Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis

By Cynthia Barnett

Published in 2011 by Beacon Press, Boston MA

ISBN 978-0-80700-317-6

Buy this book at (hardcover) or on your Kindle

Full disclosure: I solicited via e-mail and received a copy of this book for free in exchange for my promise of a published review.

I have racked my brain, and Google Maps, over the past weeks in a search for places in America that we humans have not altered the natural cycle and purity of our invaluable water resources. It makes me sad to find so few such places, so I often take heart that my chosen vocation as a hydrologist and water resource scientist is certainly secure, if not always appreciated for the level of education and dedication that this path demands. In that regard, Ms. Barnett's new treatise on the emerging Blue Revolution is a welcome and appropriate summary of the challenges ahead of us, as both scientists and consumers amid the American landscape.

We have much to remind us of how we got here; I have reviewed on this blog several books on the history of water use and misuse, allocation and subsidy, modification of whole river basins for our own purposes, and times when nature had its way with our species. To be sure, Ms. Barnett covers some of this material quite succinctly, but her focus remains on the present, on who is doing things right or, at least, is trying to do right by nature. An appropriate sample of imaginative solutions and cautionary tales are present, but the narrative approach is noticeably different here. It is not Ms. Barnett's aim (as I perceive it) to dwell on the history in which we find so few salient, successful efforts and so many other works-in-progress, results TBD. She aims higher than a recapitulation of the usual stories from our past. As her subtitle suggests, it's the past in which this crisis was made, and the same thinking won't un-make the institutions and practices with which we've become accustomed over time.

Some outlets (e.g., The Economist and Scientific American) have addressed briefly the limited efforts at a "blue revolution" in aquaculture: coastal fisheries, like so many of our natural systems, are on the decline despite a perception of abundant renewability. In most cases, we have quite simply overestimated the natural elasticity of the resource and its systematic ability to recover from significant shocks. It's not much different in freshwater resources, for that matter, and this is the fundamental focus of Ms. Barnett's work.

The concept of a "Blue Revolution" in freshwater grew from the global spread of the "Green Revolution" in agriculture, improving crop productivity around the world in various stages from the 1960s through the 1990s. Having reached almost every country by the end of the 20th century, that revolution comes back around more quietly now, with genetic crop modifications at the root of new improvements. Recognizing the pressures of exploding national and global populations, science seeks to feed the world in ways that traditional farming and agricultural practices likely cannot. The close connection between water and agriculture is also part of Ms. Barnett's examination of present practice, in her discussion of consumptive water users and government subsidies, irrigation efficiencies and econometric approaches to supply reallocation and waste reduction. David Zetland, an author on water economics and fellow blogger that I have mentioned previously, appears in one of Ms. Barnett's several interviews with current practitioners, and has much worthwhile to say on the ways forward. The economic approach to better water allocation is just part of the solution, however.

There are few books and fewer authors, especially in non-fiction, that still elicit a visceral reaction upon reading. If you read non-fiction on a regular basis, chances are that you also read from regular news outlets on paper or on the web, and it's just possible that you are at times outraged at the seeming self-perpetuation of the status quo. You may even seek out a feel-good story of someone in power who is doing good for their constituents and right by the planet (or, failing that, give up on the news altogether for a time). This is exactly where Ms. Barnett's background in investigative reporting and her deep interest in this particular subject matter come to shine. I consider myself an analyst, an observer on some of the topics covered on this blog, but an up-and-coming activist and potential leader when it comes to the water ethic that Ms. Barnett approaches here. Sometimes, and in the future, I (will) approach it as "National Water Policy" that is sorely missing from the federal agenda on natural resource stewardship in America. I've wanted to write on that myself, but it's an exceptionally large issue around which to wrap a blog-length narrative.

There is something more fundamental, however, that has stuck unexpressed in the back of my thoughts, and that Ms. Barnett's work has helped to bring to the harsh light of reality: the problem is not a federal or even a state issue, though stronger environmental regulations certainly couldn't hurt; it is, instead a movement to be grown from the roots in order to flower in a way that takes hold in our society and does not let go of our imaginations, our daily lives, and our work for the future. I follow the news on water issues from around the world with an almost religious fervor, so I think at times that I've seen quite a lot of discouraging and depressing stuff by now. There were moments, indeed whole chapters in Blue Revolution on the "Taproot of the Crisis" (regarding agricultural water-use practices) and the "Water – Industrial Complex" (regarding industrial and commercial practices), during which I expressed directly to Ms. Barnett that the tone of her narrative reached such depressing and discouraging depths, and that any positive outcome seemed in doubt.

Such is the strength of her journalist's near-surgical skill at reaching bare-handed in to the issues to pull them apart and expose the real guts of the problem, and then to suggest how we might address it at its root. Such also is the strength of her craft and encouragement that I kept reading, all the way to the positive and intensely thought-provoking payoff. But don't get this book just to read the last couple chapters and think that you know what to do next; you would be deluding yourself, and cheating the world around you, if you did that…

In retrospect, those chapters (really, all these chapters) should be required reading in any high-school or college-level examination of American History, and especially in the environmental history of the United States. Ms. Barnett reaches into our history for the land ethic put forth by Aldo Leopold, a sound and stable (though seeming forgotten) basis on which our new water ethic might be founded.

