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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Silver Linings

By Jim McCloskey

We’ve had lots of rain and snow in California in recent weeks.  So much precipitation, in fact, that nearly half the state is now officially out of the drought emergency that has bedeviled the state for the past six years.  If current weather patterns persist through the spring, chances are good that the entire region will be breathing easier for a while.

This is fantastic news for watershapers of every description who do business in the Golden State.  It’s also great for suppliers and consultants across the nation who work with the California market on any level.

Just think about it:

[  ]  For years, we’ve listened to threats, veiled or otherwise, aimed at restricting or outright banning the use of water for certain purposes, and the first of the targets typically mentioned by legislators and municipal authorities has inevitably been the backyard swimming pool.  This is despite the fact that, once full, a pool is a minimal consumer of water.

[  ]  For years, we’ve read about public fountains being turned off so towns and cities can show how seriously they’ve been taking local water shortages.  Some of these watershapes were turned off so early and have been inoperative for such extended periods that they’ve suffered internal damage and will require costly repairs to get up and running again.

[  ]  For years, we’ve heard about ponds and lakes shrinking to mere puddles and about the nasty effect the decline of these waterfeatures has had on local animal life, migrating birds, monarch butterflies – so much so that many species have been invading urban environments (including my own backyard) in the hazardous pursuit of the water they need.

It’s been grim, and when the promised El Niño wet-weather pattern didn’t materialize last year, I was among those who were expecting the worst by way of bans and other draconian restrictions moving forward.  For now, however, it seems the axes are at rest.

It’s no satisfaction to Californians that drought afflicts other parts of the country.  But those places don’t have the sort of history with drought that we have here, so it can be creepily amusing to read about the knee-jerking that takes place as they learn what we know about what it takes to cope with these hugely dynamic challenges.

Let me be among the first to say that those lessons, wherever they’ve been learned, have their value.  Watershapers should know well by now that using water with less-than-effective conservation intentions is counterproductive.  So please, let’s not lose ground here by setting aside rainwater capture, runoff management, recycling opportunities and other sound conservation principles as we move into a time when there won’t be as much pressure applied to these issues as has been the case in California for more than six years.

Please let us keep thinking about water consumption the same way we’ve long thought about energy consumption – a field of ongoing discussion and technological development that is here to stay.  Even if water becomes plentiful, in other words, the good design principles we’ve learned to apply will still be good basic practice.

Finally, let us please be grateful that the weather pattern so far in 2017 has favored California’s Sierras – and, beyond them, the Rockies of Colorado – with bountiful snowfall.  It’s sweet relief for a huge swath of the West and may lead to a broader recovery of our region’s housing and general construction markets that will certainly further the interests of the watershaping industry coast to coast.

It’s a good time to latch onto positives wherever we spot them and then act both sensibly and responsibly.  I’m holding on tight here, and I’m hoping you will, too.


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Collision Avoidance

By Jim McCloskey

In recent months, news has too often come as a shock.  I am happy to say, however, that one piece of it I received a couple weeks ago actually came as a relief.

The press release was headed “APSP & NSPF boards announce unification process ends,” and I have to say I wasn’t surprised.  As I wrote in my blog on November 16 (click here), I was “marginally disappointed that the process of merging the National Swimming Pool Foundation and the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals” wasn’t quite so far along as I had hoped it might be after six full months of conversation.

Although I was “impressed,” as I observed after the pool show in New Orleans last November, by what I saw as the emergence of a good organizational and philosophical infrastructure, I was also concerned that negotiations would get stuck on the mechanics of unification rather than on what came next – that is, on “opportunities for market growth and of ways to work together for individual prosperity and the common good,” as a previous press release on unification had declared.

I have no idea what derailed the process.  It could have been the tax issues inherent in merging a foundation with a trade association, although I would think those questions should have been asked and answered way before talks began in earnest.  Or it could have been the difficulty of reconciling the missions of an entity serving customers and an entity serving members.  Whatever it was – and I never want or need to know, believe me – I am pleased that the two groups were able to face facts and make what can only have been a difficult decision.

To quote the press release, the “APSP and NSPF Boards have decided to align their efforts, where both entities will still remain independent, but strive to enhance the collaboration and synergy between the organizations.  They will continue to seek opportunities to work collaboratively to positively impact the aquatics community.”

Sounds good to me.  Not as grand or ambitious as unification, of course, but more sensible and certainly better than open conflict.

Short term, the challenge for leaders of both groups will be to set aside the “unification experience” and, in collaborative ways, refocus attention on market growth and the success of individual businesses and people participating in their organizations.  As I wrote in November, there’s much left to accomplish on both fronts, as these are tasks and missions the industry has had trouble addressing for all 31 of the years I’ve been paying attention.

