Feature Article

Resilient, Sustainable Water Management: A Holistic Approach

Climate change has redefined how we view water, with drought amplifying water scarcity and changing our relationship with the landscape and the built environment.

Josey Pavilion

The Josey Pavilion, designed by Lake|Flato, is Living Building Challenge certified. That means it harvests all water from the site itself, and treats all rainwater and wastewater before sending it back to the soil.

Photo: Casey Dunn
Water is our planet’s lifeblood. We use it for drinking, agriculture, recreation, and even to remove our waste. For generations, our cities have been founded on seas, lakes, rivers, and other areas that take full advantage of water’s seemingly endless bounty. We think fresh water supplies are endless, which encourages modern society to grow beyond the shores of lakes and rivers to populate arid regions where cities and agriculture have thrived.

But this idealistic vision is now clouded by the smoke of countless forest fires in the U.S. West and elsewhere. Instead of endless bounty, climate change is bringing us catastrophic droughts and flooding that now dominate the headlines and threaten entire regions.

Drought conditions have become so extreme in the Southwestern U.S. that reservoirs holding back the Colorado River—which supplies water to about 40 million people—are at their lowest levels since filling began.

Water in the region has become so scarce that it has been shut off to many farms that supply our food.

Wells that supply water to Mendocino are drying up, forcing the town to have water trucked in at a cost up to 45 cents a gallon. Restaurant owners have installed porta-potties to conserve water.

Dams along the Colorado River and elsewhere that provide hydroelectric power to millions have had to cut power output, further complicating the lives of those who live in these areas.

And drought is not just a Western U.S. problem. Parts of northern Minnesota spent the summer of 2021 in extreme drought conditions, while fires have raged over much of Europe and Russia.

Meanwhile, too much rain has become a problem elsewhere. Recent storms—like the one that dropped 17 inches of rain in Tennessee, killed 22 people and caused catastrophic damage—are now becoming more common … and that was not even a hurricane. With climate change adding more heat to the atmosphere, the air can hold more energy and moisture, increasing the strength of storms and increasing the odds that rain events like these will become more frequent.

Our water problems are dire and are compounded by the way we collectively use and view it. Cities built in deserts and other areas with almost no local groundwater are now extremely vulnerable to drought. Yet there has been little incentive to conserve. Water is still out-of-sight, out-of-mind so we tend to take it for granted and diminish its value. The price of municipal water in Phoenix, Arizona, for instance, where water is particularly scarce, is one of the lowest in the nation. Meanwhile, cities like Atlanta that can fluctuate between too much and too little water have some of the highest water rates in the country.

The building community has worked hard to reduce water consumption and create best practices for managing waste- and stormwater, but water use is also a personal choice, and we are all going to have to make do with less to avert some of the worst impacts of climate change. This report covers innovative ways of managing our water, including avoiding water use altogether, reducing the amount necessary for a given use, and reusing water. We’ll also look at the challenges that each of these methods pose and offer possible solutions, so project teams can maximize water efficiency while minimizing adverse impacts to occupants.

Published October 4, 2021

Ehrlich, B., & Melton, P. (2021, September 20). Resilient, Sustainable Water Management: A Holistic Approach. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/resilient-sustainable-water-management-holistic-approach