A thirsty world: lessons for the Puget Sound region

An author says we all pay too little for water, which encourages waste of a precious resource with an uncertain future.

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Work on proceeds on the Weber Siphon in 2010 as part of a controversial expansion of irrigation in Eastern Washington.

An author says we all pay too little for water, which encourages waste of a precious resource with an uncertain future.

Water runs our world yet we take it completely for granted. In his mind-opening new narrative, The Big Thirst, journalist Charles Fishman takes readers on a fascinating journey from the moons of Saturn to the hotels of  Las Vegas.

The golden age of abundant, free and safe water is over, says Fishman. The problem is most people in the developed world don’t know it.

While he was in Seattle earlier this month, Fishman took time for an interview. Here is an edited version of the discussion.

Martha Baskin: Much has been written about the global water crisis. In The Big Thirst you prefer to talk about thousands of water crises happening all over the world. Some are from drought, others from climate turmoil, still others from insufficient water systems. Why did you take this approach?

Charles Fishman: I think talking about the global water crisis actually has the opposite impact of what water people hope it will do. I think people have too many global crises. There’s a global economic crisis and a global climate crisis, a global health crisis. If you add another crisis people will throw up their hands and say I’m already waking up at 4:30 in the morning to deal with the crises I’ve got, I can’t handle another one. But also it’s not really true.

The water problems of Seattle and of Atlanta, the water problems of Dallas and Delhi, and the water problems of Barcelona are all separate. If Atlanta has a water crisis and actually does smart things to fix that crisis, Orlando and Louisville and Charlotte can’t undo the solution that Atlanta puts in place.  By the same token if Atlanta which is kind of cavalier about its water and doesn’t manage its water gets into a crisis, there’s nothing Orlando or Charlotte can do. So there is no global water crisis precisely because all water problems are local, not on your block, but in your community or your region and that’s the only place they can be solved.

Baskin: You suggest because water systems are hidden, almost secretive in the developed world, we don’t understand the golden age of water abundance may be coming to an end. We remain out of touch, despite droughts and record floods that have wrecked water supplies. Most of the nation flushes its toilets with clean drinking water!

Fishman: We flush our toilets with cleaner water than one of seven people has access to every day. They would love to drink out of our toilets. The water system in the U.S. and most of the developed world is a kind of a marvel, a human created miracle. Even a hundred years ago or hundred and ten years ago, at the turn of the last century, most everybody still had to think about water every day. It really made large, economically energetic cities possible because it was suddenly safe to live in the city. After water purification was discovered and put in place it changed the dynamic. And part of the ethic – there were two elements -  one was we’re going to see that cities get as much water as they need so you never say you can’t grow because there’s no more water.

And the second thing is the water system is hidden. It’s brilliantly designed and it’s out of view. And the people who did the engineering and designing are proud of that. But now that really does a disservice because people don’t understand the work required to get them their water or what that engineering system costs to sustain. So we need to talk a lot more about what’s behind the process of just being able to turn on the tap and what’s required to sustain it.

Baskin: Your first chapter is called “The Revenge of Water.” Revenge implies getting even. Is that what you mean?

Fishman: What I meant by that is we’ve ignored water for so long now I think water issues are going to become very prominent. So revenge in the sense sometimes when you ignore something important it comes back to bite you.  Even here in Seattle which has an incredible abundance of water, you have all kinds of water management problems. Your storm water is an issue, safeguarding the Sound is an issue. Wildlife in the Sound are coming back but if you take a seal or salmon that has died and do a necropsy on it and look at the condition of those creatures, they’re dense with toxins..

Baskin: A recurring theme in The Big Thirst is that water is in trouble and people are in trouble. You might be hard pressed to convince anyone in the wet Northwest.

Fishman: I don’t think the Northwest is in trouble when it comes to water but I think ignoring water here is no smarter than ignoring it in Phoenix or Las Vegas. Abundance should not be confused with surplus, with excess. Nor should abundance be confused with thinking that you don’t have to take care of what you have because abundance can be both tainted and overtapped very easily.

