Desert / Water

This week, Jason Edelstein, a student at Florida International University, sent an inquiry via the web.

“Hello Arcosanti,” he starts. “I am curious as to what measures you all are taking to ensure water security for the people who live there. I will be giving a presentation and offering advice for conflict resolution in a resource-driven context and would like to cite input from your organization about the viability of Arcologies as a long-term solution to the threat of drought here in the US and elsewhere in the world. Thank you in advance for your time”

Water security. Conflict Resolution. Powerful and important intersecting research topics, sounds like, especially for the coming generation. And it’s true: Arcosanti is out here in Central Arizona by intention, on the edge of the Sonoran desert, a marginal landscape even without the current drought, trying to test ideas about architecture and urbanism and water use generally. We’re certainly on the water planet – 7/10’s of Earth’s surface is covered by water currently; and in our lifetimes that statistic is likely to grow even larger as quickly as glaciers, ice at the poles, the Greenland ice sheet, are all melting. On the other hand, about 1/3 of the world’s deserts have occurred since 1900, and that pace only seems to be quickening, so we’re certainly going to be the desert planet, too. And we humans, like all life, are essentially walking bags of water. All of this might lead to real exploration.

Ensuring water security. At Arcosanti, of course, we do follow ADEQ / Arizona Department of Environmental Quality rules regarding the locking of pumphouses and restriction of access to tanks. That sort of security is a very big deal at ADEQ. But, really, beyond that, in a larger context, there is no ensuring security of access, is there? You could call-out the National Guard, as an Arizona governor has done in the past, but California has a bigger National Guard presence (and they did, back then, too), so even that won’t help that much to ensure continued flow to Arizona’s cities and farms.

OR: You could move to Minnesota, “Land of 1,000 Lakes”. And this suggestion is only partly facetious; the issue might in fact be this: where should you build cities (not just arcologies)? Urban design itself has only been an academic discipline since WWII; and even though most cities now have planning departments, no city has been designed by an urban planner, or by an evolutionary biologist, or by anyone who knows how earth’s systems actually work. Pretty much all of them have been created for short-term profit by real estate brokers/developers. As a result, Phoenix might not be in an ideal location; nor is Miami or Boston, it turns out…

Our attitude about water — and much else — at Arcosanti is one of conservation. Now, this in itself might not be enough to ensure water security; but we’re not just talking about turning off the tap when you brush your teeth. Because of the three-dimensional, multi-story nature of the proposed arcology, our plans are to do away with expansive lawns, open-field agriculture, car-washes, individually-owned swimming pools for huge savings in daily water use per person. We are perched on an underground aquifer; we harvest rainwater from the roofs of our buildings (although it’s the Sonoran desert and our average rainfall these days hovers between 12 and 15 inches per year); we attempt to slow the rain runoff in washes on our site to help recharge our aquifer; and while we do indeed have a swimming pool, and water does evaporate from it, we have just one for our entire community.

Also because of the proposed 3-D, dense urban pattern of arcology, we intend not to pollute the water resources we have. With no need for cars in town, the place where most American car trips occur, we are removing a central source of water pollution from the culture. Brake dust, tire particles — you get new tires for your car every 50,000 miles? Where do you think all that carbon/rubber/petroleum product that was your tire tread has gone? Washed down storm sewers into the water supply, is where. 260 million cars registered in the US x 4 wheels = over a billion tires…interesting!

Then, too, America’s current method of growing food on open-field farms with rain-runoff of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is responsible for turning many of our rivers and water sources — like the Mississippi by the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico — into toxic flows. As we experiment with greenhouse growing at Arcosanti and propose more of it integral to the idea of arcology, a couple of important solutions to water use occur. First, we use less of it. (Farming and agriculture in the seven river basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California — currently take more than 70 percent of all the water that flows from the Colorado River.) Evaporation inside an irrigated greenhouse can be naturally recycled, and thus conserved. Second, since food-growing is within the settlement – not segregated in some distant unseen location — we are careful to use organic horticulture techniques. And while we do have flush toilets at Arcosanti, all of them are low-flush; and we utilize ultra-low-flow water faucets in kitchens and bathrooms as well. We are just now in the midst of installing a grey-water system in our East Crescent integral urban neighborhood at Arcosanti that will allow us to use the same drop of water more than once.

Finally, the mere fact of urban density, knowing your neighbors, seeing them every day, working and socializing with them, allows for a sense of community, of shared ideals, of understanding one is part of a larger culture and has a responsibility to the whole. The pattern of inhabitation proposed by the very idea of arcology holds the promise of raising consciousness, being aware of how everything on earth is connected and actually experiencing that connection. This very fact led Arcosanti’s Strategic Plan Steering Committee a week ago to invite Jim Holway PhD, onetime coordinator of Arizona State University’s Arizona Water Institute, and more recently the Assistant Director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, to offer a seminar on Water Resources Sustainability that the entire Arcosanti community took part in.

The core values we are pursuing as we move ahead with Arcosanti’s design and construction, include the following:

  • Ecological Accountability: The Cosanti Foundation continues to develop human
    habitat that protects its surroundings to address Ecological Accountability.
  • Limited Footprint: We see that Urban Density as opposed to unbounded sprawl allows more activities in less space, providing access for all to the social essentials of city life.
  • Resourcefulness: We continue to foster Resourcefulness, a careful, thoughtful approach to planning, building and daily life that is experientially rich and materially frugal.
  • Experiential Learning: The Cosanti Foundation remains dedicated to Experiential Learning, committed to the power of Demonstration as a dynamic, grounded educational experience.

All these influence our relationship with water.

Want to read more about water and the Southwest? My recommendations include the following:

Paolo Bacigalupi’s brand new, THE WATER KNIFE
Craig Childs’ classic, HOUSE OF RAIN
Andrew Ross, BIRD ON FIRE

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.