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Book Review: The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, By Charles Fishman, Published in 2011 by Free Press, New York NY, ISBN 978-1-4391-0207-7

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Resorting only minimally to the standard statistics of water scarcity in various regions around the world, Mr. Fishman dives in to several specific case studies intended to help the reader understand the reasons for such scarcity. These cases are, in essence, our own fault, the sum total of decisions and actions (and apathy and inaction) over time to bring communities and river systems to their current state of abundance or scarcity. Of course, climate changes are at issue, in at least two of the cases examined here, but Mr. Fishman points out that Australia was already the driest continent before the "Big Dry" set in, draining much of the Murray-Darling Basin’s remaining resources.

But I get ahead of myself here. The essentials of Mr. Fishman’s work are boiled down in his final chapter from a series of case studies examined in depth along the way, with key lessons finally brought out into the open:

"This hasn’t been a book about how cities can more smartly manage municipal water systems or how farmers can improve their irrigation efficiency. This book isn’t a polemic on behalf of urgent water activism, or a sober warning about the future of water supplies. It is not a book about California’s collapsing water system, or how to rescue our crumbling water infrastructure, or the issues around water pollution. There are already many invaluable books about all those topics."

Indeed, I’ve read some of those, and the most common problem is that they don’t often focus on any single one of the principal issues in order to bring about discussion, progressive action and successful conclusions. So many "water books," of which there is presently a glut on the market, attempt to address the vast scope of the problems and opportunities at hand, and by embracing such a wide scope thus fail to advance the discussion on any of the particular problems that, if addressed in turn, could very well be brought to satisfactory coverage.

Again, however, Mr. Fishman’s skill at investigatory depth proves useful in dispelling several myths and misconceptions propagated by the more shallow surveys of worldwide water problems. That, in itself, is one of the misconceptions the author seeks to shatter here: water problems are local, and water governance extends to regional scales, but in no way do the actual water problems of one continent directly affect the behavior of people on another.

If we in the United States reduce our water consumption by tens of gallons per day – take shorter showers, turn off the faucet while brushing our teeth, etc. – that will not alleviate the water needs of those without clean water in Africa or India or Australia. Each of these peoples has their own unique problems, be those contaminated wells and streams in Africa, the municipal sewage drains along vast and storied rivers in India, or the municipal and agricultural needs of communities from southern Australia to the southern U.S. in an era of sharply drier climate.

But while Mr. Fishman finally brings to full light some of the lessons of his narrative in the final chapter, the support for these conclusions lies scattered throughout the foregoing chapters at a depth of research not common to the more survey-like books of this growing genre. In essence, Mr. Fishman endeavors to tell stories about the people in the water business, the leaders and managers and consumers who are affected by the drought and flood events that make the news, if they make their way to the public at all.

We are treated to an extended examination of water management in Las Vegas, where almost nothing is what it seems to the untrained eye, where showerheads and toilets in a new hotel are just as hotly debated and carefully engineered as the fountain displays in front of many major casinos on The Strip. The author’s narrative is enlivened with personal anecdotes from Ms. Patricia Mulroy, the Director of the Southern Nevada Water Association and one of the most powerful and influential people in water management in the western U.S., if not the entire country.

Ms. Mulroy and her agency, addressing with perseverance the entirety of water supply and use in the Las Vegas metropolitan region, are primarily vilified and sometimes celebrated in the press. With Mr. Fishman’s research and his re-telling of the story of the last twenty years of water use reformation in southern Nevada, it is entirely probable that celebration is more in order.

In counterpoint, Mr. Fishman tells some of the basic story of water issues in Atlanta, Georgia, where ignorance, apathy and an obstinate legislature seem to have pushed off any progress over the same span of time that Las Vegas has found its stride. Atlanta has seemingly tried everything except behavioral changes in the quest for better water management, to include barely-perceptible legislative action toward court-mandated deadlines, the gathering of fractious task forces and "expert" reports devoid of substantive guidance, the outright dismissal of perfectly legal threats from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which operates Lake Lanier, the city’s primary source of drinking water), and bullying its neighbors both upstream and downstream.

In order to capture some of the abundant flows of the Tennessee River just north of the GA-TN border, Georgia has staked a claim that oversteps its existing state boundaries. In order to keep more of the water near the top of the Chattahoochee watershed (and in Lake Lanier) where Atlanta has sprawled, Georgia has rejected insistent environmental and ecological claims from both Alabama and Florida, its downstream riparians along the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola River system.

At the very least, representatives from Atlanta and Georgia had the wherewithal to solicit a luminary in the world of water-sharing and long-term conservation planning, none other than Ms. Mulroy of Las Vegas. It is still yet to be seen if Atlanta has taken her advice to heart or to task, but the long-term sustainability of the Atlanta-based economy in the southeastern U.S. hangs in that balance.

Mr. Fishman places significant emphasis on the stories to be told in two other parts of the world, one to which Americans should relate easily, and another that remains foreign to our modern (and post-modern) sensibilities. We in the "developed world" are at the end of a hundred-year "golden age" of water, as Mr. Fishman points out.

