Even in dehydrated California, there’s water to spare. A lot of it flows through the Los Angeles River, which carries some 200 million gallons of water a day right into the Pacific Ocean, where it’s lost forever.

Lujac Desautel is a young architect with an idea for all that wasted water. He calls the project Liquifying Aquifers. The concept calls for building some monolithic infrastructure along the Tujunga Wash, a 13-mile tributary of the L.A. river, that could siphon and clean the water running through it. Some of it would fill a public swimming pool; the rest would go into the parched San Fernando Valley groundwater basin, an aquifer that supplies potable water to more than 800,000 people in the Los Angeles area. It’s all designed to answer a two-part question of Desautel’s: “How do we get that 200 million gallons of water back into the aquifer? And could we use [the solution] to establish a local, community place?” His project recently won an award in the “pragmatic category” from Archinect’s Dry Futures competition.

150830_LUJAC_DESAUTEL13 Lujac Desautel

Liquifying Aquifers would use a system of wells to divert water from the Tujunga Wash into a series of three concrete structures, each shaped like an inverted pyramid. That water is pretty gnarly—runoff from rain, sewage, factories, and lawns, parks, and golf courses. Desautel proposes using two of the pyramid pools to clean the water with plant-based biofilters. Some of that water would flow through conduits into the third and largest pyramid, creating a pool. The rest would be pumped into the aquifer.

Desautel’s proposal is one of several looking to better use stormwater, help farmers, recharge aquifers, and make better consumers of us all. The Green Solution Project for the Upper LA River Watershed, for instance, calls for engineered “smart” parks that could capture, clean, and reuse runoff rather than letting it go to sea. Caltech’s Resnick Institute is investigating a three-part system for saving and managing this water.

But Desautel’s may be the only proposal to incorporate swimming pools—something that, at first blush, seems counterintuitive in a water conservation project. But Desautel argues swimming pools are an intrinsic part of California living. “The reality is, people live this outdoor lifestyle here,” he says. “To take this away is to take away the DNA of what Los Angeles is.” This idea is echoed in the architecture: The inverted pyramid creates a massive overhang, beneath which he imagines community centers and retail shops.

In that sense, Liquifying Aquifers is about more than water; it’s about restructuring life in Los Angeles. Instead of people owning private pools, communities could share one. Instead of stigmatizing pools, the project would use them to foster healthier lifestyles.

Jon Christensen, a professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, calls Desautel’s proposal “a wonderful addition to the conversation to say ‘Hey, look at what’s possible.’” He says we should expect more proposals like this in the next 30 to 40 years “as Los Angeles becomes more reliant on the water that we have here in the area that falls as rain, rather than continuing to rely so heavily on water that’s imported.”

Many details must be sorted out before a project like Liquifying Aquifers becomes a reality. For starters, Desautel’s plan doesn’t specify what plants might be used for bio-filtering. It doesn’t cite specific locations for the wells. There are ancillary factors to consider, too: Desautel’s design pertains to the Tujunga Wash and the San Fernando Valley aquifer. Designing for other waterways would require more work. And Christensen says there’s another potential issue: Much of the San Fernando Valley has filthy groundwater. If reclaimed runoff from the Tujunga wash has to seep through dirty groundwater to get back into the aquifer, then the whole cleaning process will have been for naught.

As with all such schemes, “it’s part of a larger system that’s geological and hydrological and also human, and political,” says Christensen. With that in mind, it’s safe to say solutions like these are coming, but probably not as soon as we’d like. Nonetheless, “we’re going to see stuff like this around the San Fernando Valley,” Christensen says. “I hope it’s as beautiful as this.”

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A Plan to Funnel LA’s Runoff Water Into a Beautiful Pool