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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Book Review: The Future of Water


The Future of Water: A Startling Look Ahead, by Steve Maxwell, with Scott Yates, Published in 2011 by the American Water Works Association, Denver Colo., ISBN 978-1-58321-809-9

Full disclosure: I answered an open e-mail solicitation for reviewers of this new book and received a review copy for free in exchange for my promise of a published review. I am not a member of, or an employee at a company affiliated with, the AWWA.


This book is not the first to treat water trends from the standpoint of a business sector, and certainly won’t be the last. In taking that perspective, this is one of the first book-length works (amid numerous warnings in news and magazine-length articles) to address in realistic and pragmatic terms the dire potential results of observed trends in water use, and abuse, in the United States. There is much rich material in these trends on which the authors have relied.

The authors are indeed keen observers of the users, uses, sources, and fates of water in the U.S. The past and the near-present are employed here, with scattered lessons from other countries and regions of the globe from which object lessons may be drawn, in an exercise in short-term forecasting by extrapolation. This is not necessarily the most valid method of forecasting, though it seems to serve the business sector well in many areas. The authors may have been well-served, however, simply to invoke the traditional fine print of investment advertisements: "past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results." The complexities of the S&P 500 market are no match, however, for those woven around and through the one of the most necessary resources (second only to air) to human health and welfare for the entire population of the country and the world.

For commodities, into which the authors cast the economics of water with this text, there exists a dynamic and fragile balance between supply and demand because the resource traded is finite in many respects. Conversion of water supplies and distribution to a marked-based trading system is one of the standard approaches to water that is emerging in several places around the world. The intent remains, as with grains and precious metals and capital in such systems, the ultimate allocation of a semi-finite resource to its most beneficial uses. In the U.S. however, we have turned the ideal doctrine of beneficial use on its metaphorical head with greater reliance on the prior appropriation doctrine of water rights in the semi-arid western states, the riparian doctrine in the more humid eastern states, the legal severance of groundwater from surface water rights, and a narrow view on the still-emergent water–energy nexus that pervades much of our business and industry at the most fundamental levels.

In the United States, and in terms of consumption volume, both agriculture and industry still dominate domestic uses in annual withdrawals of surface freshwater. All of these sectors are well-treated by the authors: examinations of past uses and present trends are skillfully presented for each sector of water use, and suggestions of emerging technologies and some more popular conservation measures are brought to the discussion in an appropriate manner. "New" sources of water are also addressed, including desalination and wastewater reclamation methodologies, with due reference to examples ranging from the Middle East to Singapore where reliance on such technologies provide a far greater portion of their water supplies than we in the U.S.

The authors place heavy emphasis on the message put forth by the recently-established Clean Water America Alliance that we need now, more than ever, to treat our raw water and wastewater and groundwater and desalination potential as "One Water." While the resources required to make each source viable and useful may vary widely, smart planning and allocation to appropriate uses might just help solve the problem and alleviate our reliance on the default and historical solution: that all water must be treated to drinking-water standards, no matter the use to which it is put. But do irrigators need raw water that is filtered and treated to drinking water standards? No, they do not, and in fact the nutrients provided in a municipal wastewater stream that has been treated to basic standards may be more beneficial for agricultural uses than raw groundwater or municipal drinking water.

On the other hand, manufacturers of microchips for computer components require ultra-pure rinse water that is filtered and treated (and often distilled) to levels far beyond municipal drinking-water standards, and so have developed on-site treatment facilities to meet their own standards of purity. They may draw "raw" water from treated municipal supplies, apply additional treatment methods at their own expense, rinse the microchips using a once-through or (increasingly) recycled water systems, treat the resulting "process water" for heavy metal contaminants, and discharge near-drinking-quality water to the municipal wastewater system.

