A University of Arizona research group is backing an innovative new water conservation program that one day could save thousands of acre-feet of water for area environmental projects.

The program, called Conserve to Enhance, or C2E, plans to offer subsidies to help a number of local homeowners install rainwater-harvesting equipment, including 2,400-gallon cisterns. Those subsidies will range from $500 to $1,000.

Some homes will participate in the pilot program as well but without the subsidy. In exchange, homeowners will monitor their water use and donate the money they've saved to support riparian restoration projects in Tucson.

Joanna Nadeau, a research analyst for the UA Water Resources Research Center, or WRRC, said about 80 applications have been received for the project, although not all of those will qualify for the equipment subsidy, and suggests that those interested can still fill out a brief online application.

Nadeau said that C2E will continue to accept applications. "We don't know if all of the 80 applicants thus far are even eligible or will be geographically spread out enough, which is one of our selection criteria. There is still room for more people to apply."

Conserve to Enhance currently is managed by the WRRC, the Watershed Management Group, the Sonoran Institute and an independent advisory board made up of city, county and other representatives.

The program evolved from a WRRC research project that surveyed environmental enhancement programs – restoration projects, plantings, etc. – around the state. The survey found that insecure or insufficient water supplies limited a number of the programs.

"That started this quest to get water for important projects in the environmental sector," Nadeau said. "One idea was to use water conservation as a source of water, since many people are already motivated to help the environment."

Conservation programs have been in place in many communities to help moderate heavy water use. Tucson Water's "Beat the Peak" is one long-standing example. Conserve to Enhance is instead geared to engage residents who are interested in benefitting the environment. Presently that includes two existing projects in Tucson. One is the Swan Wetlands on the Rillito River. The other is Atterbury Wash near Lakeside Park.

"Our plan is to scale the program up so that people who enjoyed it the first year can just keep on doing it," Nadeau said. "Those who sign up now are committed to just the one year of seeing how much water is saved and making a donation to the program.

"We're also brainstorming ways to bring this program to the UA and to have students and the Campus Sustainability Group participate so the University could be saving water to enhance the environment. And if anyone is interested in that, they're welcome to join us."