevice. As a daytime dweller, birds, not bats, defined my encounters with nature. That all changed after meeting the Rodrigues bats on a warm summer day, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that a colony of fruit bats would be coming to Tucson as part of the Reid Park Zoo expansion, The Pathway to Asia

Wildlife professionals who work on behalf of these amazing animals will tell you that bats are under-appreciated and greatly misunderstood. Let’s get right down to basic bat facts.

Bats 101

There are so many bats! We may rarely see them, but there are more than 1,400 species of bats living in nearly every part of the world, except for the harshest desert and polar regions. These small mammals range in size from the Bumblebee bat, which weighs less than a penny, to the largest fruit bats, which have wingspans of up to 5 ½ feet. 

Humans rely heavily on birds, bats, and other animals to help keep our planet livable, some would say survivable. With birds working during the daylight hours and bats working the nightshift, nature provides us with round the clock pest control. Some scientists believe that bats’ preference for the night shift evolved as a way to avoid predation, mainly from birds, and has enabled them to share the same food source without confrontation or competition. Although all bats eats insects, and many do so exclusively, some have evolved to become fruit and nectar specialists providing another important ecological service—pollination!

Bats can be divided into two primary groups, Microbats and Megabats. As their names imply, Microbats have smaller bodies but larger ears which help them use their superpower, echolocation, a useful adaptation which helps them find food in the dark (insects) and avoid obstacles in the process. Micros are primarily insectivores, and their role is pest control. At the other end of the spectrum, Megabats have larger bodies, larger eyes with keen vision, and a great sense of smell. These sensory superpowers help them find their food (fruits and flowers). Megas have evolved as frugivores and nectarivores, and their role is pollination. Depending on where they live and their ecological role, bats can thrive in caves, rock shelters, and high-altitude mountainous ranges, but they also thrive in tropical forests, roost in trees, and one species even burrows in the ground (for all you bat fans, the North Island of New Zealand). In urban areas, they find man-made crevices to call home: attics, eaves, barns, industrial-sized buildings, tunnels, and bridges. Bats can live solitary or social lives. Some prefer to live alone or in pairs, some in small- to medium-sized harem groups (a dominant male with many females and a few immature males close by), and some in small to massive colonies. 

How massive? Bracken Cave, near San Antonio, Texas, is home to about 20 million Mexican Free-Tailed Bats who roost there, giving birth and raising pups, from March to September. This is the largest known bat colony in the world, although this number may not be entirely accurate because bats are difficult to count. 500 babies can huddle to keep warm by hanging onto one square foot of rock ceiling. How’s that for efficient use of space? The Bracken Cave colony is well-protected by Bat Conservation International, an international, non-governmental agency, and The Nature Conservancy. The city of San Antonio also enforces no-development and dark-sky regulations to protect their cave and the land surrounding it. 


Bats in the desert

Moving west, Arizona has the second largest number of bat species (28) in the U.S. , second only to Texas. The Mexican Free-tailed Bats of Bracken Cave fame are common in Tucson and have found handy urban homes under large bridges over the Pantano Wash and the Rillito and Santa Cruz Rivers. You can observe them—from a polite distance, please—flying out from underneath their bridge-caves at dusk . They mingle with other local bat species and share the ecological work; some are insectivores while others work as nectarivores.

While many Tucson residents may look forward to celebrating National Tequila Day , aka Thank A Bat Day, on July 24, I will be celebrating the birth of bat pups in Kartchner Cavern’s Big Room. This chamber is home to a small colony of myotis velifer, or the common cave bat. 

Every year on April 15, Kartchner staff close all the doors to the Big Room, turn off all the lights, and do not enter the cave again until late September, well after the bats have migrated away to hibernate for the winter. During the summer months, the bats are busy giving birth, raising pups, and teaching them how to fly, echolocate, and hunt for their food. You may visit the Rotunda and Throne rooms during the summer, but, in the Big Room, it’s all about baby bats. Like the rangers at Kartchner, we should feel good about honoring the privacy of this very special colony as it perpetuates a life cycle perfected by more than 50 million years of evolution. 

Two other bats common to the Arizona and Mexico region are the Lesser Long-nosed Bats and Mexican Long-tongued Bats . As their facial characteristics feature prominently in their names, can you guess what they eat? Both are nectar feeders and pollinators! They literally bathe themselves in pollen while searching for the fruits of agaves, saguaros, and organ pipe cacti. Like most animals, they are highly opportunistic and will also visit not-quite-depleted hummingbird feeders after those tiny birds have gone to roost. (Now you know why your nectar disappears overnight.)

