Watching the Water

By Jim McCloskey

I’ve witnessed and participated in discussions of water safety on a professional level for more than 30 years now, and I can remember a time when watershapers in just about every sector were unhappy about raising the subject in any way.

I could understand the negative attitudes:  No matter whether it had to do with pools, spas, ponds or any other form of open, accessible water, nobody was particularly happy about the thought of fencing things in, installing alarms or, most resolutely, feeling the need to frighten clients as part of the process of persuading them to add watershapes to their lives.

I remember the reaction to the Gus and Goldie program when it arrived in the late 1980s courtesy of what was then the National Spa & Pool Institute – and I have to say the fishes’ handlers didn’t help much.  One of the campaign’s first messages was “Never swim alone.” A waggish acquaintance of mine always put a pregnant pause after the second word and whispered the third so the strongest part of the message became “Never swim.”

His modest suggestion was to fry the fish, and it was only made worse when, during a memorable late-’80s trade show, organizers brought Gus and Goldie into a convention center in an ambulance.  (You can’t make this stuff up.)  There was a profound scrambling of messages with the spokesfish, and I’m more than happy to say that the water-safety issue has found better voice in recent years, thanks in good measure to the sensible folks at Water Safety USA.

I hear about what they’re doing mostly through the National Swimming Pool Foundation, which participates in the organization as one of 14 national governmental and non-governmental member-organizations.  This year’s safety message is a simple one:  “Designate a water watcher – supervision could save a life.”

It always helps when a safety advisory is an appeal to common sense and, even better, when it asks for little more than putting an edge on common practice.  Whenever the head count in our pool exceeded our three swimming children, for instance, I always asked someone else to help me keep an eye on the water, just to be on the safe side.

There’s an obvious problem with my old approach, of course:  It would have been easy for one or both of us to get distracted and assume that the other was on the case.  That’s the beauty of the designated-watcher proposal.  It takes that variable out of the mix and, for the period of the designation, keeps a pair of responsible eyes focused on the task at hand.

The great thing here is that, because of the widespread awareness of the “designated driver” concept, the new message doesn’t require any explanation.  Indeed, almost everyone who comes across the term “designated watcher” will know exactly what it entails, right down to the potentially life-or-death nature of the role.  I don’t know if this association was intentional on the part of Water Safety USA, but it certainly is powerful.

Water Safety USA calls for selecting a designated watcher even if all of the children (and adolescents!) in the water know how to swim.  It also lists requirements for those who would assume the role:  “An appropriate water watcher is someone who is 16 years old or older (adults preferred); is alert and not under the influence of alcohol or drugs; has the skills, knowledge, and ability to recognize and rescue someone in distress or can immediately alert a capable adult nearby; knows CPR or can alert someone nearby who knows CPR; has a working phone to dial 911; and has a floating and/or reaching object that can be used in a rescue.”

The alliance also reminds us all that a water watcher is not a substitute for a lifeguard.  In public waters, it notes, adults should corral children in lifeguard-protected areas but should still designate a water watcher, as drowning can occur even with lifeguards around.

All of this makes sense to me – sobering, but not frightening.  In fact, it encourages involvement with water in all sorts of positive ways.

In days long gone, I had my quibbles with the way the industry approached water-safety concepts.  Happily, that’s no longer the case:  I know the commonsense approach defined by this new campaign can work.

To learn more about how to keep children safe in, on, or around water and for more information about water watchers, visit


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Boundless Potential

By Jim McCloskey

As you’re probably aware, I live in southern California in the southwestern corner of the San Fernando Valley.  You may also know that it gets wicked hot here, which is why this slice of the globe boasts more swimming pools per capita than anywhere other than maybe the Phoenix metroplex.

What you probably don’t know is a basic fact about my specific neighborhood:  Most of the homes here were built in the late 1950s and early ’60s, and many of their pools are of an older vintage.  The one out back of my house, for example, was built in 1982, about seven years before my family and I moved in.

