Addressing the Water Crisis By Conserving, Cleansing, and Restoring Natural Systems

Design Issues

people playing in water near st patricks island

It can be hard to wrap your head around the fact that 35 states and 112.8 million people in the U.S. are experiencing moderate drought, or worse, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), a division of NOAA.

In Colorado it’s even worse: at the time of writing, 82.9% of the state is experiencing moderate drought; and more than one-third of Colorado – 33.5% – is experiencing severe drought.

Due to overall trends in warming temperatures, snowpack and surface water levels are low, river flow is reduced, and wildfires increase with an extended fire season. 2020 was the worst fire season Colorado has ever experienced. And unfortunately, “Colorado isn’t getting enough snow to fully recover drought-stricken rivers and reservoirs,” according to a recent report from the Greeley Tribune. In 2021, “the federal government officially declared the first-ever water shortage in the Colorado River basin,” as Colorado Public Radio explained in August. “The shortage was triggered because water levels in Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border, the largest reservoir in the U.S., are projected to drop so low that it can’t meet the water and energy demands of communities in the West.”

We are residents of the Colorado River’s upper basin, so our water shortages directly impact the lower basin’s shortages. When Dove Creek, Colorado (almost) ran out of drinking water last year as a result of this two-decade drought, it was yet another signal that all of this is real. Any of our towns could run out of water. These are dramatic realities, yet the point is not to be doom-and-gloom about our future, but to illuminate the opportunity that we have to raise awareness and understanding, and to promote change.

Where we live – in Denver, in Colorado, in the drought-stricken Western U.S. – has impacted the way we work. We know, understand and respect water. We have to.

As these statistics suggest, landscape design cannot focus solely on the land and the plants that inhabit it. This integrated system of ecology deserves an integrated design approach, and water must be a central part of that—and it’s not just about reducing water consumption and improving conservation. Our work must also contribute to making water cleaner and healthier so that the people, plants, soils, animals and insects that rely on it can be healthier too. Slowly but surely, this contributes to a stronger, more stable ecosystem. And based on all of these record-setting (and worsening) droughts and fires, wouldn’t some stability be nice?

Here are a few examples of the ways we’ve been working, in Colorado and beyond, to address this water crisis:

Saving Millions of Gallons of Water in Central Park

In Denver, Colorado, where we’ve been involved for decades in the transformation of the former Stapleton Airport into a thriving residential community, we flipped the traditional development approach and created a nature-first, integrated landscape that takes the area back to its natural roots and restores the native prairie. As the former Stapleton, now Central Park community continues to grow north of I-70, we recently worked on the master planning and design of more than 250 acres of parks, recreation areas, open spaces, stormwater facilities (designed to handle major storm events), and natural habitats. Taking design cues from the area’s history and ecology, we looked to the original wetlands and sand dunes that comprised the Sandhill Prairie ecosystem long before airport runways were part of the mix. Groves of cottonwoods dotted the landscape, creating microclimates that captured water, and both the wind and water shaped the land into flowing patterns of fields and ridges.

central park

With the objective to regenerate this ecosystem for both environmental and human benefit, we designed open spaces with a balance of passive native grasses and turf that can be programmed for recreation – a juxtaposition between manicured lawn and textured grasslands. More than 150,000 native plants in 20 mounded low-water gardens create flowing color and texture. The streets also serve as linear parks that promote community engagement and are lined with drought-tolerant plants. Green courts, designed to provide a mix of public and private communal space, blend low-water-use vegetation with turf. And the benefits are significant:

The 177 acres of native prairie grasslands seeded north of I-70 represent a water savings of 23,854,781 gallons of irrigation water per month. This is the equivalent of 36 Olympic-sized pools per month, and a cost savings of $56,774 per month, or $681,292 per year (assuming 5” of water that would otherwise be required for turf irrigation each month).

Other benefits include:

  • Restoration of the native plant habitat
  • Higher resistance to weather
  • Non-invasive vegetation
  • Little to no fertilizer or pesticides needed
  • Less maintenance
  • Boost in community pride

This work in Central Park has set new standards for other developments, both residential and commercial, suburban and urban.

Giving life back to the river so it can bring life back into Denver

Throughout Denver’s Central Platte Valley we have worked on over 30 initiatives to restore the river and engage people in a new urban ecology. Commons Park has been one of those efforts. With a vision to turn the valley into a walkable center that would attract people to visit, live, work and play, we led years of public meetings, discussing ways to give life back to the Platte River so that it could bring life back to the city of Denver. The resulting 19-acre Commons Park has since become a flowing landscape that includes over 10 acres of habitat restoration, wetlands that buffer and cleanse stormwater, upland songbird habitats, and a half-mile of reconstructed river bottom to support aquatic habitat and boating. As Mark Johnson once wrote, Commons Park “has an urban edge that addresses the needs of the city. Yet, a substantial portion of the park is planted in native grasses, shrubs, and wetlands to meet the needs of the river.”

