CACP assistant professor Ian Caine imagines a new water future for California, Continental U.S.

By Jesus Chavez
Public Affairs Specialist

(Dec. 8, 2015) -- California is in the midst of a record-breaking drought that becomes direr with each passing year. It’s no surprise then that architects and urban designers like Ian Caine, an assistant professor of architecture with the UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning, are beginning to wonder what the future of the country might look like if these water issues worsen.

Caine and his colleague Derek Hoeferlin of Washington University, recently partnered with students – Emily Chen, Tiffin Thompson and Pablo Chavez (UTSA M.Arch ’16 candidate) – to develop a speculative policy-focused proposal titled The Continental Compact. The proposal challenges the practice of water conveyance, which is common practice across the country, while envisioning a radically different urban future for the United States.

The team prepared the proposal for the Dry Futures competition, sponsored by Archinect, which asked architects and planners from across the globe to devise both pragmatic and speculative solutions to California’s drought crisis. Earlier this year, an internationally renowned jury of water and design experts recognized the project alongside 15 others from a pool of 387 entries submitted from around the world.

California’s existence relies on massive aqueducts that relocate water from the northern portion of the state and adjacent territories to support water-poor cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. Unfortunately, this practice incurs a massive cost at the federal and state level, and, according to researchers, produces a slew of negative environmental consequences.

According to Caine, California’s situation highlights a massive imbalance between the supply and demand of water. The Continental Compact proposes to severely limit the practice of water conveyance:

“Simply put, we’re suggesting that California and the U.S. should stop moving water to people and start moving people to water,” Caine said. “Federal and state governments should incentivize urban development in water-rich basins near dams, rivers and deltas while allowing population in water-poor areas, like Southern California, to shrink via attrition.”

The Continental Compact proposes that federal and state governments reallocate resources away from aqueducts and towards urban infrastructure in water-rich regions. This shift would rely on four basic principles:

Don’t transfer water.
Do guide population growth to water.
Do allow regions to shrink by attrition.
Do return rivers to their natural courses.

It may seem like a strange thought, allowing cities in one of the country’s most populous states to shrink. Still, Caine argues that the resources that we currently use to convey water could be better reinvested in water-rich areas like the Mississippi Valley, the Great Lakes region and the Ohio River Basins.

“The potential environmental and financial benefits of this shift would be enormous,” Caine said. “We’d save energy, reduce carbon emissions, lower infrastructure costs and regenerate local water deltas.”

The Continental Compact proposal is meant to be speculative and provoke discussion at the policy level. It’s an extreme measure to consider, Caine admits, but one worth serious deliberation because the abundance of resources that fueled America’s westward and historic growth no longer exist.

“Land is expensive, water is in short supply, and state and federal governments are increasingly unable to subsidize basic infrastructure,” Caine said. “Given these circumstances, it’s time to redirect investment away from the construction and operation of pipelines and towards the creation of more sustainable, water-rich urban infrastructures.”

Drawings for “The Continental Compact” will be on display on the first floor of the Monterey Building (DT Campus) throughout the month of December.

Jurors for the Dry Futures competition included: Allison Arieff, editorial director of SPUR/San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association, Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Water Initiative, and Hadley and Peter Arnold, co-founders/directors, the Arid Lands Institute.