That makes our kidney-shaped beauty a “young” watershape by local standards:   Most of my neighbors’ pools were built in the late 1960s and ’70s, a time when simple rectangles and kidneys were the order of the day and bells and whistles didn’t extend much beyond a heater or maybe a slide.

Most nearby pools have deep ends, and some even have diving wells (although most of the boards and platforms have disappeared).  They also commonly have a three- or four-foot-wide ribbon of concrete decking around them, and precious few have attached spas.  (Happily, ours does.)  Even fewer have raised walls or any other sort of feature that protrudes above deck level – other than the occasional ladder, that is.

I know this because my wife and I like to visit open houses in the area to get a sense of what people are doing to enhance homes of the same general size and age as ours.  I also spent a weird afternoon a couple months ago looking at satellite views available through Google Earth – something I wouldn’t recommend unless you want to learn more about your neighbors’ backyards than you ever wanted to know.

Point is, when it comes to swimming pools, I live in the land time forgot, and this is why I have, through the years and whenever I can, always taken the opportunity to ride along with designers and builders to see their work and get a clearer sense of what’s happening at that moment – and of how far things have come in the years since WaterShapes emerged on the scene.

It really is a day-and-night contrast.  To some extent, it’s fulfilled the vision I had back in 1998 that the foundations of watershape design and construction could and should expand and that people working in pools, ponds, fountains and various other forms of contained, controlled water could and would benefit from a cross-pollination of ideas, techniques and technologies.  That truly has happened, and I think it’s been both productive and inspiring.

But what I witness in ride-arounds in southern California and elsewhere is astounding – a spectacular shattering of established boundaries of creativity and artistic determination.  It wasn’t long ago that vanishing edges and tanning shelves and fire features and leaping jets and in-pool light shows were bracingly new – the latest and greatest.  They’re still cool even now, but they’re also getting “familiar.”

Lately, what gets me going are elegantly executed rills and cool water walls, amazing stonework (both naturalistic and architectural) and incredible glass-tile mosaics, seductive toe-kick details and hidden shell penetrations.  There’s a growing consciousness that watershaping is a true artistic endeavor, without doubt or compromise, and it’s a thrill to get out and see what’s emerging with my own eyes.

I can’t wait to hit the road again to get a sense of what’s coming next.  My own pool and spa may be drab and dull by comparison, but that’s no big deal:  I have enough memories of good times and family fun that I still smile every time I step into my backyard.

In that context, let me leave you with this thought:  Watershapers, you’ve always done wonderful things for your clients, my family included.  But these days?  Now you’re reaching for incredible – and all I can do is urge you to keep striving!

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Spring is Here!

By Jim McCloskey

Although fall in southern California is my favorite time of year for its raw beauty, spring is a close runner-up because it is so busy.

In fact, some of the heavy lifting is already done by the time March 20 rolls around:  Early in that month, for instance, I’ll typically take advantage of a warm day to vacuum away our pool’s winter accumulation of debris, brush the walls and floor and split and clean the diatomaceous-earth filter.

Once that’s taken care of and the water’s looking brilliant again, I take a sample to my neighborhood pool shop for testing that’s more thorough than what I can accomplish with my own meager kit.  Invariably, this means heading back home loaded down with water conditioner, non-chlorine shock, a bag or two of salt and a good supply of phosphate controller.  I also check out the flexibility of the automatic cleaner’s hoses, the buoyancy of its floats and the condition of its pump.

Starting this year, I’ve added the task of opening up and cleaning out a small ornamental fountain’s buried basin to my routines.  I was surprised by how little there was to do this first time:  Even with the torrents of rain we’ve had in recent months, the burden of yuck in the basin was minor, almost negligible.

