BIG PICTURE: Dam! We're thirsty and the glass is half empty

Ten years ago the place where we gathered was an unpeopled, forbidding desert.  In the bottom of the gloomy canyon whose precipitous walls rose to height of more than a thousand feet, flowed a turbulent, dangerous river… The site of Boulder City was a cactus-covered waste.  And the transformation wrought here in these years is a twentieth century marvel.
-Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the dedication of the Boulder (Hoover Dam), September 30, 1935

As a child growing up in Los Angeles, I was accustomed to forever-green lawns, golf courses, swimming pool (all products of an invisible abundance of water) and very little rain.  I didn’t really understand that this, in itself was a complete paradox until I ventured to the other and damper side of the country.  College plunged me into “weather” and I became fascinated and since obsessed with Southern California and most of the arid Southwest’s parasitic relationship with water.  Fast forward X number of years and since we’ve returned to Southern California it has rained maybe 2 times ( I am not counting “mist”) in the past 12 months.  This is scary and not because of the many unsightly brown lawns dotting affluent Los Angeles neighborhoods, but because we rely so heavily on water for other, more important things like food and yes even that almond milk latte you just ordered (10 % of California’s water goes into almond farming!)


In order to comprehend how we got here we have to really understand that we (Los Angeles and most large cities in the American Southwest) shouldn’t really be here in the first place.  And how did a sprawling county (L.A.) of 10+ million people grow to exist in a semi-arid climate with an average of 18 inches of rain a year (i.e. not a lot)?  Yes, William Mulholland and something like the story that Jack Nicholson plays out in Chinatown.  But perhaps more importantly, the U.S. government and the Army Corps of Engineers built dams and a lot of them well into the later half of the 20th century.  The biggest of these dams was one of the first to be built.  


The Boulder Dam (now the Hoover Dam) was opened in 1936 to great fanfare.  At 60 stories tall and composed of enough concrete to pave a road from San Francisco to New York City** it was and continues to be a marvel of engineering.  Its base measures the length of two football fields and it holds back a lot if water - enough to form the largest manmade lake in the country when full (which it hasn’t been for awhile).  The Dam and its offspring Lake Mead are physical symbols of “human progress” and  mastery of nature over the previously volatile Colorado River.  Lake Mead alone supplies 90% of Las Vegas’s water supply and much of the American Southwest’s water.  It took a huge intervention like this to allow for population growth in a place which was previously “an unpeopled, forbidding desert”.  


Fast forward to present day and we are clearly facing a climate-change driven water supply crisis. Lake Mead water levels are at record-lows and the waters don’t seem to be rising anytime soon.  We need to rethink our relationship with water not only on the one-to-one scale but also at the scale of regional infrastructure.  This way of collecting and distributing water is no longer working.  Additonally, the lifestyle which it supports (one of golf courses, swimming pools, and year-round strawberries) needs to be re-evaluated. This premise forms the basis for our research project “Desert Flux”. Here, we re-imagine the resort as an entity which celebrates and responds to ecological shifts as opposed to trying to maintain an insular environment which is so heavily reliant upon a constant supply of water.  

How will we shift to accommodate our increasingly extreme climates?  Will our lifestyle and infrastructure evolve and if so how can we design for these changes?


*thumbnail image source: National Geographic - Lake Mead