It’s worth mentioning the monetary impact of bat populations; some people can relate more to dollars than wings, feathers, or fins. (Not judging! We all need their expertise and their support, too.) The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that, by eating insects, bats save U.S. agriculture billions of dollars per year in pest control. Some studies have estimated that service to be worth over $3.7 billion per year, and possibly as much as $53 billion, but this does not include the volume of insects eaten by bats in forest ecosystems, which benefits the lumber, paper, and other forest industries, or the bats’ service as pollinators. My calculator says the actual monetary worth of bats is far greater than $3.7 billion per year. Incalculable?  Maybe. But that’s another story.

Bats in the tropics

Traveling much farther west around the globe and sailing south into the Indian Ocean, we can find my favorite bat, the Rodrigues Fruit Bat, or flying fox, a common name for larger fruit bat species in the world. The Rods, as they are affectionately known, are considered endangered (by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the wild, they only exist on the tiny island of Rodrigues located about 900 miles east of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa. They live in dense tropical rainforests filled with large, mature trees (emphasis on mature, not young). 

In the 1970s, as the Rodrigues rainforests were cut and their habitat destroyed, the Rod colonies were pushed further and further to the edge of their 42 square mile island until they occupied just a small, wooded valley—barely enough room to survive. Unlike some of their desert counterparts, Rodrigues bats are frugivores and use their keen eyesight and sense of smell to find ripening mangoes, figs, and other fruits. The extraordinary thing is that they crush their food, swallow only the juices, and spit out the pulp and seeds in a pellet shape, creating a ready-made seed-packet. They live simply to regrow the rainforests. 

Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to regrow the forests fast enough. After a cyclone hit the island in 1979, the Rods were down to less than 70 individuals; they had become the rarest bats on Earth. Emergency conservation efforts led by English naturalist George Durrell brought them back from the brink of extinction. Individuals from Durrell’s first translocated colony are now being raised and cared for by about 15 accredited institutions worldwide, including the Oregon Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the Chester Zoo in northwest England—home to the largest Rodrigues colony in the world and holder of the Rod bat stud book—and soon, the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson! 

More bats coming to Tucson 

In the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion, guests will have the opportunity to observe these amazing animals and learn how they, along with our own desert species, contribute to the health of our planet. As a bat fan, I want you to hear this bat’s story and understand the role they play in the web of life. Most importantly, I want you to care.   

When I contemplate the fate our natural world, pretty much an everyday occurrence in 2021, I find inspiration in the words of my wildlife heroes, Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau , about Why We Should Care. Both individuals dedicated their lives to conservation of the natural world by raising our awareness and demonstrating how each one of us is connected to the web of life. Goodall said, “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.” Cousteau may have said it more simply but with no less conviction, “People only protect what they love.”

I’m proud to say that in our little corner of the desert southwest, our small but mighty Reid Park Zoo will become one of a select few chosen to help maintain a genetically diverse population of Rodrigues Fruit Bats and, through human care, research, and financial support, prevent their extinction in the wild. When this new habitat opens, I hope that your first encounter with these small furry creatures, living their topsy-turvy lives on the perpetual night shift, fills you with a sense of wonder and excitement and inspires you to support their conservation. I hope you, too, will experience love at first sight.

ONCE UPON A TIME OUR RIVERS FLOWED . . . .

Once upon a time cottonwood trees and riparian plants lined the river banks. Fish swam in the waters, and wildlife thrived.

Over 12,000 years ago early nomadic people found our desert to be rich and welcoming as they paused here in their hunter/gatherer lifestyle. Around 4,000 years ago people began to settle permanently and plant their crops at the base of Sentinel Peak (A Mountain), along the Santa Cruz River. The agrarian community grew. And the rivers flowed.

The mid-1500s marked the beginning of the Spanish influence, from explorers and gold seekers to missionaries and their accompanying military presidios. By the 1700s several missions had been established to convert the Indians to Catholicism. Still a Mexican village of a few hundred, the population of Tucson continued to grow. And the rivers still flowed.