Nearby are three large raised-bed garden boxes that require our attention, one still filled with winter crops and our perennial artichokes, the other two awaiting their fill of mostly tomato plants and basil.  I don’t have much to do here beyond amending and turning the soil; Judy is the gardener, and I pretty much do as I’m told.  In fact, my main responsibility here goes not much further than making certain all of the plants are covered by the drip-irrigation system.

We also have a bunch of fruit trees:  lemon, lime, tangerine, orange and kumquat trees (some in multiples) that are closing out last year’s production and blossoming with next fall’s crop.  Then there are the stone fruits (apricot, aprium, plum, peach) and two varieties of guava, a persimmon tree and a pair of pomegranate trees along with a big passionfruit vine.  We have berries, too, including a tangle of blackberries and a wonderful Persian mulberry that produces fuzzy, impossibly delicious fruits about the size of an adult finger.

Not all of our plants are edible (although I failed to mention the herb garden, which could be bigger).  Through the years, Judy has planted lots of groundcovers, ornamental shrubs, palms, vines and trees, including a Brugmansia that’s done spectacularly well.  There’s also a whole registry of roses, including a Barbra Streisand she just picked up last week.

Other than the pool, none of this was here when we moved in 28 years ago:  no fruit trees of any kind, no berries, no vegetables and maybe a few roses.  For whatever reason and despite the fact that the area in which our house was built was at one time a grand tree farm, previous owners reaching back to the home’s origins in 1961 had never planted anything other than some bottlebrushes, a couple of cedars, lots of oleander and a magnolia placed awkwardly to one side of the backyard.  Our personal favorite, dominating the center of the yard, was a long-suffering juniper that had been torturously pruned year after year to make it look like a tree – and not to great effect, so it is no longer there.

It’s taken us all this time to clear away the old and put Judy’s fresh stamp on our surroundings.  The one thing the plants we found when we moved in had in common was that they were essentially maintenance-free (except for the malformed juniper); the one thing about everything we’ve planted since is that it all requires loving year-round care – fertilizing, watering, pruning, cultivating, harvesting, canning, drying.  We wouldn’t trade these chores for anything, even though it can get a bit overwhelming as Spring gets started.

You may think it’s odd of me to include pool maintenance as the kickoff point for our springtime garden chores, but as I see it, there’s a wonderful, karmic balance in it:  This is the home Judy and I have shared for 28 of our nearly 35 years together, it’s where our kids grew up, and it’s where we’ve put down roots to a point where it’s hard to think of being anywhere else.  But it’s also the place where I’ve worked on WaterShapes since it was first envisioned in my spa on a fateful day in the spring of 1998.

After three decades of careful attention to our surroundings, two decades of thinking about water in built environments and moving into another wonderful spring of 2017, we’ve reached a point, Judy and I, where this is all such a matter of routine that we’re relaxing a bit and are spending more time being deliberate about enjoying both our common labors and our shared harvests.

Yep, it’s a great time of year – and not a bad time of life, either.

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Adding Up

By Jim McCloskey

It was entirely coincidental, but the last edition of the WaterShapes digital newsletter included two of the most popular of all articles ever to appear on our Web site:  Tommy T. Cook’s “Casting Nature,” which originally appeared in the printed magazine in November 2010; and Scott Cohen’s “Beware of Exploding Lava Rocks,” which was published exclusively through the newsletter on March 16, 2011.

It’s easy to recall how popular Cook’s article was when we first published it:  He described the process of making concrete castings of huge Gunnera leaves to make fountain bowls and spillways, and for several weeks thereafter, it seemed like all I did was answer questions about where the leaves could be obtained and whether I knew if the elephantine plants could be grown in one specific region or another.

The article was translated to digital form in April 2013 (click here), and in the four years leading up to this date, it has been opened a phenomenal 28,950 times.

We published Cook’s article as part of our effort to bring the world of decorative concrete to the attention of WaterShapes readers – a campaign that included coverage, among other things, of the utterly amazing projects of Fu-Tung Cheng.  When we went all-digital in 2011, we carried on with this program with the assistance of our friends at Concrete Décor magazine, and I’m not quite certain why it’s not still part of what we do.

