Let’s consider the possibility that this drought we’re in could last more than than just a few dry years.
Geologic history in California is marked by epic droughts -- droughts lasting decades, even centuries. There’s no way of knowing whether we’re at the start of one of those, but scientists say it’s possible.
Meanwhile, most Californians live in cities designed, to a great extent, on the promise of nearly endless water, imported from wetter parts of the state via massive engineering projects like the California State Water Project.
It's not hard to imagine a collision looming between how we expect water to behave -- piped, channelized, pumped according to our needs -- and how it may increasingly behave in coming years -- sporadic, unpredictable, sometimes too much, sometimes too little.
When water doesn't do what we want it to anymore, how does that change the way we live?
A Case-Study in Water Hubris
To begin this story, I wanted to visit a place that could symbolize the near-complete domination of man over nature. And while there are plenty of options for this -- especially in California -- the Los Angeles River stood out.
So, on a cloudless November afternoon, I found myself scrambling down a steep riprap embankment with a two-seater kayak, accompanied by a local artist and river guide named Steve Appleton.
Right away, it was clear how little of the L.A. River looks anything like a river.
While efforts are underway to restore some stretches of the river to a more natural, riverlike state, many of the L.A. River's 42-miles look like a concrete bathtub.
That includes a spot about a half mile upstream of the river's terminus in Long Beach Harbor where getting wet requires something akin to rock-climbing.
Here, the industrial vibe was very much intact. On an overpass just north of us, a sign warned anyone who might be temped to do anything fun or outdoorsy:
“Danger: No swimming, diving. Waterskiing, jet skiing, sailboarding or other water-contact sports prohibited.”
Yet, once upon a time, this river was a river. People who lived here fished in it and drank from it.
But the Los Angeles River, like all rivers, was unruly. After devastating floods in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers paved it over and channelized it.
Meanwhile, the city had begun getting its water from elsewhere. A massive aqueduct pulled in water from the Owens Valley, some 300 miles to the northeast.
As a result of all this engineering, two things happened.
One: Water suddenly seemed endless. “There it is, take it,” city water director and self-taught engineer William Mulholland famously told the residents of Los Angeles when the aqueduct opened in 1913. Today almost 4 million people live in L.A., which is amazing when you consider that this place gets as much water as Casablanca, Morocco.
Two: The river? You could almost forget it existed. It was buried and channelized, blocked off by chain link fence as the city expanded up to its concrete banks.
“It just became one monolithic trapezoidal channel,” says Appleton, laughing.
Within Modern Plumbing, an Ancient Idea
Today, we take it for granted that water can be engineered into submission.
But it’s an idea that comes from somewhere. And that somewhere is ancient Rome, according to David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley and author of a new history of water, Water 4.0.
“The Romans gave us the idea of public baths, public toilets, fountains and the convenience of water coming directly into your neighborhood,” Sedlak says. “They were able to provide close to 100 gallons per person, per day, which is similar to what we use in some of our modern cities.”
The ancient Romans did this in much the same way we do today, by importing water in giant aqueducts from distant places.
To the Romans, too, water seemed endless. They staged mock naval battles in giant stadiums, floating actual ships in artificial lakes.
The pride of ancient Rome, Sedlak says, was its hundreds of public fountains, which ran without stopping and served as focal points for civic life.
“The Romans were the richest kids on the block in the ancient world, and as anyone who's read Roman history knows, they were not hesitant to show the rest of the world how rich they were,” Sedlak says. “For the people who visited it, it must have been a marvel. They must have taken home with them this idea that the Romans were rich and technologically advanced.”
To my ears, Sedlak is not just talking about Rome. He’s talking about California, too. California’s massive aqueducts, its vast networks of pumps and dams, allowed cities to bloom in our deserts and provided a foundation for an economy the size of Russia’s.
But water doesn’t play by those rules anymore.
Designing for a New Water Order
2013 was the driest year in history; 2014 is not far behind. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this scarcity by making flows from the Sierra snowpack unreliable.
Meanwhile, cities are growing. There’s more competition between cities, farms and ecosystems for precious fresh water.
This brings us to a prototype for the future city, which exists on a single block of Elmer Avenue, in a working-class neighborhood of East Los Angeles called Sun Valley.
On the day I visited, I knew I wanted to meet people who lived on this particular block. But everyone I stopped seemed to have come from somewhere else.
