Danika Cooper

2018 Hellman Fellow


Assistant Professor, Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning
UC Berkeley

Project Title: Waving a Magic Wand: Contemplating the Future of Water Management in Phoenix, Arizona

Project Description:

Waving a Magic Wand investigates the governance of water and its role in efforts to cultivate the American West. The intention of this research is to reframe aridity as an opportunity for innovation rather than a condition to be reversed. The research outputs will contribute to an interactive, digital catalogue of aridland water infrastructure as well as a public exhibition to showcase alternative futures for water management in Phoenix. This project is embedded within my longstanding research agenda concerning the desertification of the planet.

In 1893, Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble boasted that the United States would expand in both ambition and population to become an empire unparalleled with any other in history. His theory of change relied specifically on the cultivation of arid lands in the American West to accommodate the growth of the nation. He declared, “Irrigation is the magic wand which is to bring about these great changes.” In doing so, Noble implied that the potential of the West would be fulfilled by engineering a solution to aridity; that the land could be treated as terra nullius and freely shaped in an attempt to replicate temperate, agrarian landscapes. Noble’s predictions proved prescient. Large-scale irrigation was set in place, replacing nearly all other methods of water management and surpassing the use of functioning techniques designed for the region’s arid conditions. Today, such irrigation remains the principal means of sustaining urbanization and agricultural productivity in arid America.

Profound climate change is motivating new methods for designing urban zones and their constituent landscapes. It is critical to reimagine the future of cities in arid regions, especially as the status quo of conventional engineered solutions will be ineffective to meet growing water demands. This research uses Phoenix, Arizona as a test bed for investigating strategies for water management in conditions of extreme aridity. In the Phoenix metro area and expansive agricultural communities, the surrounding rivers supply nearly all the municipal and agricultural water. As Phoenix’s water supply and existing infrastructure become increasingly precarious, the city has the potential to reframe arid water infrastructure as dynamic and resilient. The development of new approaches for coping with water scarcity can have broad applicability and extend to other regions impacted by extreme aridity. The Hellman Fellows Fund affords the opportunity to contemplate this central question: How might we imagine and plan a future for the drylands of America without relying on water transported from hundreds of miles away?