The mid 1850s saw the influx of Anglos from the east. The U.S. government bought southern Arizona from Mexico and encouraged Americans to move westward. Tucson continued to grow. Residents dug shallow wells to access water. And still the rivers flowed.

By 1900 Tucson’s population was about 7,500. A municipal water system pumped and delivered clean water. Indoor plumbing did away with outhouses. Homes had the luxury of running water. Ten years later, the population was 13,000. Due to pumping and diversion for irrigation, the water table dropped enough that the flow of the Santa Cruz River could no longer be sustained. Water flowed above ground only after a heavy rain.

In 1922, recognizing the need for water in the arid west, the seven western states that bordered on or fed water into the Colorado River drew up The Colorado River Compact, allocating a specific amount of the river’s water to each state. Oddly, they based their figures on several unusually wet years which meant that, in effect, they over-allocated the contents of the river during normal flows. Further, when Mexico later pointed out that the river had its mouth in that country, more acre-feet were allocated out of thin air. Ah, well. For the most part that didn’t pose any real problem since there was more water than was needed at that time. When drier times followed the issue was ignored. 

Tucson’s population grew during and after World War II. Modern technology made it possible to pump ever deeper for water. However, by 1960 it was clear that continued pumping was unsustainable and would lead to serious subsidence of the land. Eventually the building of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile canal to bring Colorado River water inland for the cities and farmers, seemed imperative.

By 1980 the population surpassed 500,000, and deep pumping continued. Finally, after 20 years of construction, the CAP finally reached completion in 1992. But joy over this “endless” source of water was short-lived when the new water’s chemistry/ph effectively scoured out years and years of deposits and rust from the city’s old pipes and delivered brown, smelly water to people’s homes. With massive water main breaks and leaks, that expensive disaster set back the use of the canal for another decade.

At the turn of the 21st century, the plan we use today had been implemented. Water from the canal is diverted into a series of shallow “recharge” basins from which it filters through the desert floor into the aquifer (basically an underground “valley” filled with gravel and sand) below where it can be stored and pumped out by Tucson Water for delivery to the city. You can easily see some of these basins from the Desert Museum. At this time, depending on where you are in Tucson, around 80% of the water that comes out of your faucets has the Colorado River as its origin.

And that brings us to the dilemma we face today. With ongoing drought and the impacts of climate change, the level of the Colorado River is dropping with no end in sight. Lakes Mead and Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, are well below half and likely to continue to fall. If that continues, the mighty Hoover Dam will no longer be able to generate electricity or even release water downstream.

Yikes! What can we do to forestall disaster? For starters we can recognize that we live in a desert where water is precious. We must be mindful of the amount of water we use. Let us look back and learn from Tucson’s earlier residents. Since they had to haul it from the river (or the well), you can bet they didn’t waste it! The Reid Park Zoo offers some great examples and suggestions. As you walk around, read the signs to learn all that the Zoo is doing to conserve and what you can do at home. And rest assured that water conservation is already a priority in the plans for the Reid Park Zoo expansion.

Grow shade on your property to help it stay cooler and hold moisture in the land. Sculpt your yard into basins and swales to capture and slow the flow of any rain that falls. Plant native trees and bushes next to or in your basins.  Give water a second use. Direct water from your washing machine, shower, and bathroom sink outside to feed a thirsty plant.

In front of the Zoo’s Conservation Learning Center (CLC) there is a huge rain cistern to collect rainwater from the roof to use as needed during dry times. You may be amazed by how much water can be collected from one monsoon storm. For example, from a 1,000 square foot rooftop (25’ x 40’), if a single inch of rain falls, 600 gallons of water will flow into the tank. Since many people live in houses that are 2,000 square feet, that would mean 1,200 gallons of water! When you consider the rooftop space of the CLC, you’ll realize why that cistern is so gigantic.

If you’re a Tucson Water customer, check out the amazing rebates available to help you pay for installing rainwater and gray water harvesting systems.

In a normal year, Tucson receives 10-12 inches of rain. When you convert those inches into gallons, the surprising but calculated fact is that the amount of water used by the city of Tucson is LESS than the amount of rainfall! If we can harvest enough rain, we wouldn’t even need the CAP water.  We don’t need expensive, complex equipment and technology. We simply need the will to take up the challenge. When we do, we may find that in fact it doesn’t feel like pain and sacrifice; it feels like satisfaction and success. 

And our rivers can flow again.