Rick Martin, for example, was here power-walking with a friend. Neither lives on Elmer Avenue, but they come here for walks. Martin says it’s the nicest block in the neighborhood.
This wasn’t always the case.
Until a few years ago, Elmer Avenue had a problem with floods. Heavy rains turned intersections into lakes, and turned sidewalks – such as they were – into muddy swamps.
So in 2009, the city embarked on a plan to install new technologies on Elmer Avenue that would transform the way the block used water, including the rain that fell here.
“In many of the yards - though not all - the Kentucky bluegrass has been removed,” observed Hadley Arnold, my tour guide for the day and a co-director of the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University in Burbank, which trains architects and designers.
About half of the residents here have replaced their lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping, such as California live oak, rosemary and sage.
But the bigger changes on Elmer Avenue are less obvious.
Making Cities Permeable
The $2.7 million overhaul installed “bio-swales” at the foot of the curbs, to absorb rainwater into underground “galleries” that collect and store it. About half the homes added rain-collecting barrels, which provide water for irrigation.
Today, when it rains, rather than sending rain water into the sewer and treating it like garbage (as most streets do), or – in a real downpour – flooding the sidewalk, Elmer Avenue soaks water into the ground and stores it for later use.
“In an average rain year,” says Arnold, “this block puts enough water for approximately 30 families for a year into the ground.”
In other words, Elmer Avenue is permeable.
If you think about it, this is the opposite of ancient Rome, the opposite of California’s giant aqueducts.
Elmer Avenue uses what it gets naturally, rather than relying entirely on imported water.
Arnold says it’s a good start, but that more dramatic design changes should follow.
“Look at those peaked roofs,” she tells me. "It's a useless vestige that has no authentic purpose in this place."
Most of the homes in this neighborhood have triangular roofs, modeled on homes in colder climates where roofs are designed to shed ice and snow.
Roofs here in Los Angeles’ sunbaked neighborhoods should look different.
“Roofs that are like a wide mouth open to the sky,” Arnold says. “Roofs that are like a cup or a bowl, or an umbrella turned upside down.”
And cities should, where possible, be porous.
Arnold is part of a collaborative effort to map the parts of the city where underground aquifers could safely absorb rain water, and the parts that might be better suited for above-ground capture. She believes this tool could be useful for developers.
Cities, Arnold says, should be designed to work with the water that appears there naturally, not throw it away, only to import more from distant places.
In San Francisco, “speculative” architects are turning their attention to how buildings might be redesigned to accommodate local water sources and a changing climate.
In a bright and airy studio in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, Nataly Gattegno, a co-founder of the Future Cities Lab, introduces me to Hydramax.
Hydramax is a model of a theoretical structure (the word “building” doesn’t quite feel adequate; Gattegno calls it a "port machine") designed for the San Francisco waterfront.
“You have a shell,” explains Gattegno, “where all the occupation and habitation occurs. There are places to live in, places to shop. Then the next tier is [for] hydroponics, where food is grown.”
Hydramax anticipates a future where sea-level rise causes tides that regularly drench the waterfront. The structure can function submerged or dry.
Covering the top of it are fabric structures, 90 feet long, that wave back and forth. They’re fog-harvesting "feathers” which can extract moisture from fog and channel it into the hydroponic farms.
It's About Accommodating Water, Not Fighting It
I asked Gattegno whether she thought the Hydramax would ever get built. To me, it seemed unlikely; the structure seemed expensive, almost permanently futuristic.
Gattegno told me sure, she'd love to see the Hydramax and other far-out projects be built one day. But that's not really the point.
The point she wants to make (just like Hadley Arnold and David Sedlak) is that the old ways of building cities and supplying them with water -- ideas we borrowed from the ancient Romans -- may no longer make sense in California.
“In the past we’ve controlled water,” says Gattegno. “We’ve told it what to do, what pipes to move through, what aqueducts to be contained in, and in this case, we’re proposing a completely alternative model, a model where water maybe is slightly controlled -- it's still controlled in a certain way, or at least it has a kind of known set of properties that we can leverage -- but at the same time, it’s also left to be part of the environment.”
Instead of burying plumbing underneath the street or behind walls, water infrastructure is the Hydramax’s centerpiece.
It’s one example, she says, of how cities might be redesigned not to just survive the current drought, but be transformed by it, perhaps for the better.
Get the best of KQED’s science coverage in your inbox weekly.