KQED Science reporter Amy Standen kayaks near the end of the L.A. River, where it sheds its concrete channel. (Amy Standen/KQED)

Let’s consider the possibility that this drought we’re in could last more than than just a few dry years.

Geologic history in California is marked by epic droughts — droughts lasting decades, even centuries. There’s no way of knowing whether we’re at the start of one of those, but scientists say it’s possible.

Meanwhile, most Californians live in cities designed, to a great extent, on the promise of nearly endless water, imported from wetter parts of the state via massive engineering projects like the California State Water Project.

It’s not hard to imagine a collision looming between how we expect water to behave — piped, channelized, pumped according to our needs — and how it may increasingly behave in coming years — sporadic, unpredictable, sometimes too much, sometimes too little.

When water doesn’t do what we want it to anymore, how does that change the way we live?

A Case-Study in Water Hubris

To begin this story, I wanted to visit a place that could symbolize the near-complete domination of man over nature. And while there are plenty of options for this — especially in California — the Los Angeles River stood out.

So, on a cloudless November afternoon, I found myself scrambling down a steep riprap embankment with a two-seater kayak, accompanied by a local artist and river guide named Steve Appleton.

Right away, it was clear how little of the L.A. River looks anything like a river.

While efforts are underway to restore some stretches of the river to a more natural, riverlike state, many of the L.A. River’s 42-miles look like a concrete bathtub.

That includes a spot about a half mile upstream of the river’s terminus in Long Beach Harbor where getting wet requires something akin to rock-climbing.

Here, the industrial vibe was very much intact. On an overpass just north of us, a sign warned anyone who might be temped to do anything fun or outdoorsy:

“Danger: No swimming, diving. Waterskiing, jet skiing, sailboarding or other water-contact sports prohibited.”

Yet, once upon a time, this river was a river. People who lived here fished in it and drank from it.

But the Los Angeles River, like all rivers, was unruly. After devastating floods in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers paved it over and channelized it.

Bull Creek, an L.A. River tributary, flows in the city's Lake Balboa neighborhood. (<a title="User:Junkyardsparkle" href="//">Junkyardsparkle</a>/<a href="//">Wikimedia Commons</a>)
Bull Creek, an L.A. River tributary, flows in the city’s Lake Balboa neighborhood. (Junkyardsparkle/Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, the city had begun getting its water from elsewhere. A massive aqueduct pulled in water from the Owens Valley, some 300 miles to the northeast.

As a result of all this engineering, two things happened.

One: Water suddenly seemed endless. “There it is, take it,” city water director and self-taught engineer William Mulholland famously told the residents of Los Angeles when the aqueduct opened in 1913. Today almost 4 million people live in L.A., which is amazing when you consider that this place gets as much water as Casablanca, Morocco.

Two: The river? You could almost forget it existed. It was buried and channelized, blocked off by chain link fence as the city expanded up to its concrete banks.

“It just became one monolithic trapezoidal channel,” says Appleton, laughing.

Within Modern Plumbing, an Ancient Idea

Today, we take it for granted that water can be engineered into submission.

But it’s an idea that comes from somewhere. And that somewhere is ancient Rome, according to David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley and author of a new history of water, Water 4.0.

“The Romans gave us the idea of public baths, public toilets, fountains and the convenience of water coming directly into your neighborhood,” Sedlak says. “They were able to provide close to 100 gallons per person, per day, which is similar to what we use in some of our modern cities.”

The ancient Romans did this in much the same way we do today, by importing water in giant aqueducts from distant places.

To the Romans, too, water seemed endless. They staged mock naval battles in giant stadiums, floating actual ships in artificial lakes.

The pride of ancient Rome, Sedlak says, was its hundreds of public fountains, which ran without stopping and served as focal points for civic life.

“The Romans were the richest kids on the block in the ancient world, and as anyone who’s read Roman history knows, they were not hesitant to show the rest of the world how rich they were,” Sedlak says. “For the people who visited it, it must have been a marvel. They must have taken home with them this idea that the Romans were rich and technologically advanced.”

To my ears, Sedlak is not just talking about Rome. He’s talking about California, too. California’s massive aqueducts, its vast networks of pumps and dams, allowed cities to bloom in our deserts and provided a foundation for an economy the size of Russia’s.

But water doesn’t play by those rules anymore.

Designing for a New Water Order

2013 was the driest year in history; 2014 is not far behind. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this scarcity by making flows from the Sierra snowpack unreliable.

Meanwhile, cities are growing. There’s more competition between cities, farms and ecosystems for precious fresh water.