I also recall the quick, strong response to Scott Cohen’s article:  It appeared at a time when the beds of lots of fire features were jumping like popcorn through ill-advised use of certain types of lava rock.  What I heard then were plentiful corroborating stories – and tales of serious accidents narrowly averted.

This article (click here), which later appeared in the book, The Candid Contractor:  Lessons Learned from the Construction Defect Expert Witness Files of Scott Cohen, was a web-exclusive piece we uploaded on March 16, 2011.  In the six or so years since, has been read 17,488 times.

These two articles are joined in the all-time top ten by “How to Make Durable Pool Plaster” (by Kim Skinner), “Vanishing Edge Pools:  Problems and Solutions” (another item from Scott Cohen’s “Lessons Learned” web series) and “On Grounding and Bonding” (by Paolo Benedetti).

I have noticed the popularity of these articles and others, of course, and have used them to guide or inspire additional topic coverage through the years – although I have to say that Tommy T. Cook’s article is so singular that it didn’t leave me much leeway in finding similar subjects to cover.  It’s all about a specific form of art and artisanship, and I have long suspected that a large portion of its following comes from beyond the ranks of professionals who are the primary readers and users of

The same can be said for several of the other top-ten features:  While professional watershapers are certainly opening them, the subjects make me think they are also of interest to curious consumers who are collecting information and setting expectations for their experience of watershaping – although a text on grounding and bonding may be carrying this point a few steps too far!

As I see it, this is all the wonder of the Web.  By making WaterShapes wide open to search engines and at this point attracting upwards of 40,000 unique visits each month, we’ve created an environment where “civilian” readers, ranging far beyond the professionals we count as the core of our marketplace, have found a resource they can use in formulating their personal approach to – and preferences within – the realm of watershaping.

That’s cool, I think – not only for what it says about the diversity of, but also for the multi-layered industry it serves.

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Pee’s in the Air

By Jim McCloskey

All of a sudden three weeks ago, the Internet caught fire with what seems to be its annual round of stories about urine in swimming pools.  As best I can tell, the story’s current incarnation began with a March 1 report on the Web site of National Public Radio about research conducted by a group of Canadian chemists:  These folks figured out that they could calculate the approximate volume of pee in a given pool by testing for the presence of an artificial sweetener carried in most urine.

In other words, what started as an interesting innovation in detection – the act of noodling out a way to use the presence of one thing to size up the presence of another, entirely unrelated thing that has proved difficult to measure – set the Web ablaze for days.  Before long, the more lurid points of the NPR report had sparked dozens and dozens of stories on radio, in print and on the web about how awful pool water must be.  I mean, holy crud!  Everyone’s swimming through seas of human waste!

I haven’t witnessed much by way of sober responses to this crush of information, so let me take a whack at it here.

First of all – and with an immediate stipulation that it is absolutely off our culture’s list of favorite quaffable liquids – there’s nothing all that terrible about urine.  So while I’ll be quick to mention that I’ve never tried it, there are those who claim that, taken internally, it’s a curative for all sorts of maladies, from odd skin conditions to certain issues with a range of internal organs.  Drink it, proponents say:  It’s good for you!

Second, while the chemists’ detection concept is interesting and might even be useful, it’s not a precision instrument.  The sweetener is an insoluble stand-in for urine and the study assumes a lot about how much of that sweetener is actually consumed and excreted by pool users.  So far as I can tell, those who developed the assessment don’t seem to be making claims any sharper than is allowed by a broad percentage of error.

Third, the volumes we’re dealing with serve to reduce the apparent ickiness.  After all, 20 gallons of urine in a 220,000 gallon pool, which is one result the chemists produced in a specific Canadian facility, represents a hugely diluted urine content.  (By my calculation, that works out to 0.0090 percent.)

