Water Consortium: Researching and Edifying Water Catchment/Conservation Best Practices for Urban Farmers in Detroit

Progress report for FNC23-1382

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $28,870.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Sanctuary Farms
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
jøn kent
Sanctuary Farms
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Project Information

Description of operation:

jon kent, Co-founder of Sanctuary Farms (SF). His roles are centered around business development and community outreach. However, his role covers a variety of responsibilities to ensure the success of SF. He has managed our farmland purchase, soil testing, applying for grants, making partnerships with community organizations focused on sustainability and farming. Outreach and community relations are jon’s major strengths.

Tony Johnson, Sanctuary Farms Initiative Director. His 7 years of ngo work range from tutoring and educational programming, urban farm and volunteer management, to a gardening consultant. His expertise is facilitating discussions, creating surveys, and leading research initiatives.

Canfield Consortium Farm
Kim Theus, Co-founder of the Canfield Consortium Farm who's role in agriculture is the cultivation of the soil in our community and engaging with neighbors to ensure their needs are met. A main research and community engagement has revealed that residents are concerned with the quality of the soil in neighborhoods.

Water Consortium Team
Erma Leaphart, Community Organizer for the Sierra Club. Erma’s a respected environmental activist around all things water in the Greater Metro of Detroit. Chairing the City of Detroit’s Green Task Force Water Committee, where she ensures water affordability, conservation and equity are at the forefront of work. She will be helping us craft best practices in regard to water conservation for farmers.

Tepfirah Rushdan, Co-Founder of Black Farmer Land Fund. Tepfirah’s a multihyphenate community organizer and serial social entrepreneur. As a trusted intermediary between the City of Detroit and farmers, she has helped establish a new renaissance of urban agriculture in Detroit. She has been working with the DWSD to make the task for farmers wanting access to water more efficient and accessible.

Katie Brandt, Educational Programs Manager, MSU Student Organic Farm
Katie’s work focuses on developing beginning farmers through leading the MSU Organic Farmer Training Program, the Michigan Sustainable Farm Mentors project and collaborating on curriculum development for beginning farmers. As a gifted systems builder, and former successful organic farm co-founder, she will be helping us synthesize our knowledge and research into a palatable educational experience for farmers to use in navigating what water catchment system is best for their farm needs.

Micah Hutchinson, is a Produce Safety Technician located at the Genesee Conservation District. She works with fruit and vegetable farmers in Southeastern Michigan. She helps educate growers on the best practices to prevent and reduce microbial contamination on fresh produce


A large barrier to the sustainability of many urban farms is consistent water access. Although there are many options such as using a neighbor’s tap, rain catchment, relying on rain, or a combination, any of those may not last or be sufficient as it is or with the increasingly extreme conditions we are experiencing from climate change. Connecting to the city lines is the most secure, yet is costly, confusing, and time consuming here in the city of Detroit and other cities in the region. 

We are currently experiencing the difficult process of securing a tap into the water line and exploring other water security options as we work to double the size of our operation from just under an acre to about 2 acres, which will prove very difficult to maintain under our current watering capabilities.

Project Objectives:


  • Our research will include five varying water catchment systems: 1) rainwater harvesting (tote); 2) city main water line tap; 3) fire hydrant conversion; 4) cisterns; and 5) water basin comparing variables such as conservation, water quality, cost, ease of installation, and local availability to source. 
    • We are interested in documenting experiences, getting a consensus from local farmers on the types of water catchment systems most preferred and consolidating the knowledge they have on said systems or others in previous settings.
    • Surveys will be taken both in-person and via google forms.
    • We will document 2 farms for each of the 5 varying watering catchments systems (totaling 10 farms), they will be considered "Model Practices Farmers". 
    • We also will enroll 10 beginning, limited resource and historically disadvantaged farmers to learn about best practices, they will be considered "New Practices Farmers".
    • Both "Model Practices Farmers" and "New Practices Farmers" will receive a stipend for the participation. "Model Practices Farmers" will be paid for their interview, survey participation and webinar/in-person meetings. "Aspiring Farmers" will be paid for their survey participation and webinar/in-person meetings, they will also be given financial assistance to help them start up costs in implementing one of the five varying water catchment systems on their farm.
  • The Water Consortium will meet with Devyn McNaughton of City of Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) and/or city officials to better understand how farmers can best navigate the department to figure out which of the five varying water catchment systems is best for them and what all that entails, like permits, applications and cost. We will document the process, and develop a concise plan detailing how best to navigate working with DWSD and other city departments, as needed. We will also advocate that they allocate resources, specifically a point person, that has the responsibility to help farmers figure out water catchment solutions for their farm.
  • Once there is a clear consensus on best practices on the five varying water catchment systems with DWSD, we will create an informational piece for farmers to consider water conservation. We will source best water conservation methods with the help of Erma Leaphart, academic studies and utilizing our own internal survey data/interviews from farmers we collected.


  • Create an informational piece highlighting most effective water securing options for urban farms.
  • Develop four webinars and four in-person seminars for "Aspiring Farmers" to learn about the five varying water catchment systems, conservation practices and how to interact with DWSD for their water needs.
  • Detailed outlining each of the five varying water catchment systems with departments to contact, permits to apply for, and list of licensed master plumbers.
  • Share information through our network of community and environmentally centered organizations.
  • Work with Devyn McNaughton of DWSD to develop trusted relationships with the DWSD, with the goal of them seeing the benefit of having a point person for relations with farmers, new and old alike. And foster pathways for farmers to feel more comfortable speaking with DWSD and city officials on their water needs.
  • Provide financial support for aspiring farmers who go through our program to learn about best water catchment and conservation practices.