The esteemed Mr. Leopold, who established the very academic department at which I am now working on my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, was a founding specialist on the natural ecology of a still-growing national frontier. He was, for that matter, an essential impetus for what I consider the third conservation movement in America and an author (A Sand County Almanac, among others) from whom we can draw continual and, indeed, practical inspiration. One of his sons, Luna Leopold, became a hydrologist and developed some of the fundamental standards of practice on which we still evaluate the form and health of streams, rivers and floodplains: his work with M.G. "Reds" Wolman and J.P. Miller on Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology (1964) remains a staple of the hydrologist's graduate education.

The history of what we might call the overriding American water ethic, up to this time, is skillfully outlined in Ms. Barnett's early chapter spanning the time in the American West "From Reclamation to Restoration." John Wesley Powell, with his own scientific specialties and his now-resurgent pronouncements on western water sustainability, expressed ethical and practical considerations that were roundly ignored in his own time.

Nevertheless, it is refreshing to read a narrative on water in America that chooses not to address Las Vegas as either the death or savior of American water practice within the first chapter. Actually, Ms. Barnett saves that topic for the exact midpoint of Blue Revolution, amid visits abroad to flood specialists in The Netherlands, drought specialists in Australia's own southwestern region, and water recycling specialists that have literally rebuilt Singapore from the ground up. Many of Ms. Barnett's thoughts and accounts are embedded within an overarching narrative on two distinctly American problems illustrating the history of engineering folly that has made this crisis and brought us to the point of needing a new, fundamental ethic for its solution: the aquifers and the Everglades of Florida, as part of Ms. Barnett's own backyard, and the Sacramento – San Joaquin – Central Valley project complex of central California. As strange and different as the Colorado River Basin has remained from the remainder of the U.S. in terms of water policy and practice, even greater an outlier seem the paths of past and present water management in California.

It is ultimately the final chapters of Ms. Barnett's work that lift her narrative from depressing, rage-inducing disgust at the status quo to a hopeful, forward-looking plan for the future in the establishment of a national, possibly universal, water ethic. I suppose that an author's skill at inducing such a reaction that the reader is moved to action should be considered a compliment, as I hope Ms. Barnett takes my opinions on the subject matter under her pen. Her treatment of that subject matter is skillful and concise, with no wasted effort, and she gets at the heart of the problems and our potential solutions with a keen interest.

We have, as Blue Revolution outlines, a three-fold path of intense commitment before us at all levels of decision-making, from grass-roots activists to state and federal budget-makers: (1) better protection for and restoration of our natural resources, including the essential treatment and upkeep of our natural water systems as an integral component of civilization's infrastructure; (2) necessary reforms in the system of water allocation and pricing, with greater emphasis given to high-value uses just as much as to conservation in essential agriculture and urban/domestic services; (3) a relentless program for education in the natural sciences, from grade school through adulthood, in and out of school, in order to instill in our fellow citizens, at the least, an understanding of the world around them and, if possible, a deep reverence for the sources of our health and wellness as citizens in an increasingly interwoven community.

Part of that reverence arises from a sense of respect for the people and the nature around us, the invisible infrastructures that make our lives possible, and part of it comes from a sense of responsibility to make sure that the natural infrastructure remains viable and untainted, so that our children will have the advantages of a cleaner world as well. We must keep in mind not simply the bottom line on this financial quarter or fiscal year, but the legacy that our actions now will impress upon our future, and that of the generations to come. The status quo, and the manner in which that came about, is an insufficient and inexcusable legacy given the ideas and resources presently available to us.

In 2003, another no less esteemed leader than Kofi Annan, as Secretary General to the United Nations, sent a message on World Water Day to delegates attending the plenary session of the third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan:

"It is often said that water crises and scarcities will at some point lead to armed conflict, but this need not be the case. Water problems have also been a catalyst for cooperation among peoples and nations... Scientists, local authorities, non-governmental organizations, private businesses and international organizations are pooling their efforts in the hopes of bringing about a much needed 'blue revolution' and to improve management of this vital resource. Whatever else divides the human community, whether we live upstream or downstream, in cities or in rural areas, water issues – the global water cycle itself – should link us in a common effort to protect and share it equitably, sustainably and peacefully."

With Ms. Barnett's book, a greater portion of that better way forward is illuminated. Following that path to respectful and sustainable treatment of our water resources won't come without conflict and the angst of upheaval, but if we travel willingly and share the burdens equitably, such conflict will remain minimized and manageable. If just one person believes that a unifying water ethic is both possible and necessary, then there is hope that we can still turn away from the present course of decaying infrastructure, wasteful water practices and neglect of our natural heritage. If just one person expresses the desire to forge a better path, then that path immediately becomes a valid alternative to the destructive status quo. I know now that there are at least three of us...