A creek bed runs beside a sidewalk on Elmer Avenue in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of TreePeople)
A “bioswale” running alongside a sidewalk on Elmer Avenue in Los Angeles soaks up rainwater and sends it to an underground storage chamber. (Courtesy of TreePeople)

This brings us to a prototype for the future city, which exists on a single block of Elmer Avenue, in a working-class neighborhood of East Los Angeles called Sun Valley.

On the day I visited, I knew I wanted to meet people who lived on this particular block. But everyone I stopped seemed to have come from somewhere else.

Rick Martin, for example, was here power-walking with a friend. Neither lives on Elmer Avenue, but they come here for walks. Martin says it’s the nicest block in the neighborhood.

This wasn’t always the case.

Until a few years ago, Elmer Avenue had a problem with floods. Heavy rains turned intersections into lakes, and turned sidewalks – such as they were – into muddy swamps.

So in 2009, the city embarked on a plan to install new technologies on Elmer Avenue that would transform the way the block used water, including the rain that fell here.

“In many of the yards – though not all – the Kentucky bluegrass has been removed,” observed Hadley Arnold, my tour guide for the day and a co-director of the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University in Burbank, which trains architects and designers.

About half of the residents here have replaced their lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping, such as California live oak, rosemary and sage.

But the bigger changes on Elmer Avenue are less obvious.

Making Cities Permeable

The $2.7 million overhaul installed “bio-swales” at the foot of the curbs, to absorb rainwater into underground “galleries” that collect and store it. About half the homes added rain-collecting barrels, which provide water for irrigation.

Today, when it rains, rather than sending rain water into the sewer and treating it like garbage (as most streets do), or – in a real downpour – flooding the sidewalk, Elmer Avenue soaks water into the ground and stores it for later use.

“In an average rain year,” says Arnold, “this block puts enough water for approximately 30 families for a year into the ground.”

In other words, Elmer Avenue is permeable.

If you think about it, this is the opposite of ancient Rome, the opposite of California’s giant aqueducts.

Elmer Avenue uses what it gets naturally, rather than relying entirely on imported water.

Arnold says it’s a good start, but that more dramatic design changes should follow.

“Look at those peaked roofs,” she tells me. “It’s a useless vestige that has no authentic purpose in this place.”

Most of the homes in this neighborhood have triangular roofs, modeled on homes in colder climates where roofs are designed to shed ice and snow.

Roofs here in Los Angeles’ sunbaked neighborhoods should look different.

“Roofs that are like a wide mouth open to the sky,” Arnold says. “Roofs that are like a cup or a bowl, or an umbrella turned upside down.”

And cities should, where possible, be porous.

Arnold is part of a collaborative effort to map the parts of the city where underground aquifers could safely absorb rain water, and the parts that might be better suited for above-ground capture. She believes this tool could be useful for developers.

Cities, Arnold says, should be designed to work with the water that appears there naturally, not throw it away, only to import more from distant places.

Futuristic Structures

In San Francisco, “speculative” architects are turning their attention to how buildings might be redesigned to accommodate local water sources and a changing climate.

In a bright and airy studio in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, Nataly Gattegno, a co-founder of the Future Cities Lab, introduces me to Hydramax.

Hydramax is a model of a theoretical structure (the word “building” doesn’t quite feel adequate; Gattegno calls it a “port machine”) designed for the San Francisco waterfront.

A rendering of the "Hydramax," a futuristic building designed to capture water from the air, among other things. (Courtesy of Future Cities Lab)
A rendering of the “Hydramax,” a futuristic building designed to capture water from the air, among other things. (Courtesy of Future Cities Lab)

“You have a shell,” explains Gattegno, “where all the occupation and habitation occurs. There are places to live in, places to shop. Then the next tier is [for] hydroponics, where food is grown.”

Hydramax anticipates a future where sea-level rise causes tides that regularly drench the waterfront. The structure can function submerged or dry.

Covering the top of it are fabric structures, 90 feet long, that wave back and forth. They’re fog-harvesting “feathers” which can extract moisture from fog and channel it into the hydroponic farms.

It’s About Accommodating Water, Not Fighting It

I asked Gattegno whether she thought the Hydramax would ever get built. To me, it seemed unlikely; the structure seemed expensive, almost permanently futuristic.

Gattegno told me sure, she’d love to see the Hydramax and other far-out projects be built one day. But that’s not really the point.

The point she wants to make (just like Hadley Arnold and David Sedlak) is that the old ways of building cities and supplying them with water — ideas we borrowed from the ancient Romans — may no longer make sense in California.