On March 7, the National Swimming Pool Foundation hit the four-alarm blaze with fire extinguishers, offering a run of recommendations for “improving water and air quality by reducing urine in pools.”  The press release went on to recommend regular bathroom breaks, signage and a range of other measures aimed at convincing pool users that peeing in a pool is gross.  (Amen to that, I say.)

Let’s step back for a moment and consider how upsetting it is when a small piece of information – one that strikes close to home – hits the Internet and catches fire the way this one did.  As NSPF sanely put it, despite the fact that “one report suggests we should fear urine in the pool, people of all ages should continue to enjoy the wonder of water.  Immersion and water activity can reduce lower-back pain, blood pressure, and arthritis symptoms, and improve mental and physical health.  Recent science has shown that even the sight of water can improve one’s mood.”  (Amen to all that, too.)

Truth is, we’ve all survived our experiences of public, commercial and residential pools despite the plentiful presence of urine.  Truth is, we’ve all been told since childhood that it’s not a good idea to drink pool water.  Truth is, urea can combine with chlorine in ineffectively treated pools to form disinfection byproducts that are truly nasty.  Truth is – and despite that last point – of all the environmental pollutants we encounter in our lifetimes, urine isn’t even on the radar.

One final truth:  This was a minor, science-geek story blown out of proportion, probably because it let lots of thrill-seeking editors (present company excepted, of course) use the vaguely scandalous word “pee” in their headlines.

We’ve known forever that chemical agents in pool water react with chlorine to form chloramines and other undesirable compounds and have designed the water-treatment and air-handling systems of our aquatic facilities to minimize exposure to these substances.  Pee may be yucky, but well-maintained swimming pools are effectively safe in spite of our apparently ungovernable bladders.

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A Better Plan?

By Jim McCloskey

During last summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the swimming pools attracted an amazing amount of attention.  Unfortunately, it was only partly because of the outstanding in-pool performances offered up by swimmers, water-polo teams and divers – a feast of excellence that will live long in memory and the record books.

No, from my perspective in the watershaping business, the Rio Games pools will be immortal because of all the odd things that went wrong with the pools, from the prolonged green-water episode in the diving pool (and the weird amount of fumbling that transpired before a solution was found) and on to allegations that the hydraulic systems in the competition pool were set up in a way that made some lanes predictably faster or slower than they should have been.  (And water quality on the murky side was an issue in this pool, too.)

Lost in all of this was the fact that the pools in Rio’s main aquatics center were an innovation in design, engineering and construction – a set of modules that were to last through the Olympics before being moved and reassembled for permanent use in other locations.  But recent news reports indicate that they haven’t moved at all and have already deteriorated to a point where it’s unlikely they ever will.

A lot of this mess had to do with the way Brazil prepared for the Games and complex issues of government support and resource commitment.  The facility was striking – a bold architectural statement in line with past Olympic aquatic centers – but it was clear (or, in the case of the water, unclear) from the start that things had been rushed.

That in mind, I offer a modest proposal:  Before any future Olympic Games, the pools should be completed and ready for use in hosting the prior year’s world championships.  That way, any deficiencies will be known and the best possible remedies can be developed in the months leading up to the main event.

With Los Angeles throwing its hat into the ring to host the Olympics for the third time, it’s nice to know that the infrastructure already exists here to host successful events.  There are other contenders for that honor, of course, but whether it’s my hometown or Paris or Rome or some other place I’d like to visit, I hope each prospective host has learned the lessons of Rio de Janeiro and recognizes that putting up swimming pools isn’t the same as building a soccer pitch or basketball court.

Aquatic installations take time, and the participating athletes deserve better than what they encountered in Rio.


The amount of rain that has fallen on California so far this season has been beyond incredible.  To see reservoirs that were down to dangerously depleted levels now brimming over with precious water is a welcome sight, although our experience with the Oroville Dam amply demonstrates that it’s possible for there to be too much of a good thing.

