Water resilience in dry climates

Today’s research is tomorrow’s design. We’re asking researchers within Arup and beyond to describe their work and its potential applications. Rowan Roderick-Jones, an environmental scientist and civil engineer in Arup’s San Francisco office, spoke with us about his work on urban water systems.

What are you studying?

How can we make cities in dry climates self-sufficient in terms of water? And is it possible to craft design solutions that achieve this goal while delivering additional benefits — improving performance in energy, the environment, and public health, for instance?

To tackle these questions, the Arid Lands Institute, a Burbank-based nonprofit, brought together Perkins+Will, the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering, and Arup to form the Drylands Resilience Initiative (DRI).

DRI is creating a digital design tool called Hazel that aims to help communities and design teams develop distributed stormwater infrastructures, innovative building systems, and water-smart public policy for dryland urbanism. We seek to enable arid communities everywhere to conceive of, design, and build the infrastructure needed to capture, retain, and distribute rainwater and stormwater runoff.

The technology builds on previous public- and private-sector-funded research to maximize low-carbon localized water supply; shape water-smart urban planning, zoning, and building policy; identify key sites for public and private investment; understand system performance in a changing climate; and provide a framework and simplified process design for engineering tasks that are too often fraught with guesswork.

Why is this important?

The need to secure low-carbon, sustainable urban water supplies within arid urban centers affects billions of people around the world. Yet many of today’s urban water management practices rely on a patchwork of uncoordinated, non-optimized strategies that can do more harm than good.

Las Vegas

Las Vegas

Solving this problem requires a broad-reaching dialogue that extends far past the engineers who have traditionally managed the world’s water infrastructure. One of DRI’s goals is to spread critical information about water-sensitive design across multiple relevant disciplines.

What are the potential implications for the future?

In the future, stormwater management and water-reuse policies and regulations could be tailored specifically to individual sites, taking into consideration their constraints, opportunities, and adjacencies. We see this to some degree today. For example, certain urban districts mandate recycled water use; some stormwater management rules change between areas of combined versus separate sewers.

With the growing availability of large amounts of data, we envision a much more refined approach that would lead to water management requirements specifically tailored to a site’s soil, geology, contamination history, slope, habitat potential, location relative to municipal services, and other factors.

This level of detail aims to help cities maximize the total value obtained from their local water resources. Some potential recommendations: aquifer recharge, local vadose zone infiltration, rainwater harvesting, onsite treatment and discharge to regional collection systems, use of regional stormwater facilities, and on-site wastewater reclamation and reuse.

The need to secure low-carbon, sustainable urban water supplies within arid urban centers affects billions of people around the world.

What are the next steps for the research?

The American Institute of Architecture has awarded our team the 2015 Latrobe Prize, its premier research grant, awarded to one applicant every two years.

Currently in the early stages of the study, we have begun developing the framework for Hazel. Over the next year we’ll create a beta version, and in late 2016 we’ll begin testing and soliciting feedback from our colleagues and friends in the architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and engineering disciplines. Our primary goal is to ensure that the tool can improve the way design professionals work and make decisions.

The pilot version will cover the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County. We’ll also seek to partner with other urban areas hoping to develop their own version of Hazel.


Questions or comments for Rowan Roderick-Jones? Email him at rowan.roderick-jones@arup.com.


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