Community health workers (promotoras) complete a hands-on workshop on passive rainwater harvesting systems. They will conduct community outreach and assist their neighbors with rainwater harvesting projects in Arizona. (Photo: Ann Marie Wolf)
Community health workers (promotoras) complete a hands-on workshop on passive rainwater harvesting systems. They will conduct community outreach and assist their neighbors with rainwater harvesting projects in Arizona. (Photo: Ann Marie Wolf)

Project Addresses Food Safety for Southern Arizona Families

UA professor Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta is leading a citizen science effort to harvest rainwater and improve environmental health education in underserved rural and urban communities in Arizona.
Dec. 19, 2016
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STEM Learning Outside the Traditional Classroom

The project "Advancing Informal STEM Literacy & Learning: A Co-Created Citizen Science Rainwater Harvesting in Underserved Communities" runs from Sept. 15, 2016, to Aug 21, 2021.

The goal of the project is to:

  • Understand the fate and transport of potential pollutants in harvested water and how these possible pollutants might impact soil, plant and human health.
  • Evaluate the learning outcomes of a citizen science and community-engaged approach to research.

The project will provide a robust dataset that will inform guidelines for harvested rainwater use and also build capacity in underserved communities and inform the safe and sustainable production of food sources. To build trust and make sure that the citizen science data directly informs environmental policy, the project team will build a multi-stakeholders advisory board. 

Monica Ramírez-Andreotta, of the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, leads a class activity during the promotora workshop to prepare them to work in southern Tucson communities on issues of climate change. (Photo: Ann Marie Wolf)
Monica Ramírez-Andreotta, of the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, leads a class activity during the promotora workshop to prepare them to work in southern Tucson communities on issues of climate change. (Photo: Ann Marie Wolf)
Water harvesting system for irrigating native trees (Photo: Ann Marie Wolf)
Water harvesting system for irrigating native trees (Photo: Ann Marie Wolf)
Community health workers (promotoras) work in Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta’s laboratory in SWES to learn how to prepare soil water samples for metal analysis. (Photo: Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta)
Community health workers (promotoras) work in Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta’s laboratory in SWES to learn how to prepare soil water samples for metal analysis. (Photo: Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta)
Community members’ vegetable samples are prepared for metals and nutrient analysis. (Photo: Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta)
Community members’ vegetable samples are prepared for metals and nutrient analysis. (Photo: Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta)

With a $2.26 million grant from the National Science Foundation, University of Arizona researcher Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta is helping gardeners in Arizona's underserved neighborhoods analyze the safety and quality of water collected through rainwater harvesting systems.

The project, "Advancing Informal Environmental STEM Literacy & Learning: A Co-Created Citizen Science Rainwater Harvesting in Underserved Communities," will be funded for five years.

Ramírez-Andreotta, an assistant professor in the UA Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, or SWES, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will lead a team conducting urban research in the southern part of the metro Tucson area. Within the area, some communities have poverty rates as high as 51 percent. The team also will conduct a study in rural areas, including some medically underserved mining communities in Gila, Yavapai and Greenlee counties.

"Due to the current and future impacts of climate change, we chose communities that are likely to be disproportionally exposed to pollution and water scarcity in arid and semi-arid environments," Ramírez-Andreotta said.

"This research effort is especially critical for those populations, which account for about 40 percent of the global land area inhabited by one-third of the world's population," she said. "Environmental justice means that everyone has the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the environmental decision-making process. When environmental justice is achieved, environmental health disparities will be reduced."

Team members in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science include: Jean McLain, associate director of the CALS Water Resources Research Center; Leif Abrell, an associate research scientist; and Robert Root, a research assistant professor. Also involved is Animata Kilungo, director of research and development at Sonora Environmental Research Institute, a Tucson-based nonprofit organization.

The group will recruit and work alongside seven community health workers (known as promotoras) — and up to 176 families living near urban and rural sources of pollution in Arizona — to monitor the quality of harvested water, soil and plants grown for food.

"This project is an important example of the impact that the University can have by working with members of our community," said UA President Ann Weaver Hart. "Adapting our land-grant mission for the challenges of the 21st century is absolutely crucial, and Dr. Ramírez-Andreotta and her colleagues in Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences are helping to lead this effort with admirable creativity and dedication. This is wonderful news, and I know I am one among many who will be excited to see the outcomes of this work."

As in many poor communities around the world, residents of these communities often feel the effects of pollution, water scarcity and food insecurity more acutely than others of higher socioeconomic status.

Homegrown fruits and vegetables are an important source of healthy, affordable food, but irrigation costs and concerns about environmental contaminants may deter some residents from gardening and implementing water conservation strategies.

Through the study and a partnership with Sonora Environmental Research Institute, participants will have access to knowledge and resources to address both of these barriers.   

"It's a project where there is public participation in the scientific method," Ramírez-Andreotta said.

"Community members living in the targeted areas have identified rainwater harvesting as an environmental health research question," she said, adding that residents have limited information and guidelines that would help them to appropriately use harvested water when growing food crops.

A bilingual (English and Spanish) training program will be developed to certify promotoras in environmental monitoring, sustainability and climate change adaptation. They will then recruit and train urban and rural families on how to install rainwater harvesting systems in their gardens and properly collect water, soil and plant samples for analysis.

Through a program offered by Sonora Environmental Research Institute, community members who take part in the research project also can participate in the SERI Low Income Rainwater Harvesting Program. The program provides assistance to qualified low-income families to cover costs of a rainwater harvesting system. In addition, the team will assist participants in applying for rainwater harvesting incentive rebates offered by the city of Tucson.

The heart of the project lies in the participants' ability to work alongside communities to co-learn and co-generate data to improve environmental health, not only in Arizona but across the world.

Families will collect samples over a three-year period and be provided different tools to monitor the environmental quality of their gardens. For example, harvested water samples will be collected before and after monsoon season and at the beginning and end of winter. The data and potential health risks will be reported back to communities, using different communication methods to see which types are more effective.

"We will be looking at the potential microbial, organic compounds and metal contaminants in harvested rainwater and how those move through the environment — in this case, soils and plants," Ramírez-Andreotta said. "The people will be engaged in most steps of the scientific process and will do their own monitoring after we train them."

While the community participants are collecting samples, the researchers also will assess the learning and action-based outcomes of the project and how a citizen science and community-engaged approach affects informal science learning in underserved communities.

Said Ramírez-Andreotta: "This project will help us understand how people learn science outside formal classrooms, how to increase environmental health literacy in communities near pollution, and how to teach and include more people from different backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics informal learning."