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Land Matters: The Dry Life

We’re off to the deserts this month. They have endless, indescribable beauty and a delicacy easily forgotten for their tough appearance.

They have loads of secrets.

They may even have water. 


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October’s issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine has two inspirations. One is that many of us are off to Phoenix for the 2012 ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO. Phoenix is a place of beguiling extremes of heat and dryness, and the adaptations people make (or not) to live there and in places like it are fascinating. In climate terms, Phoenix is not unique. About one-third of the world’s population lives in arid regions; in the United States, millions of people are living on land you would call desert.

The other inspiration was the Drylands Design Conference I went to this past spring, held by the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University in Burbank, California. The institute’s directors, Hadley and Peter Arnold, have struck an important vein of thinking about development in dry lands. They brought together a range of experts in design, science, and public policy, all around a competition they staged to explore better ways of dealing with water, energy, and their scarcity in the dry places where people insist on living. (Hadley Arnold writes about the competition and its revelations for us in “Forward,” on the back page of the October issue.)

At the conference, many interesting assertions came together. Between now and 2050, said the scientist J. T. Reager, Arizona could see its population rise by 60 percent. In California, Sierra snow provides 75 percent of the freshwater supply. But the snowpack is diminishing, Reager said, and snowmelt is occurring 20 days earlier in spring than it once did. The water supply chain is tenuous. When precipitation across the Sierras falls 1 percent, reservoir volume falls 32 percent. Paul Bunje, the head of the Center for Climate Change Solutions at the University of California, Los Angeles, predicted an 80 percent reduction of Sierra snowpack by the end of this century. Stuart Magruder, an architect in Los Angeles, said that as much as half of potable water drawn in the United States is used to produce energy.

Around the edges, there was optimism. Ken Lewis, the president of AC Martin in Los Angeles, noted that permeable paving surfaces can cut urban heat effects by 22 percent. And, most striking, Shivaji Deshmukh, who managed the startup of the Groundwater Replenishment System at the Orange County Water District in California, described how the district, which serves 2.4 million people, is now reclaiming 70 million gallons of water a day for potable use, and the county’s groundwater is supplemented on the order of 20 percent by finely purified sewage.

We also heard a hilarious talk by Brooke Madill and Gini Lee, two Australian landscape architects in academia who have traced ancient water trails in their very dry country. They came to the conference by way of a road trip through the arid Southwest, down near the border, and presented their impressions on how people regard the precious water they find in that part of the world. Madill’s curious and bemused reports for us from that trip appear on page 130 in the current issue.

People in the West have been internalizing the need for water conservation for some time now; Los Angeles, with enough hectoring and tiered pricing, has cut its water consumption back to late-1970s levels in recent years, despite the arrival of a million new residents. In the East, the message has been slower to sink in. Easterners consume less than 75 percent of their plentiful precipitation, which insulates them somewhat from the fact that water requires energy to move from one place to another and, in many cases, that energy requires water to keep generating plants cool. So there is plenty of encouraging progress around water awareness, and there is need for so much more of it.


Bradford McKee
Editor 



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