As the authors point out, "by one calculation, the amount of water that it takes to produce $100 of alfalfa can produce $5 million worth of computer chips." Furthermore, the authors’ investigation into industrial water conservation efforts turned up many startling statistics, one of which exemplifies the whole point of their effort [emphasis preserved from the original]: "…the reduction in yearly effluent from International Paper represented nearly the same volume as all the water used by Intel in a year." While Intel and like microchip companies work toward our paperless business and society using about 8 billion gallons of water per year globally, International Paper still used 211 billion gallons of water and discharged 187 billion gallons of wastewater worldwide. Beneficial uses, turned on their heads…

While pointing out such deficiencies in the present system of water rights and allocations in agriculture and industry, the authors generally avoid discussion on the roots of present systems and trends in political history or present terms of practice. While legislation may provide one path forward in a much-needed struggle to right-size the uses and end the abuses of water allocation, it was legislation that brought about the subsidies and national support for many such wasteful practices in the first place. Again, the solution touted by the authors is a transition to market economics, with trading systems exemplified by such regions as the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia. In agriculture, such systems are shown to shift limited water supplies to more high-value crops and products.

Still, the authors address the concentration of virtual water at higher levels in the food chain, as many in the media have already. Corn and alfalfa grown in many areas require irrigation water from surface or groundwater sources, the resulting harvest is turned to feed (among other products) for chickens and pigs and cattle, and a pound of beef ends up requiring almost 2,000 gallons of water to produce and process for human consumption. The international trade in grains and livestock (meat) products adds additional complexity to an accounting of water distributions and virtual water fluxes around the world, turning grain exporters in times of plentiful irrigation source water into some of the largest food importers when drought sets in and groundwater sources run out.

Growing populations in developing countries, such as India and China, and the emergence of mid-level classes of wealth in such growing economies only amplify trends toward increased consumption of meat in developed societies. All of these considerations further compound the complexity of the international virtual water trade as we attempt to support an exploding population with uncertain methods, modes and limits of sustainability.

The recent focus by the U.S. President on national infrastructure is one example of the timeliness of this book. In this regard, the authors and their work here are well-positioned to establish a baseline for discussion of national infrastructure needs related to the provision of safe water. As quoted in the text, a 2002 report by the Congressional Budget Office estimated the still-unfunded needs for drinking water infrastructure across the U.S. at $20.1 billion and that for wastewater at $20.9 billion per year.

Part of the wastewater infrastructure needs stem from a stunning continued reliance in some of the oldest cities in the country on combined sewers, where stormwater and wastewater are mixed. In times of normal flow, the total flow is treated as wastewater and discharged safely to receiving waterways. In times of high flows, however, as during storm events in what are already some of the most humid areas of the country, excess combined flows are discharged untreated to the receiving waterway, with combined raw sewage overflows numbering in the thousands each year. Add to such municipal discharges the effects of unregulated or illegal industrial discharges and the impacts of nutrient-laden agricultural runoff, and there should be no wonder why or how our national waterways are in increasing peril from overallocation, pollution, misuse and abuse.

Finally, a subject that must not be ignored, the authors present a piecemeal approach to an emergent understanding of the "water–energy nexus" that is, in this reviewer’s opinion, only the most basic linkage in the true and more vast nexus of water-oriented components in our increasingly global and economically integrated society. The discussion ranges from the energy required to move water, on which the authors seem well versed in several examples, to the water required to generate energy, of which too many examples overload the text with information that might have been presented more easily in tables.

Many questions are presented by the authors in a section dedicated to this nexus, but few answers are given to questions over recent developments in fracking activities, desalination facilities, and the movement of water over large distances to meet consumer needs. In a brief concentrated discussion on the water–energy nexus, the authors’ best option may very well have been resorting to a quote from a 2008 article by Michael Webber in Scientific American:

"...many people are concerned about the perils of peak oil… A few are voicing concerns about peak water. But almost no one is addressing the tension between the two: water restrictions are hampering solutions for generating more energy, and energy problems, particularly rising prices, are curtailing efforts to supply more clean water… the situation should be considered a crisis, but the public has not yet grasped the urgency."

Perhaps "the public" is not the right audience, though. Perhaps the politicians at the federal and state levels, those who legislate and enact the policies that have brought about that very tension and urgency, are the audience toward which this message should be directed explicitly, and in the process of doing so those interested members of the public become educated advocates for the rights of the many. The uninterested public needs convincing that these issues are real and pressing; the interested public is already convinced, and needs only a clear education on the facts of the issues at hand. Politicians, however, often need both.