This age was ushered in around the beginning of the 20th Century with improved filtration of drinking water supplies and innovations in sanitation. Infrastructure projects burgeoned through the century, oriented on perceptions of natural water abundance and the adequacy of existing methods for municipal filtration, disinfection, distribution and collection. At that time, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and humanity in developed regions took full advantage of the benefits provided by fossil-fueled engines and the mechanics of pump technology.

This swing was to last only a short time compared the history of human civilization, however, as issues arose individually over time in ways that were seemingly well-addressed on local and individual bases. Where drought set on at various times, as on the High Plains of the U.S. and in California’s Central Valley, groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation gave way to groundwater mining for all purposes, from municipal development to commercial innovation to the simplest use of all: bottled water, priced at nearly 1000x the cost of the same volume of water from our own kitchen taps.

But I’ll come back to the ideas of "value," "price" and "cost" in a moment. These are not the focal points of Mr. Fishman’s narrative; he is instead focused on something far more transparent in our time:

 

"…[T]his book has tried to be about just one theme: our relationship to water.

"Our water problems are real. Our approach to water must change, and we’ll be happier if we realize that, and handle the change with creativity and forethought rather than confront it as a crisis. It’s water we’re talking about, so there will be no avoiding the change. What we can choose is the time and the approach and the level of panic.

"This book is an effort to rescue water not so much from ignorance as from being ignored."

In the meantime, we are led through a discussion of rice farming in the Murray-Darling Basin of southeastern Australia, where water markets of a sort have taken a genuine hold on the economics of water distribution in a time of extreme scarcity. The decades-long drought that has seized southern Australia may in part be attributed to climate change, but the farmers there have done their part as well to induce a water emergency in the region.

On the other hand, it is difficult to argue with some of the facts: when one farmer grows enough rice in one season to feed 100,000 people, and has paid for the right to do so with investments in machinery, labor, land, and water rights, is that not a worthy endeavor? When it comes down to it, questions remain regarding the location of agricultural efforts, but few question the results when fresh produce and meat are consistently available at the neighborhood supermarket. This remains a fundamental perception of our most basic needs whether in the capital region of Australia, the Imperial Valley of California, or the northern plains of India.

Sometimes the question is whether this farmer or that casino-builder or another industrialist can do a particular thing with the water they have acquired, and sometimes the questions is whether they should do that thing. The principle of "reasonable use" is often as much at issue as "responsible use" here.

Water, both the substance and the infrastructure to supply it, becomes almost invisible over the long term, as long as there is enough of it in consistent supply to support our higher needs. When that is not possible, the cry of "crisis!" is heard. In India, where only a single major city in the largest 35 metropolitan regions of the country receives 24×7 water service, and where so much of municipal waste is simply shunted into the nearest river, the crisis is so overwhelming that the people and the service providers have become simply resigned to such conditions as a way of life.

As Mr. Fishman tells in an impressive vignette, one of the Indian space agency scientists that worked on an ISRO satellite, the very space probe carrying NASA instruments that discovered water on the Moon, comes home every day to a fairly upscale suburb of Delhi that receives little more than 90 minutes of running water per day. The slums on the edges of so many cities in India, not to mention numerous other countries, are not officially "recognized" as part of the municipality and therefore receive no such piped service.

It is in these areas that women and girls wait for the daily water truck that is a municipal "concession" to each slum division, at the cost to the family of lost wages and productivity, not to mention education and dignity. The story is, of course, only worse in so many areas of South Asia and Africa with no such trucked water service.

In Perth, Australia, as in a growing number of cities in the U.S., the "purple pipe" carrying recycled (non-potable) water has become ubiquitous. There is a growing movement in the water service industry toward "one water" in consideration of sources, that is, that basically any water can be cleaned to any arbitrary level of quality for any desired use. In plain terms, we could come back to one of the basic questions of American suburbia: why do we water our lawns with the same supply that is used to drink from the kitchen tap, cook our food, and flush our toilets?

In parts of the U.S. this is known as the push for "graywater," or the reuse of relatively benign discarded water (as from, say, the kitchen sink and the dishwasher) for a secondary purpose within the home (say, flushing the toilet or watering the garden) before discharge into the sewer system. In other areas, the municipal infrastructure is developed in such a way that treated wastewater is returned to the community for such needs as outdoor watering, as on a golf course or city park. The recycled water is not necessarily safe to drink, but it has been cleansed of most of its impurities and still serves its purpose in the park after it has already seen to another, higher need.

In Las Vegas, almost every drop of municipal water is used twice before its return to Lake Mead. Instead of treating 100% of the city’s water to drinking standards, a good portion (about 40%) going through recycling is treated to lower standards for outdoor use only, saving the city a great deal of money and energy for chemical treatment and pumping. The two systems do not intersect except at the wastewater treatment plant, so there is no danger of cross-contamination of the drinking water supply. That is the essential secret at the core of Las Vegas’ continued existence; without recycled water in the system, the city would have foundered under the weight of its own growth a decade ago.

