Role of landscape architecture as a water resource steward

Our Blue Planet contains only a small fraction of water (0.01%) that is readily available for drinking, for use in our communities and industries, and to produce our food.

Photo of Joan Rose.
Joan B. Rose, Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research.

Our Blue Planet contains only a small fraction of water (0.01%) that is readily available for drinking, for use in our communities and industries, and to produce our food. Most water is in the sea, glaciers, and deep groundwater, which are not easily and cheaply accessible.

While water moves in a hydrologic cycle, water quantity around the world is understood based on precipitation and geomorphology (e.g., natural features which store water, such as mountain/snow pack, lakes, rivers, and groundwater). But, economic scarcity exasperates the water problems of the world. Thus, lack of infrastructure for stormwater, community systems, and agriculture causes economic disparity around the world.

In the United States (U.S.), our infrastructure allows for increasing use of water in our 54,000 communities, where utilities process 38 billion gallons of water daily. The average residence uses over 100,000 gallons (indoors and outside) annually, which averages out to about 100 gallons per day per person.

Billions of dollars are needed in the next 10 years to fix our infrastructure, which is greatly aging. Much of our quality of life is associated with the beautification of our landscape and recreational activities afforded by our abundant water resources. Yet this lifestyle is threatened. One example is a favorite pastime: Golf. According to Golf Digest the 300,000 gallons of water used per day on golf courses will be a critical issue in the future. Golf will need to adapt to the challenge by using reclaimed water (providing nutrients, as well as moisture) and more efficient irrigation instead of using drinking water.

Thus the water challenges include:

  • water shortages due to imbalances between water demand and supply,
  • water pollution and ecosystem deterioration due to increases in urban and industrial wastewater, as well as stormwater, and increased potential for flood damage caused by improper land use.

Landscape architecture has done an excellent job of addressing stormwater with green infrastructure.

But, it is not often recognized that this approach is protecting our health. There is no doubt that green infrastructure can decrease pollution and destruction impacts associated with extreme precipitation events.

Over half of the drinking water outbreaks associated with viruses, parasites and bacteria that cause diseases in humans are associated with high rainfall events due to sewer leaks, overflows and transport of key pathogens from human sewage (including septic tanks) and animal manure.

Michigan, like all areas in the U.S., has many sources of these pollutants, including sewage treatment plants, combined sewer overflows, and septic tanks. Animal wastes are also of great concern as sources of non-point pollutants that threaten our health.

Thus, landscape architecture has a role to play in improving water quality and protecting human and ecosystem health. This role should be expanded to address both quantity and quality. The opportunities need to be included explicitly in training for the profession.

All of us have a role to play in the looming water crisis; in particular, the landscape architecture profession can make significant contributions toward addressing these water resource issues.

  • All home and community landscapes should include natural stormwater management technologies, such as a bioswales, bio-retention ponds, rainwater gardens, and local sustainable water recycling and drip irrigation systems.
  • Sustainable Residential Design should focus on improving water efficiency by promoting safe and appropriate storage and recycling of greywater (and even blackwater) for landscape maintenance, car washing and toilet flushing.
  • Wastewater reclamation should be promoted at the community scale broadly across the U.S., rather than only in the dry western and southern states.
  • More thought should be given to the ability to address the rural landscape.


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