But look at it this way:  NSPF and APSP had spent several years on something of a collision course.  Let us all be relieved that they avoided that cataclysm.  Let us also hope that the close call has, within each organization, startled up a general awareness of unfinished business, opened a few long-neglected doors, and helped each organization remember why they continue to exist.  If this experience has shaken things up, in other words, both NSPF and APSP will be the better for it.

“From the beginning of this process,” declared Bruce Dunn and Jack Manilla – chairmen, respectively, of the boards of NSPF and APSP – “the goal was to create more swimmers, more swimming pools and more hot tubs that will allow users to gain from the health benefits of swimming activity, aquatic immersion, and hydrotherapy. Although the outcome is not of one unified organization, both APSP and NSPF recognize and embrace that this is the time to create accelerated change through enhanced collaborative efforts.”

Amen to that.  If NSPF and APSP actually do find pathways to collaboration, cooperation and synergy as an outcome of this whirlwind flirtation, all the better.

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Looking Ahead

By Jim McCloskey

Given the tumultuous way in which 2016 came to a close, I figured I’d kick off the New Year by being as upbeat as can be about what the future holds for watershaping.  Two news stories I’ve followed through the last couple months put me in a suitable frame of mind for this exercise.

First up was the hovering waterfall structure installed by Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson in the Gardens of Versailles:  On temporary display through the summer of 2016 and now, sadly, gone, it’s a reflection of the fact that there are many inspired, uniquely talented artists out there who see water as a fabulous and perhaps even the ideal artistic medium.  (To see it, click here.)

Eliasson’s daring use of water and brute technology entirely altered the prevailing mood of one of the world’s most familiar and renowned garden spaces – an amazing, almost otherworldly accomplishment.  But as I see it, his waterfall also capsulizes the bold progress mainstream watershapers have been making through the past 20-odd years and reinforces our desire at WaterShapes to make certain that excellence is recognized on every level of aquatic design and construction

The cool thing here is that Eliasson was influenced in his Versailles scheme by the original plan of the gardens’ architect more than 300 years ago, André Le Nôtre, who wanted to include a grand waterfeature of some kind along the axis of the Grand Canal.  This combination of historical gesture and artful audacity is just the tonic I need to think good things about the importance of watershaping’s role – and its future.

I had a somewhat more complex response to the second item on my list of optimism-bolstering projects.  In this case, it’s about a pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean in which the walls and floor have been tiled in tribute to “Starry Night,” the most celebrated of all the celebrated works of Vincent Van Gogh.

I have to say it’s more of an approximation than a literal rendering of an unsurpassed masterpiece (click here); it’s also difficult to find a view that captures the painting’s spirit this side of a helicopter ride.  But what I like – what inspires me – is that the client had the nerve to ask for it and that the tile contractor had the drive and determination needed to make it happen.

When I first saw this, my inclination was to poke around and find out who did the work – but then I decided I didn’t really want to know.  Somehow, it seemed preferable to leave it alone out there on the Internet as a hopeful symbol of artistic expression rather than as a project executed by someone lots of us may know.

It’s not what I’d call perfection, but it nonetheless reflects a level of ambition associated with watershaping that makes me happy to be alive.


Flipping optimism on its head for just a moment, I flagged an October story about the fact that being idled for long periods of time has done real damage to one noteworthy Los Angeles fountain, use of which has been severely limited due to California’s drought-related water restrictions (click here).

Specifically, the article discussed deterioration of the William Mulholland Memorial Fountain, long a cultural touchstone in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.  (I wrote about it in one of my Travelogues a couple years back – click here.)   Originally built in 1940 and fully restored in 1996, the fountain has been operational only during sharply reduced hours as a result of the region’s lingering dry spell.

It seems that some of the materials used in building the fountain have dried out and are starting to crumble as a result of too much exposure to summer heat.  The city has announced plans to repair the damage and have things back in ship-shape sometime this coming summer, which is great, but I know this isn’t an isolated story:  Lots of fountains are suffering in this same way, and there are no easy answers when it comes to keeping them from falling – literally – on hard times.




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Stocking Stuffers

By Jim McCloskey

My Christmas stocking saw its first visit from Santa a couple weeks early this year.

It arrived in the form of a press release from the National Swimming Pool Foundation with a progress report on its Step Into Swim campaign, which started in 2012 with a mission of creating a million new swimmers by 2022.

The program, which should be familiar to all watershapers by now, is for children who cannot afford the lessons required to learn the life-saving skill of swimming as well as for the children of fallen first responders and members of the military.  The numbers tell an impressive story:  In 2016 alone, the New York park system’s “Learn to Swim” program taught 11,773 children to swim throughout the state.  In Fort Worth, Texas, local efforts saw 363 individuals learn to swim just through the summer months.  These programs come big and small, statewide and local – and the job is getting done.

