Partner Schools
Print Archive
Peer Review


Partner News
Peer Reviewed
Poetry & Fiction


Cities + Places
Design History
Design Practice
Film + Video
Health + Safety
Politics + Policy
Public + Private

Design Observer

Job Board

Gallery: Hadley Arnold & Peter Arnold

Drylands: Water and the West

[Photos by Peter Arnold]

By definition, water scarcity is the central challenge of sustaining life in arid lands. It’s easy to forget how large that challenge is: Arid and semi-arid lands make up one-third of the earth’s land surface and over one-third of the continental United States. The 20th-century American effort to provide water to these lands in the name of social progress and economic growth has given rise to some of the most spectacular civil engineering feats in history, and has served as one model for water systems internationally.

In the century that followed the 1902 Newlands Reclamation Act, the engineers of the American West constructed a 500,000-square-mile watershed designed to do two things — deliver us snowmelt and rid us of stormwater. The engineering (and ideological) paradigm behind this synthetic watershed is stationarity: the notion that systems fluctuate within an unchanging envelope that can be described, modeled and predicted. Predicated on a constant supply of political will, financial capital, cheap energy and Holocene hydrology, the American system is designed to flatten topography, culture and time.

The photographs of 20th-century structures presented in the first half of this slideshow constitute a contemporary archaeology of the architecture of stationarity.

That system is now nearly obsolete. Its infrastructures have accelerated and exacerbated the largest and least understood environmental challenge of the 21st century: water is changing. It takes a lot of energy to transport snowmelt across deserts to agricultural and urban centers; likewise, in a negative feedback loop, it takes a lot of water to produce that energy. The carbon-intensive fuels used to deliver western water — mostly coal and natural gas — contribute to a warming climate that is reallocating the hydrologic cycle. Projected climate impacts in the Western United States include longer droughts, less snowpack and more intensive rain events.

Intelligent water solutions will break western water’s reliance on carbon-intensive energy for long-distance transport, and will look again to localized systems and reposition the hydrographic basin as the basic unit of durable occupation. In both urban and rural centers, a healthy Anthropocene will see a de-industrialization of water systems, an insurgence of adaptive alternatives and a design reckoning with a new paradigm of variability that replaces the assumption of stationarity.

Our exploration of the engineered surfaces of the West, industrial and pre-industrial, has led us to consider alternative models of irrigation societies — some archaeological, some historical, some contemporary — that operate outside the predominant American model and offer promising possibilities for re-imagining hydrologic urbanisms and architectures.

Examples of adaptive technologies and robust settlement patterns that we have photographed along the Lower Colorado River and the Upper Rio Grande include:
  • ancient flood-plain irrigation techniques employed along Arizona’s Salt and Gila rivers by the Hohokam, a society of sophisticated engineers whose culture dispersed when monumental water infrastructures no longer operated effectively in the face of long-term drought;
  • contemporary flood-plain irrigation practices on the Gila River, where the Tohono O’odham, descendants of the Hohokam, have adopted water management and planting strategies that incorporate mobility, velocity and ephemerality as concepts critical to sustaining life under extremely variable conditions;
  • run-off irrigation landforms that have shaped the surface of Chacoan culture, including archaeological evidence of ancient dam sites, reservoir basins and irrigation canals; as well as contemporary systems of mesa run-off and gravity-fed outliers in continuous use for the last 1,000 years;
  • Spanish colonial-era acequia communities, or “water democracies,” of northern New Mexico, where irrigation practices of Roman, Arab and North African origin were transplanted to New Spain in the late 1500s and are still practiced today, sustaining shocking levels of ethnic, linguistic and biological diversity;
  • 19th-century Mormon irrigation districts from Southern Utah to Northern Arizona, where carefully planned water and land use (not only a shared theology) underpinned a collaborative urbanism.
In the coming years, the portfolio of water systems and water cultures of the West will begin to re-diversify and de-industrialize. These photographs are intended to frame questions that can be explored through an open-ended design process with students and community collaborators. How are water systems integrated, not only functionally but also formally, in the design of dryland urbanisms? Under what conditions does the architecture of water systems shape strong public space? When do water infrastructures serve as instruments of social control and when do they serve as instruments of collaborative commonwealth? At what scale can water systems support not only sufficient volume but also biological and cultural diversity? What competing definitions of “efficiency” are at work in these photographs? What is fragile here, and what endures, and why?

These photographs remind us of the wide terrain of innovation written into the surfaces of the West, a record of adaptive design that transcends the 20th-century presumption of indefinite abundance.

Editors' Note

The Arid Lands Institute hosts the Drylands Design Conference, “Retrofitting the West: Adaptation by Design,” March 22 – 24, 2012, at Woodbury University, in Burbank, California. The Drylands Design Exhibition at the A+D Museum in Los Angeles, March 22 – April 26, 2012, features winning designs from the William Turnbull International Drylands Design Competition: architects, landscape architects, engineers, and urban designers responding to the challenges of water scarcity in the face of climate change.

For further reading about Western water infrastructures on Places, see “Thirsty City,” “Water in the West,” “Dreams, Dust and Birds: The Trashing of Owens Lake,” and more in our archive of features on water.

Authors' Acknowledgments

This work has been generously supported by the Bogliasco Foundation, the Graham Foundation, the LEF Foundation, James and Ginny Neese, and the Frankel Family Foundation.
Share This Story


Lost Rivers


Methodolatry and the Art of Measure

A Necessary Incompleteness

Landscape Forensics

RSSSubscribe to Comment Feed

Comments (2)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

I appreciate the excavation of historical indigenous, creole, and mestizo infrastructures here.