This reviewer maintains only a couple of disappointments with this new book, both of which might only have been remedied with ongoing research and a later publication by the authors, so therefore excusable and hopefully fodder for an eventual second edition of the text. First, some of the information provided by the authors is already outdated or incomplete regarding such subjects as the impacts of shale-gas fracking on groundwater resources and utility privatization. More recent news items have provided a wealth of new information on these topics, but it is understandable that there is a tradeoff between timeliness and comprehensive coverage of the selected topics in a constantly changing sector such as water. In particular, as much a campaign for privatization of water resource supply is presented here as for education of the public on the overall issues of water scarcity and allocation.

I would not go so far as to suggest that the point of this book is to convince federal, state and municipal decision-makers that handing over the operation of their water management functions to private companies—far from it, in fact, as the authors dutifully present both sides of that debate in a comprehensive manner. But while the authors present well the debate, and sometimes controversy, over privatization of water utility functions, they neglect almost entirely another contributor to the discussion: science.

My second disappointment with this book is this very subject, the dearth of scientific contribution to the discussion presented by the authors for public and regulatory consideration. Certainly, I cannot discount the mention and short discussion of climate change in a later chapter of this book, but it is presented in a manner that places it in the realm of "unknown unknowns," to borrow a phrase. Specifically,

"One of the biggest questions about future water availability, and perhaps an unanswerable question today, is just how global climate change may eventually affect the world water situation. We don’t yet fully understand the breadth and severity of the impacts of potential global warming on the hydrologic cycle, but if global warming trends continue, we are likely to face a whole new range of challenging and potentially catastrophic problems."

A few outcomes from IPCC studies are indeed given here by the authors, but it seems to them that the overall conclusions remain in doubt. Despite the wide availability of the most recent IPCC assessment and additional focused products of research in the international community, it is a low level of confidence in these results (despite convincing arguments for the Precautionary Principle that underlie these scientific investigations) that the authors evoke:

"While scientists are parsing the possible long-term effects of global warming, water policymakers and economists are just now starting to think about the potential economic and social effects."

By minimizing discussion on this aspect of the "Future of Water," which may provide a better guide to policy and decisive action than any market-based economic principles, the authors neglect a viable line of inquiry that can mesh extremely well with almost all of the other subjects surrounding water that are presented in the text. Nevertheless, the authors deserve recognition for bringing to their limited discussion one of the fundamental issues surrounding our adjustment to the present conclusions on, and future impacts of, global climate change:

"Our entire national infrastructure for water storage and flood control, water treatment and distribution, and irrigation has been based upon historical climatic and meteorological observations. We’ve built reservoirs in certain areas and of certain sizes to provide sufficient storage to water local agriculture throughout the full year, and so on. If we begin to experience changes in the weather, all that may be either moot, or may not be enough to do the job. Dams and locks that work to hold back floodwaters may now be swamped in some cases or rendered meaningless in others. Reservoirs may overflow in the early spring but be dry by late summer, and so on. These may be extreme examples, but incipient climate change may just mean that our efforts to manage and live with water will need to be much more flexible and fast-moving in the future.

"We can quibble about exactly what will happen, but this is scary stuff. The water resource managers who will look the silliest in the future are the ones who insist that the weather patterns of the past century are the best predictors of patterns over the next century. Flexibility and adaptability will be more important than ever."

Despite timid assertions by the authors regarding the potential future for water availability and allocation in the U.S., and excusing as science fiction the shocking dystopian vision of the Prologue, the authors maintain throughout the text an undercurrent of hope. There is, in the eyes of this reviewer, a plea between the lines of the text: it doesn’t need to be this way, and the future doesn’t need to arrive so bleak! If the right people, both in politics and the public, read this book and are jolted into the reality of the present situation, we can only hope that they will do something to steer the future into a better scenario.

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." His blog is Hydro-Logic and you can follow him on Twitter at @MGhydro

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

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

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