Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water

Book Review: The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water 
by Charles Fishman  (Free Pres 2011)

This is an interesting and informative book and tackles issues that will face us more and more as time goes on. It is about water and more specifically our relationship with water as a society. He makes the important observation that water is nearly always a local issue:

“There is no global water crisis, because all water problems are local, or regional, and their solutions must be local and regional. There is no global water crisis, there are a thousand water crises, each distinct.”

Here is a quote about the dual nature of water:

“Water’s personality, in fact, is layered with polarity, both inherently and in the ways we approach and manage water.
Water is transparent, and also reflects light.
Water is soft and soothing, and also hard as concrete.
Water is comforting, and also threatening; gentle and fierce.
Water is the source of life, and also often a source of death.
Water is all-important, indispensable, but almost always free, or essentially free.
Water is the most basic necessity to human life, and also a symbol of luxury and indulgence.”

Water issues affect people profoundly all over the world. Unexpected long-term droughts have depleted reservoirs in various places in the world that had been reliable for centuries. In some place water has to be collected and carried for home use. This occurs in many places in India due to poor and neglected infrastructure. Recycling water and water conservation and management is needed in several places and has served to change how we use water and has also saved people, towns, and businesses much money. Indeed, businesses are latching onto the real financial value of water management.

Water is cleanable. The water cycle does this given enough time. We can also do it through reverse osmosis and in other ways. Water has unique qualities and we ourselves are mostly water and we need much of it every day. All the water we use has been recycled through natural systems many times over. This book is full of all sorts of statistics about water. Various case histories about water, water problems, and water solutions are given in readable formats. Reused water, gray water, or more specifically, non-potable water is often conveyed in purple pipes so that people know it is non-potable. Use of this recycled water for such things as watering lawns and washing cars has conserved cleaner water for drinking. Some cities have managed to implement these purple pipe systems.

The author describes the IBM plant in Vermont where 2 million gallons of ultra purified water a day are used in the manufacture computer circuits so tiny that their electron pathways can’t even be seen with microscopes. The ultra-pure water is used to wash away the chemical solutions that make the connections. This ultra pure water (UPW) is said to be 10 million times cleaner than tap water whatever that means. It contains nothing but water molecules. Apparently, this UPW tastes terrible. It is said to be very bitter. Even bottled water which is often tap water that has gone through sophisticated reverse osmosis filters is clean enough that minerals are added to it for taste. IBM also learned to save vast amounts of money by recycling water as well as using hot water and cold water wisely. They now even have a water management division.

The next case history is that of the city of Las Vegas, where extravagant water features like giant fountains, giant aquariums that house dolphins and other sea life, and massive golf courses that grow grass in the desert are everywhere. Las Vegas is one of the driest areas on earth. Yet in the last few decades due to drawing down of the reservoir of Lake Mead it has had to change its water usage patterns. The author documents the efforts of Patricia Mulroy in managing Las Vegas’s water usage. Due to these changes the city grew by ¾ of a million people in 10 years and used the same amount of water as before. The use of recycled water and purified wastewater for non-potable uses was a big factor. Designing for the environment was another factor as golf courses and the city reduced the amount of grassy areas that needed massive water to exist. Utilizing desert landscaping instead of grass saved lots of water. At one time grass growing (and other outdoor water use) were using 70% of the potable water of Las Vegas! Now Las Vegas also returns treated wastewater to Lake Mead – about 40% of what it draws out.

Next he compares the still unresolved issue of the water rights of the city of Atlanta that has also grown drastically by a million residents in a decade. The water source there is Lake Lanier which has suffered due to drought in some years. This lake feeds the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers that run down through Alabama and Florida. The battle is over how much water the Atlanta metro area has the right to use.

Water problems abound in many localities but the author is optimistic that these issues can be resolved with proper planning and implementation of sensible management practices. Another issue in several places is the need for infrastructure upgrades. In short, he says, people need to re-evaluate their relationship to water. They need to learn to use it wisely and not waste it and be willing to pay more for both delivery and maintenance of water systems.

Next he goes through the re-establishment of water delivery service in Galveston, Texas after Hurricane Ike in September 2008. He also documents the return of wastewater treatment there. Interesting to see all that is required. Apparently the city of Memphis, Tennessee actually pumped all of its untreated sewage directly into the Mississippi River until 1975 when the Clean Water Act was passed. He also documents Jackson Mississippi where freezing caused 154 water line breaks and basically shut the city down for weeks.
Basically, we can’t really function as a modern society without our water services.

