The future of water

Posted by on Jun 25, 2020

Imagine the Earth is the size of a basketball. All the water in, on and above it fills only the volume of a ping pong ball.  Now, inside of that ping pong ball, picture 100 tiny ball bearings. Just three of those tiny ball bearings would contain all of the fresh water on Earth—and two of those are frozen. Water is our most precious resource—the essential characteristic that distinguishes this giant spinning rock from its neighbors. 

Water is everything, yet for most Americans the source of our tap water remains a mystery. 

In the western U.S., a sustained drought has underscored a structural deficit that exposes an essential truth: we use more water than we have. A century of massive engineering projects that deliver water throughout the region are over-allocated and under-supplied. Many parts of the west (and the world, for that matter) have dipped ever deeper straws into ancient underground aquifers, “mining” them toward obsolescence. We live in a water paradigm defined by 19th century laws, 20th century infrastructure and a 21st century climate and population. To put it simply, water is complicated.  Education, however, is not. Look no further than the University of Arizona’s 2020 Water Resources Research Center (WRRC) Conference, “Water at the Crossroads: The Next 40.”

This year’s conference, which took place virtually from June 18-19, focused on our collective water future by taking the opportunity to reflect on the decades since the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. The impressive list of speakers were too many to list here, but a few of note included: former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, who discussed the legal realities and future challenges with water transfers; Scottsdale Water Executive Director Brian Bisenmayer, who discussed innovative strategies for water reuse, and used the example of making beer to demonstrate that all water can be cleaned and made safe; and  Kathyrn Sorensen, the City of Phoenix’s Water Services Department Director, who discussed the real cost of water and the challenges of large municipalities. The event was led by the remarkable Director of the WRRC, Sharon Megdal, whose knowledge of water and the west is unmatched. 

As desert dwellers moved by the stark scarcity of water in our region, Jones Studio is always looking for ways to raise our collective water consciousness and embrace the arid nature of this place. Our own Brian Farling, AIA, practices with a particular focus on architecture that’s inspired by the absence of water in the west. He sees every design challenge as an opportunity to make a meaningful water connection for the users. This dedication has been realized in projects large and small for more than 20 years. 

University of Arizona CAPLA

Brian was the lead designer on Jones Studio’s renovation and expansion project for the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. This project—Brian’s alma mater— features an experimental riparian workshop and outdoor garden classroom which is irrigated by harvested rain water, condensate and filter blow-off from an adjacent well. 

San Luis 1 Land Port of Entry North Annex Building

In southwestern Arizona where annual rainfall is next to nothing, the architecture of our San Luis 1 Land Port of Entry North Annex Building mimics the saw-tooth geometry of the nearby agriculture fields. As a pedestrian-centric building, Brian was inspired by flowing irrigation water through the fields and saw it as a metaphor for moving people through this light-filled space. Beyond water as a poetic muse, water is a functional priority as well—the building harvests graywater from sinks and showers to flush toilets. 

Mariposa Land Port of Entry sculptural scupper

At our Mariposa Land Port of Entry, a conceptual emphasis on dignity and the experience of the visitors is nurtured by a journey through a garden oasis. On the 54-acre site, 1,000,000 gallons of harvested water is captured, stored and used to meet the irrigation needs of the project. Water reuse was a catalyst for the architectural language and expression as well and informed the shape and slope of every roof on campus. Rain events are celebrated with sculptural scuppers and rushing water that remind the officers, staff and travelers that the desert’s most precious resource is being utilized in a thoughtful and sustainable way.

Our Rio Unido concept was conceived as a way to create an identity around the issue of water scarcity in the desert and as an exercise in placemaking on a landmark that has long-stood as a symbol of division in the Valley. At the center of this space would be a symbol of union that not only reinforces the Rio Salado as a primary water source but also inspires these surrounding communities to engage with the nature of their place. The design of the iconic viewing tower and surrounding development responds to three conditions of the Rio Salado: the “ normal” condition as an established wetland and riparian habitat, seasonal flash flooding during monsoons and large, extended flood events. The Rio Unido was created to bring communities together for the common cause of our continued survival in the increasingly harsh desert climate. 

Folded steel plate awning at Jones Studio entrance

Even the Jones Studio office collects it’s rainwater for irrigation in a 2,500 gallon underground tank.  But that simple act of collecting tells only half the story: this building is designed with water conservation and consciousness in mind. At each of the building’s two entries, a folded steel plate awning acts as a giant funnel, collecting rainwater from the roof before focusing it onto a rock splash pad and drain below. These moments of dancing, dripping and sometimes crashing water reminds all visitors that, as desert dwellers, we must always be paying careful attention to this most precious resource.

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