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 natural environment,” 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 various fabricators in consultation with sustainability professionals, land managers and engineers. The collector 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.
In August of 2019 a dedicated crew of staff and volunteers braved the searing summer heat to install the very first one between passages 16 and 17 – 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.
In April of 2023 the ATA installed a second AZT rainwater collector north of Freeman Road Trailhead, between passages 14 and 15 of the AZT in collaboration with Pinal County. This 60 mile segment of the AZT is very dry, and what natural sources exist are sub-optimal. This resource helps meet our goal to have water every 15 miles, and helps eliminate clutter at the trailhead from water caches in plastic bottles.
These rainwater collectors rest on top of the ground so very little ground disturbance is necessary for installation, unlike wildlife water projects that require a large footprint and significant ground disturbance. These tanks fill during winter rains and summer monsoons for trail users to tap into during the busy Spring and Fall trail seasons. These units are 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, very few 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 at the first tank 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 pilot project was funded by a Restoration and Resilience Grant from the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) and Freeport-McMoRan Foundation.
The second collector was funded by a grant from the Secure Rural Schools Act Title II Funds through the Resource Advisory Council (RAC) and USDA Forest Service.