Last fall, I was all set to install a 1,000-gallon cistern to collect water from our downspouts and a much-used outdoor shower for storage and reuse with our trees and garden plants.  I may still do it, but I have to say the sense of urgency has faded with my awareness that what we’ve experienced in the past couple months would have overtopped the tank after a few minutes.

But no matter:  While Mother Nature is indeed bounteous, I think we ask her to do too much on her own.  There’s some digging in my future after all!

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Trend Tracking

By Jim McCloskey

It’s not all that often that I use WaterShapes World to discuss a specific item appearing in our current newsletter, but this time I can’t resist:  The first in a series of three great articles appears in this edition, and I want to call as much attention to it as I can.

In my last blog (click here), I wrote about the important lessons water-oriented professionals have learned through coping with the drought that has plagued California for the past six years.  I noted that this is a phenomenon that periodically afflicts other parts of the country as well and suggested that watershapers everywhere would be well advised to become water wise.

Then along comes this set of articles to add practical, tangible, sensible depth to my opinions.  Written by fountain specialist Robert Mikula, the series is about sustainability on a level that reflects just how far the thinking about energy efficiency and cost control has come in the years since the LEED program became so large a part of the commercial construction universe.

For years now, products, approaches and philosophies borne of LEED compliance have been filtering over into the residential marketplace as well:  Widespread deployment of variable-frequency-drive pumps, high-efficiency heaters, LED lights and smart controls all demonstrate the fact that energy conservation is not being overlooked by watershapers on any level.

What I’d like to add here is that the same sort of attention is being paid to the ways chemicals are being used and, as Mikula will define in his second and third articles, to developing best practices when it comes to setting systems up with water conservation, flexible site programming and energy efficiency in mind.

On the commercial side, movement in these thoughtful directions doubtless tracks itself back a good number of years, starting with the energy crisis of the 1970s, the health-consciousness trends of the 1980s and ’90s, and the many drought episodes that have plagued the watershaping industry periodically through so many of the intervening years.   There’s still a lot of retrograde thinking out there, but it boils down to this:  It’s never wise to think that saving a client’s money, whether it has to do with water, chemicals or energy, is a bad idea.

This is the context into which Mikula’s three-part series, called “Sustainable Trends,” is emerging – and I don’t think the timing could be much better.

The first of the articles, “Water’s Place” (click here), is all about the reasons why water is so important, undeniable and precious a part of our lives.  Mikula starts with Wallace J. Nichols’ amazing book, Blue Mind, and defines the specific role watershapes play on the grandest psychological and sociological levels.

What Mikula perceives – and addresses so eloquently – goes beyond Nichols once he begins discussing what he knows from his everyday work at Crystal Fountains:  that it doesn’t take much to derail a watershape project these days and that their beneficial and desirable inclusion in built environments is made more difficult by water shortages (perceived or otherwise), a lack of purposeful design and cavalier consideration of energy consumption.  I’d add a fourth factor, that is, an emerging sense that chemical treatment of water is a questionable if not a bad thing.

This punishing gauntlet of factors is something that almost all commercial watershapes must pass through, and both Mikula and I would argue that the same rules are increasingly governing what happens on the residential side.  He approaches the energy and water issues with great passion in future installments, defining pathways to system development that make it easier for the fountains he develops to be included in large-scale civic projects where water and energy use are huge considerations – and sources of easy objections.

More and more homeowners are concerned about the same issues as their civic and commercial counterparts.  Fears of ongoing running costs, the appearance of overconsumption (or of water wastefulness) and perceptions of chemical hazards can create a brutal working environment, but I believe that Mikula’s suggestions, carried in the second and third parts of his article (to be published March 22 and April 19, respectively), offer a way of thinking and talking about sustainability that truly makes sense and might help put the “fearful” at ease.

See for yourself:  It’s powerful stuff, and I’m proud to be part of spreading the word.

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