I’ve long been an advocate of fostering swimming skills on every level and in every age group of our society.  As I see it, this is the best and perhaps the only way to ensure that future generations will be as comfortable around water as they need to be to make them interested in making watershapes part of their lives.

NSPF focuses on pools, but I see far broader relevance and benefits:  Basic comfort around water may well be the key driver behind the markets not only for swimming pools and spas, but also for ponds, streams, waterfalls, fountains and all other conceivable forms of contained, controlled water.

As NSPF CEO Tom Lachocki said in the press release, “When we deliver water into people’s lives, we deliver more life for people.”  It’s all about the future, and Step Into Swim can use your support.  For more information, click here:  If you see the positive implications of this program, please send a donation that will enable Santa’s helpers to stuff the stockings of thousands of eager children heading into 2017 – and beyond.


You may have noticed it when, last October, we added a new wrinkle to the home page of WaterShapes.com.  Many of you spotted it right away, but I wanted to give it a big shout-out here to make certain this new feature becomes a routine part of everyone’s WaterShapes.com experience.

What I’m referring to is the “Crystal Fountains Video Showcase,” a sponsored space on the right-hand side of the home page that lets you know what’s up at Crystal Fountains, a Toronto-based design/engineering/consulting firm that has been responsible for many of the world’s most innovative and spectacular fountains and interactive waterfeatures.

Each month, they’re embedding a link to a fresh video about one of their projects.  So far, they’ve covered the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort in Orlando and Polk Bros. Park at the entrance to Chicago’s Navy Pier.  A new one will appear January 1.

The videos are brief, entertaining and do a great job of demonstrating what happens when bountiful creativity meets up with leading-edge technology.  To get to our home page, click here.  You’ll see the Crystal Fountains Video Showcase partway down the page on the right side.


To you and yours from me and mine, please accept best wishes for a safe, happy holiday season and the very best in a great New Year!

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Water’s Power

By Jim McCloskey

Designers and builders tend to think about water as a beneficial feature, an artistic medium, a resource for exercise and hydrotherapy and beauty and awe.  You all experience that water at its contained, controlled best and know exactly how much joy and delight flow when people are in or around water as part of their daily lives.

But this material, as has often been stated in articles we’ve published through the years, has a scary side we cannot overlook – and therein hangs this tale.

I spent several days in New Orleans and the on the Gulf Coast after the International Pool|Spa|Patio Expo ended on November 4.  Judy flew in from Los Angeles that evening, and my brother and his wife joined us from their home in Mississippi – good times even if all we’d have done was sit around and talk.

But we did more than that.  After spending about six hours walking around the French Quarter one day, we decided to join a driving tour and see more of the city than our feet would make possible.  This included parts of the Garden District I’d never seen before as well as a couple cemeteries that are a bit off the beaten track.

But mostly, and this should have come as no surprise to us, the tour was about Hurricane Katrina and how much the city has changed in the almost exactly 11 years since the water rose and the levees failed.

It was phenomenal.  We rolled through neighborhood after neighborhood where everything we could see had been under eight to 12 feet of water for days after the storm passed.  We saw so many places where there were gaps in the lines of homes where one had been destroyed and others rebuilt or restored around it.  We heard stories of heroism and cruelty, hope and despair – all swirling around the awesome power of water to affect lives.

It was a sobering experience, but there was more in store during our trip to my brother’s home in Pascagoula, Miss.

Leaving Louisiana, we headed toward to Gulf Coast and, driving through Pass Christian, Gulfport and Biloxi, saw the same sort of mass devastation and only partial recovery from the storm even eleven years later.  The same surge that overwhelmed New Orleans hit these coastal cities as well, wiping out most of the region’s cultural heritage, huge numbers of pre-Civil War mansions and almost every residential and commercial establishment within striking distance of the Gulf.

We saw the same thing in Pascagoula, where perhaps a third of the waterfront lots now have homes on them, none of them now in the classic Gulf Coast style.  My brother’s home came through unscathed, but think of this:  He’s on a hilltop more than 30 feet above the mean high tide line on Pascagoula’s river.  The river is more than a mile wide in front of that hill, and the storm surge was so intense that water actually lapped onto his front porch.

Think of the force of that storm; think of the countless billions of gallons of water it pushed upriver; think of the noise and horror tied up in that event, which reshaped so much of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I love water, but my mind was reeling by the time I left Mississippi behind.  And oh, before I forget:  We were there during a two-month drought that destroyed crops all through a region where rain is usually so plentiful and reliable that there are few irrigation systems in place to take care of such shortages.

I love water, but it took only a couple days to remind me that it absolutely demands our respect  – and maybe that we fear it more than a little.

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