Resilient Design Resource Kits

Rethinking Drought


Water is a critical resource. The need to implement sustainable approaches to water management, in which scarce water resources are carefully managed, preserved, and stored, so future generations and non-human species can also access water, is increasing. Drought is fueled by global temperature rises, volatility in precipitation levels, direct and indirect consequences of climate change, and poor water management systems, among other factors. Drought impacts food and water security, recreational economies, and human security on multiple scales (entire countries, regions or communities). The economic impact of prolonged drought can be massive: The impact of California’s ongoing mega-drought, to agriculture alone, was $2.7 billion in losses, and costs are still rising. This does not take into account the impact on livelihoods, or the cumulative environmental and human trauma that is catalyzed as a result of drought.


Resilience plays many roles in reducing the impact of drought. Working with planners, scientists, technologists and engineers, they can devise regional, urban, and local water management plans and systems that help communities monitor, conserve, and reuse water. Project by project, multi-disciplinary teams can offer novel solutions for improving watershed restoration and protections, work to change people’s perceptions of the value of water, or assist utility companies to create data visualizations that help consumers understand the cost of household water usage and where they might make savings.

In the southwestern U.S., where water is scarce, local communities have used acequias for thousands of years. These earthen canals, and other water diversion channels, may benefit from integration with renewable energyscapes by covering sections with solar panels to reduce evaporation. This kind of multi-generational approach to water resource planning, together with technological adaptation, is an example of contemporary systems approach to green infrastructure that can be applied across scales. The approach also demonstrates how creating drought-resilient and water-saving and re-use approaches at a domestic or micro-level can benefit communities moving forward.

Wright-Ingraham Institute systems research transects the San Juan Watershed, the Colorado River Lower Basin, the Imperial Valley, and the Salton Sea. WII also runs place-based educational initiatives in and around these areas.


Resiliency research that focuses on drought might produce outcomes such as:

  • Boosting water conservation through developing smart monitoring systems.
  • Creating roadmaps of county regulations on residential water use.
  • Evaluating water consumption in relation to practices like watering lawns.
  • Mapping irrigation systems; underground cisterns; native, drought-resistant plants; and natural approaches that boost the retention of water in soils.
  • Developing new systems for safe reuse of greywater for residential or commercial irrigation to reduce consumer costs and conserve water.  
  • Increase native xeriscaping to reduce dependence on water while providing habitat for needed wildlife, thus better sustaining natural ecosystems.
  • Planting trees to shade water bodies to reduce evaporation and provide wildlife habitats. These design possibilities can aid other domestic or local-level water conservation efforts to provide a holistic approach to water conservation practices at different scales.


Academic Papers

Drought’s Economic Impact on Agriculture, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Rapid intensification of the emerging southwestern North American megadrought in 2020–2021, Nature Climate Change

Dry landscapes and parched economies: A review of how drought impacts nonagricultural socioeconomic sectors in the US Intermountain West, WIREs Water

Public Knowledge Production (Manuals and “Explainers”)

Defining Drought, NOAA/NIDIS

How to Save Water the Californian Way, The Dirt blog

Model Native Plant Landscape Ordinance Handbook, University of Florida

Basins of Relations, Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (book)

Landscape Architects Can Be Water Revolutionaries, The Dirt blog, ASLA

Sustainable Residential Design: Improving Water Efficiency, ASLA

Rainwater Harvesting and Collection, Landscaping Network

Amazon Is Less Able to Recover From Droughts and Logging, Study Finds, New York Times

Policy Guides

Gray Water Use, California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative

National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Program, NOAA

Water Conservation, Caltrans

Securing Reliable Water Supplies for Southern California, Los Angeles County EDC

Recycled Water Law requirements for designers, Caltrans

Example Products and Outcomes

Global Drought Monitor, GDIS (GIS interface/dashboard)

Sustainable Water Management for Urban Agriculture: Planting Justice, Oakland, Pacific Institute

DEAD SEAS, The psychogeography of Southern California, Mark Dery, Cabinet Magazine

TLEP Scans, Salton Sea Center for Land Use Interpretation (report)