Robert Glennon, inveterate Boston Red Sox fan that he is, has hit another home run. His first one came in the form of Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America's Fresh Waters. But now he has topped that with Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It.
Shill alert #1: Before providing my review I must admit that I received a free copy of the book. I am also a huge fan of Glennon's. I've seen his Water Follies talk four times. Two of those times I invited him. I never get tired of hearing him. He is an excellent, entertaining speaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. And anyone who begins a chapter (7) with a line from a Doobie Brothers' song has my vote.
I finished his book six weeks ago and meant to review it then, but my Central American sojourn got in the way. But now, with his appearance on The Daily Show, I figured that this review is bordering on old news.
And how many WaterWonks are cool enough to make Jon Stewart's show? And it's okay that he's a Red Sox fan.
Glennon is not only an eloquent and entertaining speaker but also the same kind of writer. It's a hard book to put down. And he really does believe we are facing a water crisis; it's not just a catchy title. Furthermore, it's an economic crisis as much as an environmental one.
In Part I, The Crisis, Glennon runs through a litany of profligate water use, shortage, and stupidity: the Palm Springs user who had a $33,000 annual water bill; unbridled development in the arid West; cities (e.g., Sacramento) that do not require residential water meters; precipitous declines in the groundwater levels in the High Plains (aka Ogallala) aquifer; Las Vegas; snowmaking at Stone Mountain, GA; flushing our waste and watering our lawns with drinking water; a hotel featuring dual-head showers in the middle of a drought; lowered levels in the Great Lakes, especially the upper lakes; bottled water; effects of dams on fisheries; and more. He even tells the tale of the prisoners at one California prison who waste water by using toilet flushing to communicate with each other and annoy officials.
Glennon recognizes the intimate connection between water and energy, and uses the much-discussed ethanol fiasco as a prime example of how much water it takes to produce a gallon of the stuff. The country rushed headlong into ethanol and is now facing unintended consequences, especially vis-a-vis water use.
Glennon also invokes the hi-tech industry and its dependence upon water. We know that prodigious amounts of ultra-pure water are needed to manufacture chips. Intel is a very good example of a company that is heavily invested in water purification, use, and reuse, because water is money. [Shill alert #2: my wife is an Intel manager and I used to serve on Intel's community advisory board in Albuquerque.] But how many of us knew that Google requires a lot of water, too? They don't make chips, but they require huge server farms, and they need lots of cooling water. Granted, cooling is pretty much a nonconsumptive use, but it does require a source and it will raise the temperature of the water.
The second part of the book is Real and Surreal Solutions. He discusses traditional water conservation programs, and cites successful efforts in Tucson, Albuquerque, and San Antonio. He mentions water harvesting as something that should be promoted, although he avoids mentioning the illegality of that practice in some states. Graywater use is encouraged, but he notes that restrictive plumbing codes can discourage installation and encourage 'bootleg' systems. Reclaimed wastewater is an option that needs to be explored more fully. It is in this part that he discusses Intel's water use in the chapter aptly titled 'Moore's Law'.
This part also has a chapter on 'Water Alchemists' - the name Glennon uses to describe those who propose solutions such as towing icebergs, constructing mammoth pipelines, obtaining water from the Great Lakes or James Bay, etc.
Part III of the book deals with A New Approach and promulgates Glennon's vision: price signals, water marketing, radical toilets, environmental transfers, water privatization, farming's future, etc. I especially enjoyed 'Take the Money and Run' and the tale of the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and the Palo Verde Irrigation District (PVID) in southern California.
The last chapter is his blueprint for reform. Here is the short version:
- Using price signals
- Creating market incentives
- Reexamining how we dispose of human wastes
- Requiring developers to pay their own way
- Reconsidering the location of wastewater plants
- Separating storm water from sewer water
- Creating dual-pipe infrastructure for potable and reclaimed water
- Abandoning business as usual (more dams, diversions, wells)
- Recognizing the link between water and energy
- Appreciating the critical role paid by water in the economy
- Removing the barriers to water transfers while providing for government oversight of them
- Creating incentives for homeowners and others to harvest water
- Stimulating alternative waste disposal technologies
- Metering water use
- Securing water for the environment
- Encouraging creative conservation
Glennon is a defender of the right to water, and advocates a lifeline strategy so that the poor are not shut out. He is not opposed to privatization, as long as there are the proper controls. He promotes markets, but he has a heart.
He warns that we need to get our act together. We already have a crisis; we must ensure that it does not become a catastrophe. It will be a major effort to find the will and money to modernize our water and wastewater infrastructure. Federal agencies have conflicting mandates with little coordination among themselves. States are squabbling over water.
We have become accustomed to wasting a precious resource by allowing unrestrained growth and consumption to drive our policy decisions without regard to water availability. We can solve our water problems; we have the tools, but it is going to be difficult.
His epilogue is titled, "The Salton Sea"; need I say more?
If you use water, you need to read this book. It's akin to Cadillac Desert.
[Robert acquitted himself well on The Daily Show; view his interview. You can also view the Q&A used to prep him. Here is a link to Shaun McKinnon's Waterblogged, where you can access an interview with Glennon on KJZZ.]
"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you just might find you get what you need." -- The Rolling Stones