Charles Fishman, investigative journalist and author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, kicked off the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting in Phoenix, with a thought-provoking case for “smart water.” Arguing that human civilization can use water “more smartly and creatively,” Fishman also said landscape architects can play a central role as “water revolutionaries,” moving the planet to a more respectful approach to water consumption and reuse.
Landscape architects, he said, “design the places we live in, the places we play in, the places that create our modern world.” These designers create “parks, green ways, memorials, and energetic downtowns.” They “reconnect us with the natural world.” Given everything landscape architects do requires water, these designers can help lead the change in way water is managed. And it sounds as if there’s no time for delay in many places: Fishman said the availability of water, natural systems underlying water, and consumption of water are all changing.
Fishman first became interested in water through his research and articles on Fiji bottled water. Through his investigations, he found that more than 50 percent of Fijians don’t even have access to clean water themselves, but everyone in the U.S. can buy a bottle of Fiji water. The global economy of bottled water is startling: In the U.S., 1.25 billion bottles of water are sold each week, about four bottles per person. This means Americans spend nearly $22 billion on bottled water each year, while just $29 billion is spent collectively on water infrastructure (however, it’s not clear whether this also includes numbers on green infrastructure).
Meanwhile, in much of the developing world, clean, safe drinking water is increasingly hard to come by. Some 600 million Indians don’t have access to clean water. Dealing with the scourge of diarrhea costs about 2 percent of India’s GDP per year, about $400 million a week, which is more than the GDP of about 90 countries on earth.
Still, Fishman believes that there isn’t a global water crisis like there’s an economic or climate crisis, which affects us all everywhere, regardless of whether we contributed to the problems or not. Instead, there are 1,000 or even 10,000 local water problems around the globe. The good news: these local problems are accessible, solvable. They just need local solutions. Fishman thinks one way to address many of these local water problems is to increase the value of water. If the price reflected its true value, water would be better managed, not wasted. “It’s shouldn’t be unthinkingly free.” This is where landscape architects can come in, helping to “restore water consciousness, how we engage with water everyday in public spaces,” and emotionally, by making its appeal, image more transparent.
People don’t care about water because it’s not transparent. “Water is invisible. We’ve made water invisible.” Water is channeled through underground pipes. Reservoirs are put far out of town. Water treatment plants are hidden. He said 100-120 years ago, people everywhere, even rich ones, had to think about where they were going to get their water everyday. Now, for each player to play 18 holes of golf in Las Vegas, the course will use around 2,500 gallons of water.
In examples of smart, transparent uses of water, Fishman pointed to Michell Wool, a processor of wool in Australia. In that country there are nine sheep for every person. Cleaning and processing wool takes a lot of water and effort. About half of the coat is dirt, leaf matter, sheep poop. Washing the wool requires a lot of water. Given Australia had drought-like conditions for nearly 10 years, water wasn’t as available. So Michell Wool worked with the town of Salsbury, near Adelaide, to reconfigure a 750-acre wetland so that it processed stormwater, which was then reused to clean the wool. “This was an insurgent water utility.” But green infrastructure systems like these are at the heart of “smart water use.”
In a counter-intuitive final argument, Fishman said Las Vegas, with its showy fountains and aquariums, may increasingly be one of the smartest cities in terms of water use. Given it’s one of the driest cities in the U.S., the city now reuses some 94 percent of its water. There are now a staff of 11 water police officers. “You can’t empty a pool into the drain, it must be recycled.” The city will pay you $40,000 per acre to remove your lawn in favor of native plants. While the city has tripled in size of the past 20 years, water use over that time has been cut by one-third. Who knew?
Other cities like Phoenix can follow Las Vegas’ lead and become more water smart. The solutions aren’t that hard. Landscape architects and other design professionals can create the technical solutions. It’s just a matter of solving the tricky “people” problems holding back the water revolution.
Image credit: Bellagio Water Fountain