Hiking, biking or horseback riding along the Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT) has always been a challenge. Through deserts, canyons, mountains and forests, the AZT climbs and descends over 110,000 feet in 800 miles between Mexico and Utah. Ask anyone who has completed the entire trail—either all at once or one segment at a time—and they’ll tell you the single most important factor on the trail is water…or lack thereof.

In an effort to fulfill our mission to “protect, maintain, enhance, promote and sustain the Arizona Trail as a unique encounter with the land,” the Arizona Trail Association (ATA) has been researching and investing in numerous projects to enhance water sources. This includes rehabilitating springs negatively impacted by erosion; identifying and signing water sources within one-half-mile of the trail; installing bear boxes so trail users can cache gallon jugs of water in advance of their trip; and in 2019, construction of a remote rainwater collector.

The AZT Rainwater Collector is a unique design that was developed by the ATA and metalsmith extraordinaire Rob Bauer in consultation with sustainability professionals, land managers and engineers. It features a steel apron that catches rainwater and stores the precious resource within a 1,500-gallon tank that is protected on all sides by steel panels. A spigot with an automatic shutoff valve allows trail users to fill and filter their bottles. Once the tank is full, an overflow pipe fills a steel water trough nearby for the benefit of wildlife.

On August 31, 2019 a dedicated crew of staff and volunteers braved the searing summer heat to install the very first one – halfway between reliable water sources at the Gila River and a windmill near Picketpost Trailhead.

This particular 21-mile segment has been daunting for many hikers, runners, and mountain bikers. Covering the distance without any shade or water is prohibitive for equestrians whose animals require 5-7 gallons of fresh water per day. This has been the site of many Search and Rescue operations when trail users get into trouble from dehydration and heat exhaustion.

The rainwater collector sits at ground level and no disturbance was necessary for its installation, unlike wildlife water projects that require a large footprint and significant ground disturbance. It will likely fill during summer monsoons for trail users to tap into during the busy autumn trail season. Then the pattern will be repeated with winter moisture refilling the tank for the spring season. The entire unit is fenced to keep livestock out, and posted signs inform trail users that the water must be filtered before consumption.

Since rainwater is essentially distilled and the unit features a three-stage screen system, it’s unlikely any natural contaminants will find their way into the storage tank. The water never receives direct sunlight, so algae will not grow. Unlike most dirt tanks, ponds, streams, seeps and other sources along the Arizona Trail, cattle will have no opportunity to contaminate the water. Fine mesh screens cover the intake and outflow to prevent mosquitoes, bees and other insects from accessing the water source.

Water quality was studied for a full year in collaboration with the University of Arizona’s Project Harvest Team in partnership with the Sonora Environmental Research Institute (SERI).

For more information about their process, what it all means, and important terms, follow these links:

To view the water quality results from the Remote Rainwater Collector, click on each of the following reports:

The ATA will continue to monitor water quality over time, and while we are confident this will remain among the cleanest water sources along the entire AZT we encourage anyone drinking this water to filter or treat as you would any other water source along the trail.

Tremendous thanks to everyone who helped make the first AZT Rainwater Collector a success, including the Tonto National Forest; the Town of Superior’s Mayor Besich and Council Member Bruce Armitage; and all of the volunteers who helped install the rainwater collector under very challenging conditions.

The project was funded by a Restoration and Resilience Grant from the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) and Freeport-McMoRan Foundation.