In the developed world, water is considered "abundant, cheap and safe" and, unless found otherwise, is essentially ignored or shunted to the background of our increasingly urbanized and technological consciousness. Water as a substance is not becoming more scarce around the world, but is becoming more difficult to find in quantities to which we have become accustomed over the past hundred years in the places where we have come to depend on that supply.

Population and economic development, along with climate change, are moving us into a new era of water beyond the "golden age" in which conservation is key, and "the right water for the right use" is becoming a mantra of those looking ahead. One outcome of our golden age of developed water is a lack of mechanisms for the effective treatment of water scarcity: "we don’t have a good language for talking about water, we don’t have a politics of water, or an economics of water." "Politics, economics, and language are the tools we use to manage conflict and scarcity," as Mr. Fishman writes in the opening chapter, and he seems to speak more generally on the usage of those tools in our civilization than water itself. Indeed:

"When conflict over water arises, typically, it’s not about the water itself, but about the role the water is playing, the use it’s being put to, who gets it and who doesn’t, and what condition the water is in when all is said and done. Water is one of those unusual substances that cause people to tell each other how to behave. It is typically my way of using water that is both right and essential, and your way of using it that is inefficient and probably unnecessary."

It is in public policy that we can pinpoint some of the failures of the existing use, allocation, and governance of water in general. Those who engage in long-term planning of water supplies and use must consider growth and economics with insight, vision, and determination. Water is chronically undervalued, but the budding field of water economics already recognizes that the true cost of water has several components: first, the cost of transport and treatment; second, the cost of service to households, commerce and industry; third, the cost to add the next unit of supply; fourth, the cost of running out of water.

The distinction between the natural system and the human infrastructure must be recognized and appreciated, for that infrastructure is counted upon for its safety and reliability while occasionally demonstrating its true complexities in cost, poor resilience, and susceptibility to brittle failure under stress.

The cost of water system replacement at a sustainable pace, simply due to material deterioration on a piece-by-piece basis in most American cities, is hardly covered in the monthly rates charged to residents in the service area. The cost of advancement in system technology is hardly considered, let alone approved as rate increases, for such a heavily regulated resource and its concomitant industry-scale operations.

Above all, given the weight of water itself, crises are increasingly encountered on the local scale and addressed on regional bases, but the "water crisis" is not a global issue that can be solved with a blanket push for funding and innovation. Each crisis has its own solution. In Las Vegas, the water in the massive Fountain at the Bellagio is recycled.

Given the city’s efforts at conservation and reuse of water supplies, as well as credits for every gallon returned to Lake Mead that count toward Nevada’s portion of the Colorado River, the state has yet to take for consumption its full allocation of 300,000 acre-feet under the Compact of 1922. Ms. Mulroy and her army of water workers in southern Nevada hedge incessantly against their water emergency, a potential catastrophe, and have done so for more than twenty years now.

As Mr. Fishman writes, "they may be in trouble, but it’s not because they don’t realize how precarious their supply of water is." In his recounting of Atlanta’s woes, Mr. Fishman quotes U.S. District Court judge Paul Magnuson’s 2009 decision against the city’s use of water from Lake Lanier:

"Too often, state, local and even national government actors do not consider the long-term consequences of their decisions. Local governments allow unchecked growth because it increases tax revenue, but these same governments do not sufficiently plan for the resources such unchecked growth will require. Nor do individual citizens consider frequently enough their consumption of our scarce resources, absent a crisis such as that experienced in the [Apalachicola-Chattahoochee] basin in the last few years. The problems faced in the [Apalachicola-Chattahoochee] basin will continue to be repeated throughout this country, as the population grows and more undeveloped land is developed. Only by cooperating, planning, and conserving can we avoid the situations that gave rise to this litigation."

We all, in the "developed" U.S. and around the world, should take a lesson from these stories as we enter this less-golden age of water management and responsibility. In Mr. Fishman’s own words:

"Many civilizations have been crippled or destroyed by an inability to understand water or manage it. We have a huge advantage over the generations of people who have come before us, because we can understand water and we can use it smartly. Everything about water is about to change – except, of course, for water itself. It is our fate that hangs on how we approach water – the quality of our lives, the variety and resilience of our society, the character of our humanity. Water itself will be fine."

About the Author: Matthew Garcia has earned M.S. degrees in Atmospheric Science (1999) and Civil Engineering – Hydrology (2003) at Colorado State University. He worked for four years in the Hydrological Sciences Branch at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on several projects, served as an expert witness in trial testimony for the City of Colorado Springs, and was the Project Manager for the Arizona Hydrologic Information System (AHIS) effort of the Arizona Water Institute at the University of Arizona. Mr. Garcia is currently working as an independent Consulting Hydrologist, writing and blogging his way toward a Ph.D. program. His professional interests include problems in hydrology and water resource sciences, hydrometeorology, climate change, science in the popular media, government water policy, cold-region forests and mountains, and mapping for process understanding. He describes himself as "a rabid interdisciplinarian, always eager to learn in another topic or field related to how the water cycle works." He can be found on Twitter as @MGhydro.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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