On August 27th, my fiancé and I concluded a month-long residency in Austria. By the time our plane left Germany, New York's airports had already been closed as Hurricane Irene was scheduled to wreak havoc on the east coast. Our flight was surpisingly turbulence-free and we arrived home without incident. In our jet-lagged exhaustion, we fell asleep at 9pm and awoke the next day to a powerless, flooded Lambertville. Still in tourist mode, we put on some rain gear, grabbed a camera and headed outside to assess the landscape.
A boat broke through a concrete barrier as Swan Creek rose over Union Street just a block away from our house.
Our neighbor's yard had become a lake.
Firemen and anyone with a generator pumped water out of flooded basements. This went on for several days.
In the center of town we bumped into some friends. One of them said to me in all seriousness, "Are you happy now? Isn't this what you wanted?" I was flabbergasted. Did he think that because I make art about rivers, I would celebrate the Delaware's destructive force as it deluged communities, hurt local businesses, and displaced people from their homes? It has taken me months to digest what at first felt like an attack and gross misunderstanding of my work, revealing it instead as an insightful commentary on the impact of the situation.
In a way, Hurricane Irene and its ensuing flood did exactly what I hope my work will do - it brought the river into the public consciousness. In fact, because of its immediacy and devastation, the flood was much more effective than my work will ever be. I've never seen so many people present at a town meeting as I did at the September 12th special session of Mayor and Council when United Water discussed their storm-related dam operations. People were quick to point fingers and asked for guarantees against future storm damages as FEMA assistance applications were passed around the room. There was discussion about creek bed maintenance, storm drain capacity, upstream development and the increased area of impervious surfaces. The word "watershed" was uttered often. It seemed to me that this event might spur the energy to bring about change in how we manage development and think about our connection to each other and the natural world.
Last week I donated one of my sculptures (Delaware River Anatomy
, 2008) to the Nurture Nature Center
(NNC) in Easton, PA. Their work addresses the conflict between economic development and environmental conservation, with a primary focus on flooding through their public education initiative, Flood Project
. After experiencing how the flood in my community galvanized water awareness, it became clear that my work could not have a more appropriate home. I'd like to thank my good friend Martin Suresh for helping me realize the similarities between my artistic goals and the Hurricane's more positive aftermath and for indirectly connecting me with the NNC. Long live the marriage of art and activism!
One of the most sobering realities of growing up is recognizing that some of the tough-to-swallow lessons that your parents tried to teach you are actually true. Whenever I asked my father about an injustice I'd noticed or wondered why something simple had become so convoluted through the filter of politics, he always had the same response: "Follow the money trail."
I was recently reminded of my father's succinct explanation to my difficult questions while watching Chinatown
, a classic film noir from 1974 starring a very young Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.
Don't let this photo fool you - the film is not a romance. It's a detective story that starts with the investigation of a domestic affair and ends up uncovering a huge public water scandal. Robert Towne loosely based his screenplay on the real LA water wars at the turn of the 20th century, when the "San Ferdinando Syndicate," a group of wealthy businessmen (including Harrison Otis, publisher of the LA Times
, Fred Eaton, the mayor of LA who created the LA Dep't of Water and Power, and William Mulholland, superintendent and chief engineer of Water and Power), bought up water rights in the Owens Valley and built an aqueduct to funnel the water 238 miles to Los Angeles via the San Ferdinando Valley. Farmers and ranchers in the Owens Valley were left high and dry, literally, as their rivers and Owens Lake were drained completely within just a couple of decades. In the meantime, the businessmen sold their stakes in both the Owens and the San Ferdinando Valleys to the city for an extraordinary profit.
The film is quite captivating, and watching it I wondered why there haven't been more dramatizations of US water conflicts. It's not like we're lacking fodder - I've seen some great documentaries about the bottled water scam, water privatization
, and most recently (and locally) hydraulic fracturing
or "fracking." I'd love to see a creative film based on the natural gas industry's manipulation of public opinion through the media, exploitation of rural families, and financial collaboration with politicians as it leaches toxins into our drinking water, devalues properties, and sneaks through loopholes in public health and safety regulations. There would be great opportunities for special effects - imagine the explosion as a whole community lights its tapwater on fire. The antagonists could be based on characters right here in New Jersey. Take our Governor, Chris Christie for instance. He recently vetoed a bill to permanently ban natural-gas drilling in New Jersey, a state that has nothing to gain financially from fracking since it has no significant shale deposits and everything to lose as the Delaware River sources drinking water to 3 million of its residents. I just learned today that Christie has an investment in Ecosphere Technologies, a company that treats fracking fluid for natural gas drillers. He apparently earned over $28,000 last year from his stock in the company. No wonder he vetoed the ban. All I can think of are my father's words, "Follow the money trail."
So if the world has gone on this way for what seems like forever, with greed outsmarting or overpowering or outbidding goodwill time and again, then why do I keep wanting to fight the greedy? Is it some rebellious vestige of my youth that still wants to prove my father wrong, or a naive hope that someday things will change, or a denial strategy that helps me survive in the face of overwhelming obstacles? Regardless of motivation, I implore you to join me. Indeed, we might end up like Jack Nicholson at the end of Chinatown (you'll have to watch the movie to see what I mean) or we might actually get out of this mess together.
Here are some articles about fracking and links to how you can get involved in the fight against it:http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/us/DRILLING_DOWN_SERIES.htmlhttp://www.facebook.com/OccupyDRBChttp://www.delawareriverkeeper.org/act-now/urgent-details.aspx?Id=93
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)!