I just finished reading two new books about water. Charles Fishman's The Big Thirst
(Free Press) came out in April, followed just 2 months later by The Ripple Effect
(Scribner) by Alex Prud'homme. Both authors are journalists from the Northeast who already have NY Times best-selling titles under their belts. And, both books tackle issues surrounding fresh water availability, management, and value as we move into the future. I read them back to back in reverse order of their release dates and enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to spend some time reviewing them here.
The Ripple Effect focuses on water quality and management practices in the United States, giving particular emphasis to drought, flooding, and the causes and consequences of each of these potentially devastating forces as they become more prevalent in our changing environmental climate. Prud'homme shares stories, mostly gleaned from his own reporting, that open our eyes the long-term effects of the industrial revolution on our water systems, beginning with the largest oil spill in the United States prior to the Deepwater Horizon explosion (Surprise, New Yorkers...It's under Brooklyn!), remind us that it's not only industry but also agriculture that pollutes our drinking water, expose how essential and more-often-than-not neglected our water infrastructure has become in this country, raise awareness about how much water Americans use (and waste) especially in the arid West, and foretell how unprepared we are for potential disasters on both the too dry and too wet ends of the water spectrum.
Mid-way through the book, Prud'homme succinctly discusses the intricacies of US water law, "In its water laws, the United States has long existed as two separate nations...Most Eastern states employ riparian ('along the bank of a river') water rights, based on British common law, while many Western states rely on the right to prior appropriation, based on Spanish precedent, with its roots in Latin law." By breaking these complex legal systems into basic principles, he helps us make sense of the conflicts that often spring from the inadequacies and inequalities of our nation's disjointed water policy.
The book weaves facts and figures into narrative passages, creating a scientific and broad-scale backdrop for the detail of specific instances. Did you know that:
"Between 2005 and 2009, there were 132 dam failures across the United States, and...from 1998 to 2008, the number of dams considered 'deficient' - meaning they are susceptible to collapse - rose 137 percent, from 1,818 to 4,308."
"The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for identifying flood hazards, estimates that levees protect 55 percent of the American population, or about 156 million people...In a 2007 inventory of the levees that it oversees, the Corps found that 177 of them - about 9 percent of federally inspected levees - were 'expected to fail'; 122 of the levees were at risk of 'catastrophic failure.'"
These are just two statistics out of many that Prud'homme uses to exemplify how our aging water infrastructure is in desperate need of repair. Between pollution, water mining, failing ecological and man-made water systems, threats of privatization and the bottled water scam, things look pretty grim by page 338. That's when the author gently shifts his focus to potential solutions. The last few pages begin to look hesitantly toward positive technological contributions from industry such as Intel's water recycling facilities and acknowledge slow changes in societal attitudes about the value of water leading to increased conservation efforts. In the end, the book is really an outline of our water problems and a warning for those who care to listen. It is at once captivating and maddening - as both a water enthusiast and a concerned citizen, I couldn't put it down.
The Big Thirst takes a more positive approach. Perhaps Fishman's background in business journalism provides a faith in economic drivers that Prud'homme lacks. Or, maybe he just prefers to see the world through rose colored glasses. Either way, his analysis, which takes a more international focus with substantial sections on Australia and India in addition to his discussion on domestic water issues, is filled with examples of innovation and hope for a vibrant world water future. It provides a great balance for The Ripple Effect.
After laying out the pressures of population growth, climate change and economic development on water supplies in the first few pages of his book, Fishman immediately turns the conversation from such discouraging information to these two points: "The first is, water can be cleaned, always...The second point is, you can't use up water." He goes on to say that "Water's indestructibility, its reusability, will be vital as we confront an era where water scarcity becomes more common. Water itself isn't becoming more scarce, it's simply disappearing from the places where people have become accustomed to finding it...and reappearing somewhere else."
Fishman then spends quite a bit of ink discussing the chemistry of H2O, explaining how its physical properties are the cooking catalyst for microwave ovens, how every modern electronic device is dependent on ultra-pure water for its creation, how ubiquitous and integral this substance is to nearly every aspect of life. When he begins to talk about the politics of water in the arid west, it is with hope where Prud'homme's tone suggests disdain. Take these two passages about water use in Las Vegas:
Prud'homme (p.165): "...Las Vegas continues to use more water per day than many other cities with tenuous drinking supplies. According to the SNWA, Las Vegans used about 254 gallons of water per capita per day (gpcd) in 2009. Mulroy* has set a goal of 199 gpcd by 2035. But other cities have already done much better: Long Beach uses 105 gpcd; San Diego, 150 gpcd; and Albuquerque, 175 gpcd."
Fishman (p. 58): "Las Vegas is a very different place than it was when she* reluctantly took over as the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water Authority (LVVWA) in September 1989. That year, Las Vegas residents used 348 gallons of water per person, each day. Twenty years later, in 2009, Las Vegas residents used just 240 gallons per person, per day. Under Mulroy, per capita water use in the desert metropolis has dropped 31 percent."
* Pat Mulroy, the general Manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA)
This is the same exact fact, framed in such different contexts as to inspire scorn for Sin City or build anticipation for its coming redemption. The big picture is this - we've come a long way and we've still got a long road ahead. We should celebrate our successes while continuing to problem solve and educate about limiting our water use all over the United States and in most parts of the developed world.
Fishman's book doesn't shy away from the problems at hand, but it continually focuses on solutions, giving real-life examples of ways that individuals, businesses, communities and governments are working to recycle, conserve, and restore water resources. In his hundred page discussion of Australia's water crisis, known as the "Big Dry," Fishman asks that we learn from the difficulties and innovation on this drought-stricken island, one of the first countries to feel the dramatic effects of climate change. He also warns that without attention, our plumbing could end up as India's, where most households have water service only 1-2 hours every other day and many people have to walk some distance to fetch pails of water for their daily needs. It was as recent as 1950 when most major Indian cities had 24/7 water service. Some areas had such consistent access through the 1970's and 80's, but neglected infrastructure is quick to break down and slow and costly to repair. Even in India, where sewage and fresh water pipes commonly mix, where the people who have resources install pumps and cisterns to suck up and retain as much water as possible during the short bursts when it's available, where young girls and women go uneducated because they must spend so much time gathering water for simple household needs, there are people and programs that have sprung up to make a difference. If communities in India can turn their situation around, we in the US should also be able to find sustainable solutions to our water woes.
This will, first and foremost, be predicated on a change in attitude. We need to stop thinking that bottled water is cleaner than tap water, that we have an infinite fresh water supply, that we can use drinking water to grow our lawns, or that we can put greed before conservation and still live in health. The Big Thirst is a call to action, a nudge toward a mass mind-flip that will wake us up to a new water future. I'll drink to that (right from my tap)!