The drought transforming the American West has people everywhere questioning their own water use. Why don’t we recycle more wastewater? What about desalination? Should we be #droughtshaming rich people to get them to conserve? And, most importantly—SHOULD I EAT ALMONDS? Get your water questions answered by our experts today.

Joining us are Hadley and Peter Arnold, executive directors of the Arid Lands Institute, a nonprofit based out of Woodbury University in Burbank, California. They work on many projects related to water scarcity but also on bigger issues related to energy and climate change, taking a holistic view on the overall impact of water systems worldwide. They’ve also come up with what I think is one of the most plausible and rational ideas for drought-plagued cities: Recalibrating our urban infrastructure to capture and collect the rain we do get, instead of shipping it in from mountains halfway across the state.


Check out their simple plan for fixing urban water systems and then ask a few questions of your own below. I asked them a few drought-related issues I was wondering about to get the conversation flowing.

Gizmodo: Something important I see in your work is this idea that water scarcity will not just be fixed by technological changes—it’s really about social and cultural change.


Hadley Arnold: Many exciting water conversations include talk of new technologies, smarter grids, better equipment, and next generation tools. All are important, necessary—and are not complete without nurturing a conversant, competent, informed, water-responsive citizenry. For that kind of responsiveness to take root—a kind of learned, or re-learned, indigeneity in drylands—changes in water levels, water qualities, availability of supply, duration of available reserves needs to be broadly and publicly available in bold and accessible and visual languages. Nature publishes water status well—read the hills. Architecture and design can do a better job in the public realm.

“Better” technology didn’t actually solve our way out of water supply in the arid west in the 20th century—arguably it led to an oblivious citizenry, dependent and ill-prepared to self-manage. (Not an original argument—Stegner, Reisner, Worster, Wittfogel, et al have all argued the social cost of hydraulic empire). Local supplies, local management will require local savvy, local know-how, local pride-of-place in distributed water systems and how they work. That’s a very powerful role designers and communities can play together.

Gizmodo: You talk about the incredible amount of energy that’s needed to move water around, something that’s pretty much ignored in this conversation about the drought. Can you give me some idea of how much energy we’d be saving by keeping LA’s water local?

Peter Arnold: Several years ago we performed a whole-cost accounting of the City of Burbank’s urban water system—looking at the volumes of water delivered from the various import and local infrastructures and accounting for a total carbon foot printing and embedded energy density within each of these systems.

What the analysis shows is that if you infiltrate stormwater via gravity into the San Fernando Valley aquifer, and then remove it and treat the recovered water using highly-energy intensive measures (due to the chemical contamination present within the aquifer), treated stormwater is still 2/3 less energy intensive than imported supplies.

With 20 percent of CA’s energy budget (and related carbon emissions) currently tied to the capture, treatment, distribution and use of water, that’s a significant potential for savings.

Hadley and Peter Arnold from the Arid Lands Institute will be answering your questions below about water and the drought today at 2:00 p.m. EDT/11 a.m. PDT!