There are two issues that pop up in the essay which I am wondering about: the emphasis on an idea of scarcity and the statement that a healthy anthropocene will see a de-industrialization of water systems.

The point about scarcity is interesting to me because while it is not included in the super interesting list of ideas used by the Tohono O'odham, it is one of the foundational principles behind the idea of the free market and capitalism, suggesting an implicit assumption about the environmental situation that I don't imagine is intentional, but is problematic. I'm sure that there are in fact certain moments or periods when there is a lot of water in specific arid places, and the dance between the two conditions creates a lot of the specific forms and effects that make that place, for instance. Or one could imagine other qualities or concepts as being more fundamental to the place, as the Tohono O'odham evidently do (thanks for the intro to this, btw).

Second, what is the definition of industrial you have here that healthy anthropocene systems will be moving away from? To my mind it is the intentional manipulation and movement of large amounts of bulk materials cheaply, but that isn't necessarily something the anthropocene needs to run from, so perhaps this essay imagines something else?

thank you. Looking forward to hearing thoughts.
b davis
03.21.12 at 04:52

b davis:

A much belated: "thank you for your thoughts"

Any chance we could meet you in the field to discuss further---all great points, btw.

Please email us......thank you!


Peter Arnold
10.08.13 at 05:23

Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.



Donate to Places: Your Support Makes Our Work Possible


A selection of photographs by Peter Arnold, founding co-director of the Arid Lands Institute.
View Slideshow >>


Peter Arnold is a founding co-director of the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University.
More Bio >>

Hadley Arnold is a founding co-director of the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University.
More Bio >>


MORE ON American West

From the American West to West Berlin
On Places, Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern explore the "border crossings" of Wim Wenders — the director's cinematic journeys from Paris, Texas to the West Berlin of The Wings of Desire.

800 Miles: Photographing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
On Places, a portfolio of photographs by Peter Bo Rappmund, who has documented nearly every mile of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Heavy Metal
On Places, photographer Dennis DeHart traces the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes through one of the world's largest and most contaminated historic mining districts.

Look Only at the Movement
On Places, a documentary project by Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth of Smudge Studio, focusing on the materiality of nuclear waste transport.

Walking the Darkness Home
On Places, Adelheid Fischer recounts a journey to the Grand Canyon — to a dangerous and redemptive place that by turns epitomizes and defies the expectations (and clichés) of the famous landscape.

Resurveying the West
On Places, a slideshow of images of the American West by the New York-based photographer Victoria Sambunaris and the 19th-century pioneer William Henry Jackson, curated by Aaron Rothman.

Camino del Diablo
On Places, photographer Mark Klett journeys along the Camino del Diablo in the Sonoran Desert, much of which is now a bombing range, and finds a landscape of forbidding danger and compelling beauty.

Nowhere and Everywhere: The Landscape of the Colorado Delta
On Places, planner Armando Carbonell explores, in aerial photographs, the fragile yet resilient landscapes of the Colorado River Delta.

Above Lake Las Vegas
On Places, aerial photographs of the bankrupt luxury communities of Lake Las Vegas, by Michael Light.

We Are in a Western Town
On Places, Aaron Rothman explores the enduring power of the photographs of Robert Adams, and what they reveal about the paradoxical landscape of the American West.

If There Be Such Space
On Places, a slideshow drawn from a collaborative exhibition by two photographers who share an interest in the perception and representation of natural landscapes.

Thirsty City
On Places, Austin Troy assesses the massive infrastructure required to bring water to the arid American West — and the huge amount of energy that makes it possible to take a shower in Los Angeles.

The Hills Are Alive
On Places, Michael Branch reflects on how deeply photography and film shape our landscape aesthetics (and how much he detests the Alpine-worshipping The Sound of Music).

Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City
On Places, Andrew Ross analyzes the contradictory political and economic forces that once made Phoenix the fastest-growing city in the U.S. — and today a prime casualty of the crash.

Water in the West
On Places, a slideshow from the collaborative photography project Water in the West, with an introduction by Mark Klett.

The Half-Life of History
On Places, writer William Fox and photographer Mark Klett document the semi-ruin of the WW II military airfield at Wendover, Utah, where the U.S. Air Force trained for the bombing of Hiroshima.

Views Across Time
On Places, an interview with photographer Mark Klett and a slideshow from his ongoing rephotography project, with views across time of the American West.

The Edge of Light: Wendover
On Places, photographs by Brian Rosa and Adam Ryder document the nighttime mysteries of Wendover, where military history, land-speed racing and the casino industry make for unexpected juxtapositions.

Soundscapes: Burning Man
On Places, a selection of soundscapes — ranging from dust storms to diesel generators — recorded by architect Nick Sowers at the latest Burning Man.

Burning Man and the Metropolis
On Places, Nate Berg looks at Burning Man, and how a beach party in San Francisco mushroomed into a week-long temporary city of 50,000 out in the Nevada desert.

Land, Speed and Bonneville
On Places — coinciding with Speed Week at Bonneville — a gallery created by architect Martin Hogue documents decades of land speed racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats of western Utah.

Las Vegas
Writer and critic William L. Fox reviews Las Vegas, by Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern, probing the improbable success of the gambling-entertainment world-city constructed in the midst of the Mojave.

Urbanizing the Mojave
America's greatest boomtown has gone bust. Architects Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern explore the cultural and environmental consequences of the rapid expansion of Las Vegas into the Mojave Desert, tracing a troubled history of mining, militarization, tourism, and water politics.