Next is the story of a 12-year drought called the Big Dry in Australia. There the Murray River Basin provides water for much of the country and the agricultural belt which grows lots of rice. This drought affected many towns, farms, and industries which have been forced to cope by conserving, recycling, and paying more for things like seawater desalinization plants. The town of Toowoomba had nearly run out of water and was faced with water managers that wanted to recycle wastewater, purify it and put it back in the tap. This is done in several places including here in the states where it is mixed with groundwater, being pumped into an aquifer before it hits the pipes. The psychological factor was very big and even though virtually all organic pollutants would be gone – to most people virtually all is less than all so the yuck factor prevented it when they voted. They ended up building a huge and expensive pipeline to bring in water from far away.
Fortunately, mere months after this book was published there were massive rains in Australia that resulted in actual flooding so the drought situation was reduced. But really all water is reused water, though recycled through nature. Even the space station has an on-board water recycling station that converts pee and even sweat back into drinking water!

Then we come to India where up until in the 1980’s in some cities there was 24/7 water availability. But due to the culture of water management there and government corruption and water and infrastructure mismanagement some of the same places now get water only every other day for an hour. Due to this many poor urban people have to wait sometimes hours twice a day in order to dip water out of tankers that deliver it to distribution points. Due to this they often cannot hold jobs or attend school. Many wealthier folk in India’s thriving urban economies have installed pumping systems to suck in water to holding tanks during the hour or two a day that it may be on. This has created further problems with pressure and often makes things much worse. In one situation the water from leaking sewer pipes that were run right along the water line was sucked into leaking water pipes due to the vacuum on it caused by all the home pumps. This caused an outbreak of E-coli that killed several people. Apparently the tap water in these areas always smells like sewage. Water loss due to leaking pipes is apparently quite a bit in most non-modern water systems here in the US and around the world. Water infrastructure upgrade is a big issue. Another issue in India is rural people having to carry water long distance several times a day due again to lack of availability due to lack of wells drilled and lack of infrastructure rather than lack of water. Traditionally, it is women who carry water and as a result many of these women lack an education. Some educated people who have made money in the corporate world are returning to their original areas to help these people. The author does do a water walk with the women and finds that he can handle scarcely handle half of the water they can and that he spills much more of it than they as they have developed a special way of gyroscopically walking with their hips so as not to spill it. In cities like Delhi over half of the water in the pipes leaks out. The rivers in India, although worshipped as pure and healing goddesses are extremely polluted, in some places totally black with sewage. Other pollution problems in Indian cities have been severely reduced – for instance the converting of urban transportation from gasoline to natural gas – even the small motorized rickshaws. This has reduced smog by a massive factor in some very populated cities. Some cities with different mindsets and less corruption have managed to implement water systems.

Water management requires water monitoring equipment such as meters. In some areas where water is abundant there is no charge for massive water use. People in the US are used to abundant water and tend to use massive amounts compared to folks in areas where water is scarce. I know some about this myself as I have lived off of both low-yield wells and a 1700 gallon cistern which got filled only every 5 or 6 weeks. We have also spent a few six month long periods with no running water. It is not so hard to adapt but it does take some getting used to. As a result our water-use habits have always been rather conservative but apparently not so for other families as the water usage estimates indicate. The author indicates that many of us are rather spoiled about water – complaining loudly if our water bill goes up $5 a month as if we think water should be free. But he indicates that it is not just the water that is being paid for but the delivery, monitoring, and maintenance and upgrade of the water system.

The author also notes the propensity to buy and consume bottled water that is not regulated and in most cases is apparently no better than tap water and in fact filtered tap water may be a better choice. Oddly, people are perfectly willing to fork over hundreds – maybe even a thousand dollars a year for bottled water and unwilling to pay a higher water bill. We occasionally buy bottled water – last time was when we camped where water quality was unknown. But now one can even buy cheap Brita type filters to carry anywhere already attached to a cup.

The author notes: “Most water problems are, in fact, solvable.”  This is mainly in regards to reducing the massive waste of outdated leaking pipes but also other problems. One current problem needing more attention is that of micropollutants. Since we can now measure the presence of various substances in greater detail at the parts per trillion level we know that there are many man-made chemicals in our water – literally hundreds – and the amounts will only increase as times goes on. There is technology to treat the water but it is as of yet still expensive. Massive amounts of household chemicals, plastics, oil and gas wastewater, mine drainage, even antibiotics and medicines and caffeine are in our waters.

“... we have the technology to clean water to any level we want and within water sheds to deliver that water where it needs to be.”

“Now is the moment to figure out the impact of what we have been unintentionally putting into water, and develop inexpensive techniques for removing the micropollutants before we return the water to its source or reuse it ourselves. Micropollutants, like most water problems, will only get worse, more difficult and more expensive to deal with, as time goes on.”

This is a great book to ponder and good to read for anyone concerned about the future of water and how we relate to water. It is written in an engaging style that reads well. It is mostly an optimistic assessment but with the caveats that there will be cost and inconveniences. The author does think that our tap water is safe for the most part – since it is regularly tested (as well water and other water sources should also be) and found to be safe. If not, it can be treated. Of course, if we suspect bad water we can always filter it ourselves and perhaps even one day we will be able to filter out micropollutants as well. Also, as one of my co-workers noted it seems a bit ironic that a guy with the late name of Fishman wrote a book about water!

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