“In the past we’ve controlled water,” says Gattegno. “We’ve told it what to do, what pipes to move through, what aqueducts to be contained in, and in this case, we’re proposing a completely alternative model, a model where water maybe is slightly controlled — it’s still controlled in a certain way, or at least it has a kind of known set of properties that we can leverage — but at the same time, it’s also left to be part of the environment.”

Instead of burying plumbing underneath the street or behind walls, water infrastructure is the Hydramax’s centerpiece.

It’s one example, she says, of how cities might be redesigned not to just survive the current drought, but be transformed by it, perhaps for the better.

Designing California Cities for a Long-Term Drought 27 November,2014Amy Standen

  • wandagb

    Shouldn’t a population policy be the keystone of any plan for future water use in the state? Look around: how many children does the KQED viewer have? Very likely fewer than two. So where is the growth – over 300,000 per year – coming from? This is the water elephant in the living room.

    • fracas

      It’s high time California’s government created some real immigration laws to keep those Nevadans and Oregonians out and away from our water.

      • Mark Bellamy

        I’ve got my eye on those Arizonans too….sneaky bunch over there. 😀

  • Well Done

    The climate isn’t changing in any unusual way, and the seas aren’t rising, either. All that is happening in California is normal weather. Going on and on about all the “climate change” myths detracts from a person’s scientific credibility.

    • atworkforu

      Whereas having assault rifles as your avatar enhances your scientific credibility.

      Seinfeld “People with guns don’t understand. That’s why they get guns.”

  • mjbarkl

    There are other versions of water “Hubris”, consider – collecting references to the floods of 1861-62, including 4 meg of straight text at of 1861-62 flooding-related stories from the Sacramento Union paintfully cleaned from its OCR output. We face that threat an average of every 250 years as well, and if we do what’s necessary, – it will solve all our other water problems as well. Or, we could do what you propose which is a good and noble proposal but which will have no effect on this great California threat which has the potential of killing tens of thousands of Californians.


  • D.Vinegar

    They had a animatronic model of a Hydramax at the Buckminster Fuller exhibit at the SFMOMA a few years back. Really cool idea.

  • azaredaniel

    A California Residential Feed in Tariff would allow homeowners to sell their Renewable Energy back to the utility, protecting our communities from grid failures, natural disasters, toxic natural gas and oil Fracking. It would also create a new revenue stream for the Hard Working Taxpaying, Voting, Homeowner.

    No one is fighting for the Hard Working, Taxpaying, Voting, Homeowner, we can change that with a Ca. Residential Feed in Tariff Energy policy that allows everyone to participate. Homeowner’s, Small and Large Businesses, Small and Large farmers, and Industries, have the right to sell Renewable Energy electricity back to the utility.

    California, there is enough Residential Solar to power 2.25 San Onofres, couple that with a Commercial Feed in Tariff and we can solve some of these environmental and electrical generating problems.

    This petition will ask the California Regulators and Law makers to allocate Renewable Portfolio Standards to Ca. Home Owners for a Residential Feed in Tariff, the RPS is the allocation method that is used to set aside a certain percentage of electrical generation for Renewable Energy in the the State. The State of California has mandated that 33% of its Energy come from Renewable Energy by 2020.

    California Energy and Water Consumption an a Ban Fracking song

    Sign and Share for a Ca. Residential Feed in Tariff. Go to the youtube site, look six inches below video, click on Show More, then click on blue link to sign the petition.

    Attachments area

    Preview YouTube video We Need To Ban Fracking.

  • Do you know about this? New Technology Can End California Drought In Months + Save $Billions$:

  • Severe Extended Drought (SED) plan for Los Angeles:

  • The Village Idiot

    My biotech start-up is developing a human embryo which, when born and fully mature, will have only 1/100 th the need for water as the average human now alive. In the laboratory we have taken DNA from the sperm cells of right-wing Republican Conservatives and injected it into cells taken from the giant Saguaro cactus. While further experimentation is necessary before making this technology available to the general public, in the laboratory we have created cultures of really big pricks which use hardly any water at all.

  • There are some excellent ideas here, many of them originally proposed by R. Buckminster Fuller. He invented a floating breakwater that harvested wave energy, suggested floating cities made of recycled plastics, and inside out umbrella like structures for collecting rainwater. He was marginalized as a utopian hippie before his death thirty years ago. Only now is his wisdom becoming clear. Read more about Bucky’s beautiful ideas for a better world at

    • Ican Do

      Foresight does not seem to be a common human skill. We just can’t seem to come to logical conclusions unless we are in dire danger of losing what we have. Can we learn better? Would like to say hopefully but just not too sure.

  • Oerdin

    These are all nice ideas which I would like to see spread but honestly you are talking about hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars in changes to infrastructure. It seems a daunting task.


Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios’ science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

Email her at

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