Dams and reservoirs can’t save us. This is the new future of water infrastructure.
In the recent past, humans thought of freshwater as a constant. Sometimes there was drought, and sometimes there was flood, but water levels always returned to normal eventually. So we built dams and reservoirs, hulking infrastructure they imagined as a bulwark against the pains of any short-term variation, on the assumption that the dry times would end and the basins would refill.
But these gigantic objects are becoming dinosaurs in a new climactic age, characterized by growing human demand for freshwater and worsening, lengthening droughts. As Michael Hightower, a research professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico, puts it: “You don’t see people building new reservoirs, because they know there’s not going to be water to put in those reservoirs.”
That means water engineers need to radically rethink the traditional approach to water infrastructure. They will need to get creative. In some cases, it may mean going back to basics and installing cisterns in backyards to harvest the rain. In others, it may mean doing as the astronauts have done since the advent of space travel: drinking one’s own recycled urine.