Innovative Solutions to California’s Water Problems

"Grassroots Cactivism." the winner of the speculative category of the Dry Futures competition / Ali Chen via Archinect
“Grassroots Cactivism.” the winner of the speculative category of the Dry Futures competition / Ali Chen via Archinect

As the worst drought since the 1950s continues to take its toll in California, innovative solutions to alleviate the state’s water woes were recently chosen as winners of Archinect’s Dry Futures competition, which sought “imaginative, pragmatic, idealist, and perhaps dystopic” proposals. The jury chose three winners for each of the two categories: speculative projects that involve “future realities and technologies not yet imagined,” and pragmatic projects that can actually be implemented in the near term.

Speculative Winners

The first place winner of the speculative category was Grassroots Cactivism, which combines a cacti farm and wastewater treatment plant, by Ali Chen, a design assistant at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Chen’s winning proposal would feature nopale cactus, “a drought tolerant plant that’s fit for both human and animal consumption, and remarkably, is able to effectively clean polluted water,” according to DesignBoom. The cacti would not only require far less water to grow than California’s almond and orchard farms, but the cactus’ inter pulp could be adapted as a low-tech solution for recycling waste water.

Nopale cacti would be used to treat wastewater on-site / Ali Chen via Archinect

According to the project description, the farm also aims to promote the use of nopale cacti as food and a sustainable lifestyle choice “by hosting an eco-resort marketed towards the health-conscious modern traveler, with cooking workshops, highly-rated fine dining, a water museum, and various resort amenities. The goal is to market the use of cacti in contemporary cuisine, grow awareness, provide funding for research, and slowly increase demand for a crop that can eventually replace other water-intensive forms of vegetable and fodder.”

Diagram explaining the multiple uses of nopale cacti in the project / Ali Chen via Archinect
Diagram explaining the multiple uses of nopale cacti in the project / Ali Chen via Archinect

The second and third place winners were Urban Swales: Subterranean Reservoir Network for Los Angeles by the Geofutures team at Rensselaer School of Architecture and Analogue Sustainability: The Climate Refugees of San Francisco by architect Rosa Prichard, respectively. Urban Swales imagines a series of excavations throughout Los Angeles that would collect stormwater run-off in micro-reservoirs that could then be stored and re-distributed to local communities, while also creating “urban caverns” for human and animal occupation. Analogue Sustainability would be an inhabited flood defense on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay that wraps around the island, housing those who have been displaced by flooding and sea level rise in the Bay.

Terraced landform and subterranean reservoirs envisioned in the Urban Swales project / Geofutures @ Rensselaer School of Architecture via Architnect
Rosa Prichard's "Analogue Sustainability: 'The Climate Refugees of San Francisco'" proposal / Rosa Prichard via Archinect
Rosa Prichard’s “Analogue Sustainability: ‘The Climate Refugees of San Francisco'” proposal / Rosa Prichard via Archinect

Pragmatic Winners

The first place winner of the pragmatic category is Liquifying Aquifers, a project by San Francisco-based designer Lujac Desautel. The project envisions multiple drains placed throughout the San Fernando Valley that drain back to the San Fernando Groundwater Basin, which are continually being over withdrawn “without any large-scale plan to replenish” it.

Rendering of Lujac Desautel’s “Liquifying Aquifers” proposal / Lujac Desautel via Archinect

Currently 165 gallons of water per second flow straight into the Pacific Ocean from the San Fernando Valley, rather than replenishing the aquifer sitting 40 feet below the surface. “Like a giant bathtub with a conglomerate of drains,” Liquifying Aquifers is a system of basins that could take root in urban areas, like easements and parking lots, providing community spaces that will also drain water back into the aquifer.

Diagram illustrating potential basin locations for water collection / Lujac Desautel via Archinect

The second place winner in the pragmatic category is Liquid Bank, by architect Juan Saez. Liquid Bank is a website and app that would offer users rewards and incentives that encourage them to use water responsibly. In exchange for developing water-saving habits, users would earn “aquos” that support water-related infrastructure projects in developing countries.

The award for third place in the pragmatic category went to Recharge City, a project by Barry Lehrman, an assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The project seeks to recycle the 502 million gallons of water that is dumped into the Pacific Ocean by Hyperion treatment plant and the Joint Water Pollution control plant in Los Angeles every day by identifying recharge sites throughout the city.

Potential aquifer recharge sites in Los Angeles / Barry Lehrman via Archinect
Potential aquifer recharge sites in Los Angeles / Barry Lehrman via Archinect

The inter-disciplinary jury for the competition included: Allison Arieff, former editor of Dwell and now head of Spur; Geoff Manaugh, founder of BLDGBLOG; Hadley and Peter Arnold, co-founders of the Arid Land Institute, NASA’s Jay Famiglietti; Charles Anderson, FASLA, Werk; and Colleen Tuite and Ian Quate, founders of the “experimental landscape architecture studio” Green as F*ck.

Learn more about the competition winners.

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