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  • Kim Theus - Producer


Materials and methods:

Our process for this project is focused in two areas: Surveying current farmers and gardeners in the Wayne County area to gauge the levels of education and experiential expertise in the areas of farming and water conservation, as well as, their comfort level and experiences working with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD).

Our aim is to gain an understanding of what information is most important to provide in the workshops and the one-pager info-sheets describing water conservation practices we are working on developing. The experiences with the DWSD will inform us as to how a farmer point-person within their department would best serve the people, hopefully creating a better line of communication and ease of relationship. The main resource we are applying to this project is Survey123 through ARCGIS.  We chose this platform because of its dynamic survey creation capabilities and analysis of the responses we receive. Zoom’s video communications platform has allowed us to meet with our water consortium members for support on our survey questions and distribution of flyers to organizations involved with local farmers and gardeners, as well as to facilitated meetings with members of Detroit’s Water and Sewage Department, principally Syed Ali the director of Drainage Engineering Manager, to discuss ways of enhancing their relationship with urban agriculture in the city. 

Another aspect of our meetings with DWSD is the possibility of accessing fire hydrants for irrigation purposes. We have seen this done a variety of ways in other cities around the country and although we have been met with some resistance from DWSD during our first meeting, they weren’t completely against it. Syed Ali furnished us with a list of concerns about why accessing the hydrants may be an issue. Currently we are researching in further detail the ways hydrants are accessed in major cities around the country to ease the worries of DWSD. We will have a follow up meeting with DWSD in late February or early March, showing the results of our research. Cities which have models for fire hydrant conversion systems which we will research include Flint, Lansing, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York.

Research results and discussion:

So far we have created the survey and distributed flyers for our survey through a multitude of farmers markets, non-profits, and local media outlets. The list is as follows; Keep Growing Detroit, Riverwise Magazine, Planet Detroit, Brightmoor Artisans Market, Feedem Freedom Growers, The Solutionaries Collection, Detroit City of Hope email group, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, East Warren Farmers’ Market, Westland Farmers’ Market, Sowing Seeds Growing Futures Farmers’ Market, Plymouth Farmers’ Market, Trenton Farmers Market, Block’s Stand Farmers Market, Nandi’s Knowledge Cafe.

We plan to keep the survey open through April 2024 with hopes to reach at least 100 or more participants, as we believe with the winter being a less busy season than summer/fall, farmers and gardeners may be more inclined to take the survey. We are beginning to analyze the data as of mid-December and aim to have our educational “model practice farmers’ and ‘aspiring farmers’ groups set up for the spring to begin further research on these water security methods. We are still in the process of analyzing the results as we are still working to collect more surveys. Preliminary analysis of our 33 completed surveys showed the following:

Water Catchment Systems;

      • 58% of participants have less than a year or no experience with rainwater harvesting systems.
      • 79% of participants have less than a year or no experience tapping the city main water line.
      • 85% of participants have less than a year or no experience with fire hydrant conversion systems.
      • 59% of participants have less than a year or no experience with cisterns.
      • 79% of participants have less than a year or no experience with water basins. 
      • 58% of our participants would like to learn more about rainwater harvesting, 36% would like to learn more about tapping the city main water line, and 25% of participants are interested in fire hydrant conversion systems, cisterns, and water basins. 
      • Common barriers to irrigation include: 
        • the price of water
        • the cost to tap the city main water line
        • the cost to construct a catchment system
        • a general lack of rain. 
    • 78% of participants are unaware of funding opportunities for building rain catchment systems.
    • 63% of participants do not know of organizations to reach out to for help with questions related to water accessibility.
    • 53% of participants do not know how to connect to the city water line.
    • 70% of participants do not know where to find a good contractor to tap the city water line. 
    • 54% of participants do not feel comfortable reaching out to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). 
    • 67% of participants are unfamiliar with DWSD water credits, and are paying a drainage fee on “impervious surfaces” for their garden or farm.
    • 75% of participants need assistance with disputing the drainage fee. 

Even with this small sampling of participants, we can generalize that there is a need and a desire by farmers and gardeners in Wayne county to learn more about more ways to secure water for their farms. There is also a need and desire to be better informed about the ways to work with Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and a channel for them to feel more comfortable reaching out to the DWSD.

Our team has drafted a resolution to take to our city council in regards to water security which states the following: 

  • Resolution To Demonstrate Strong Support For The City Of Detroit To Provide Viable Options For Detroit Urban Farmers To Access Water Up To And Including Access To City Water Lines.

We and our water consortium team are continuing to work on refining the details with support from Lesli Hoey, Associate Professor at UMich’s Taubman Urban and Regional Planning and Kami Pothukuchi, Professor of Urban Planning at Wayne State University. Our goal is to have this resolution passed in the spring. Although this resolution is not a law, it will set a precedent for future legislation to support this work.

Participation Summary
33 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Consultations

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Much of our education and outreach will be completed in year 2 of our grant.

Learning Outcomes

Lessons Learned:

Results and lessons learned forthcoming in our final report.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.