A Conversation on Water Supply: Los Angeles, the Great Lakes, and New York City

In New York, we’re lately fixated on waterproofing — protecting the city from future inundations like Hurricane Sandy — while on the opposite coast, California just enacted unprecedented and mandatory statewide water restrictions to combat the state’s severe drought.

The issue of water supply in the context of climate change was the topic for the recent 5KL: Water symposium, organized by The Architectural League and The Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design. Twelve experts in water resource design and management — from architects to geographers to former government officials — addressed the carbon intensity of providing a clean and adequate water supply and how design and planning can contribute to that goal. The event considered regional and climatological differences in water supply and management through case study sessions on Los Angeles, the Great Lakes region, and New York City.

James Wescoat, Aga Khan Professor in Architecture at MIT, opened the day with a lecture on Climate, Energy, and Water-Conserving Design. Wescoat explored approaches to environmental design, engineering systems design, and policy design to more effectively manage our water systems, offering comparative analysis of hydroclimatological conditions across the United State’s major urban regions. While recognizing the diversity of contexts and, therefore, the unique issues faced by these regions, he also emphasized the potential of lessons learned from disparate places, bringing in inspiration from his own research in Rajasthan, India, and Karachi, Pakistan.

The Los Angeles case study brought together four experts in policy, geography, and design to explore the supply and delivery of water in the country’s most populous county. Hadley Arnoldof the Arid Lands Institute provided an overview of the specific challenges that Los Angeles faces as a semi-arid city dependent on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains for its water supply. Josh Newell, who leads the University of Michigan’s Urban Sustainability Research Group, took a political-industrial ecology approach to the city’s water supply to determine the carbon footprint of individual supply sources, demonstrating that local is not always better (or at least not always less energy intensive). Peter Arnold, also with the Arid Lands Institute, introduced HAZEL, a new computation and visualization tool to identify previously untapped water resources in arid urban centers, which can be used to devise community-scale infrastructure to improve the efficiency of capturing and recycling stormwater. Stephanie Pincetl, Director of UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, unraveled the convoluted governance of water for the county’s ten million people and 88 cities, offering an optimistic assessment that there is enough water, but its supply and delivery needs better management.

In the Great Lakes session, five experts shared the problems and solutions facing North America’s primary source of fresh water. Henry Henderson, Midwest Director of the NRDC, detailed the relationship between the built environment, the energy economy, and the Great Lakes watershed, calling for enhanced visibility of water issues such as sewage treatment and invasive species. SOM’s Peter Mulvaney offered a 100-year vision for the Great Lakes basin, presenting conservation activities undertaken by the City of Chicago to save and recycle water, including a hydrant custodian program and an extensive municipal green roof effort. Jen Maigret and Maria Arquero de Alarcón, of MAde-studio, turned their attention to Detroit and the failings of its water system, sharing a vision for a new generation of green and blue infrastructure that connects residents to their water system and creates a sense of shared responsibility.

The case study of New York City looked back in order to look forward, as two experts traced the development and evolution of nearly 175 years of continuous building of water supply infrastructure. Kevin Bone, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Design, described the transition from patchwork local wells to systems of deep-rock pressure tunnels transporting water from the Croton, Catskill, and Delaware watersheds, charting the increase in water consumption per person per day from 12 gallons in 1820 to 191 gallons in 1990. Al Appleton, who directed the city’s water systems as Commissioner of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection in the first half of the 1990s, detailed a comprehensive planning initiative undertaken in collaboration with the watershed’s agricultural community that ensured continued adequate, clean drinking water, avoiding costly new filtration treatment while benefitting local farmers.

The day’s presenters then lined the stage for questions from the audience, closing with a 30-second response from each on their greatest wish for improving the current state of our water supply.

Full documentation of this event and other recent 5KL symposia on land use and energy are available at archleague.org/5KL. Stay tuned for future events and digital releases from The Five Thousand Pound Life initiative.

The Five Thousand Pound Life (5KL) is an initiative of The Architectural League on new ways of thinking, talking, and acting on architecture, climate change, and our economic future. Urban Omnibus is a project of The Architectural League of New York and regularly cross-posts content and information from the League website we think would be of interest to UO readers.

Emily is Manager of Housing Programs for the Architectural League.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.