In the decades before Commons Park was established, the South Platte riverbanks had been artificially filled, obliterating the subtle terracing that otherwise forms naturally along a river’s banks, and burying natural wetlands, oxbows and habitat. If we wish to rebuild more stable ecosystems, we have to restore these wetlands, and sometimes it takes intentional flooding to achieve this restoration. In an area of Commons Park called “The Seeps,” we lowered the existing grades by 18 feet, which allows groundwater (including Spring runoff from Lower Downtown) to collect and provides enough moisture to sustain not only a renewed wetland but also a moist riparian meadow and a native forest of cottonwood trees—resembling the landscape originally found along the river’s edge.

commons park denver colorado

Letting the water flow more naturally in Calgary

We took a similarly intentional approach with St. Patrick’s Island in downtown Calgary on the Bow River. Here, our goal was to reconnect residents and visitors to the river and provide safe space for recreation, but the water—which had been manipulated by many years of bank armoring, compaction, and other intrusive developments—flowed too quickly for safe entry. Looking back at the 30-acre site’s ecological evolution, we uncovered that the island used to have two naturally recurring breaches: one that was annual and one that was occasional. The annual breach flowed with water that created an ever-changing internal beach, while the occasional breach supported a rich wetland across the island. Our design restored a functional breach by reengineering the island and redesigning its inlet. This process would slow down the water’s natural movement and make it safe for people to enter. The new pedestrian bridge gets covered by water when the island is breached but is still open for use. You can see kids playing, dogs running, bikes splashing—literally connecting people with the water and its natural flow.

calgary waterfront

Regenerating the waterfront in Tampa Bay

While we’ve restored the natural (and needed) effects of flooding in Denver and Calgary, on the U.S. east coast the story is different: thanks to global warming, there’s too much water. In the Tampa region, an advisory panel has recommended that local governments plan for a range of sea-level rise between roughly 12 and 19 inches over the next 30 years, as the Tampa Bay Times recently reported. The region is already prone to destructive storm surges, and even a few inches of saltwater intrusion can be very costly, so it can be alarming when new projections underscore the reality that flooding can (and will) occur under relatively common weather conditions, not just powerful hurricanes.

Our designs for Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa were responsive to a lengthy public engagement process, throughout which it was clear that residents needed and deserved better public spaces and programs for all ages, as well as stronger connections to the water and the park’s surrounding neighborhoods. Yet we were also motivated to improve the river’s infrastructure and stabilize the shoreline to ensure the long-term functionality of these important new spaces as sea levels rise. The seawall was pushed back into the park and strengthened, not only creating a calm water harbor for small watercraft like kayaks and paddleboards but also regenerating a habitat for marsh vegetation and marine life. To cleanse and protect the river, stormwater is captured in vegetated swales and continuously filtered in a natural trench of plant material along the edge of the park’s great lawn, helping to control the water’s return to the river and restore a more natural, stable relationship between the two.

tampa bay riverfront

Connecting people and businesses with the coast in San Diego

Across the country, we’ve designed a similar bio-cleansing system where San Diego meets the bay and ocean, proposing a saltgrass marsh that will naturally treat 150,000 gallons of briny groundwater and runoff from the foundation of a renovated and expanded San Diego Convention Center—including a new park on the building’s roof, with direct connections to the waterfront and the adjacent hotels and marina. This marsh will create a feeling like that of the grassy bluffs of Torrey Pines or Point Loma, giving city dwellers and visitors the same dramatic experience of the coast, but walkable from anywhere in downtown San Diego.

A short distance away, along San Diego’s North Embarcadero, a 1,000-foot linear park and promenade—completed in 2014—includes a comprehensive green stormwater infrastructure system, new shade pavilions, ticket kiosks, café, flexible seating, and public restrooms, providing visitors with much-needed amenities and placemaking that strengthens the connections to this busy, working waterfront. The Port of San Diego has goals to improve the entire Port District over the next 30 years and tasked our team to test the various policies developed in the Port’s Master Plan Update to ensure the policies are functional and purposeful for the long term. Civitas Principal Scott Jordan explains: “We looked at the entire waterfront area holistically and rebalanced open space, potential development, and circulation systems to take advantage of the space available. We maximized the publicly accessible open space while making sure the rest of the urban systems, such as stormwater, mobility, resiliency, parking, universal access, and human comfort all function smoothly.”

Now, more than ever, we need this holistic approach to planning and design, as a series of environmental, health, and political crises continue to swirl around us. “At a time when we feel individually vulnerable, we have started to recognize that our world is also vulnerable,” Mark Johnson observes. “As a result, we are seeing a swing in our collective aesthetic toward landscapes that are healthy and fit on their terms. I believe that we are moving into an era where urban landscapes will be valued not just visually, but also as a mosaic of nature—land, water, plants, animals, marine life, and more—threading through our cities, making our cities healthier and our world a little more stable.”

san diego waterfront