I spent a month in Australia and a month in India to see what impact scarcity has. Australia is a place that looks like a lot like the U.S. in economic and cultural terms. It’s very familiar. They had a 10-year-long drought across the entire continent and they had to remake their entire economy to accommodate a lower availability of water. Now they didn’t dry out the economy but in every major city in the country they changed their water habits.

They changed water habits at home and in the commercial and farming and business sectors and now, of course, it’s raining in Australia they’re having terrible flooding. The drought was followed immediately by flooding but you’re never sorry that you learned to live successfully with less of a resource. There’s nobody with a car that gets 35 miles to a gallon that thinks boy, I just wish I was driving a car that gets 18 miles to the gallon.

India is a place where half the people in the country don’t have access to clean water every day, that’s 600 million people — that’s twice the U.S. population — who don’t have access to water every day. And while I was in India I did the water walk with a group of women and girls in a village outside of Delhi and they do this twice a day every day. It’s actually a very short water walk in world terms it was just 4 kilometers out and 4 back, but I was only able to carry 20 pounds of water on my head. That’s about three and a half gallons. If you have to walk to get your water every day often that means you do almost nothing else. We should be appalled that anybody has to walk to get their water everyday.

Baskin: Yet there’s one city in India, Navi Mumbai, that decided daily, accessible water could be an economic tool as well as a liberating one.

Fishman: Navi Mumbai decided that 24-hour-a day-water was important to the nature of the city. It’s not a short story of how they got there. It took them eight years of politics. They had to raise water rates. They had to dig up every street in the city. They determined to separate their water supply pipes from their wastewater pipes so that even if there was a leak they wouldn’t cross contaminate. So what it took was a group of local leaders saying we want Navi Mumbai’s water system to look a certain way 15 years from now and say: We are going to marshal the argument and the money. We’re also going to get out and talk about this in a way that’s real and start to prove it little by little so that we gather the political support necessary to do it.

Baskin: You call what happened in Navi Mumbai a “water-use” revolution. In the U.S you suggest the revolution needs to take the form of conservation and recycling wastewater. Electric power plants and farms, the nation’s largest water users, began using less water decades ago. How did they do it?

Fishman: You know it happened in two ways. There’s the political pressure that causes those organizations to say maybe we could use less water. Farmers and power plants are both institutions that use huge quantities of water but they also compete with the communities in which they live for that water. So there haven’t been rules as much as there have been conversations: “Couldn’t you all do better?”  Then there’s technology. Smart use of water on farms isn’t rocket science. It doesn’t require the Manhattan Project. We know how to grow the same amount of food with less water you just have to invest in the tools and the knowledge. In the U.S. farmers have actually doubled their water productivity.

Baskin: You speak of water-use revolutions also occurring at the municipal level. Orlando, Florida uses waste water for irrigation. All of the city’s drinking water is recycled. 

Fishman: I’d say the revolution at the city level, the really innovative use of water in communities, is much less well developed. To put it in positive terms there’s much more opportunity there. Farmers have come along and power plants have come along dramatically. But Orlando is a great example. Orange County, Florida which includes the city of Orlando, got started 25 years ago. They did two things at the same moment. They built water-reuse facilities, that is they build plants that could clean water, clean enough so it could be re-used for irrigation. Then they passed laws requiring all new development in central Florida, all new office parks, subdivisions, schools, soccer fields,use the recycled water for outdoor irrigation. [Baskin note: King County uses 300 million gallons of waste water for irrigation. “Reclaiming” water began in 1997.] Now that didn’t change anything in a week or five years but 25 years later Orange County, Florida supplies the same amount of water everyday for drinking purpose they did back in 1985. They have doubled the size of the community without having to add any potable water. So its just a brilliant way of looking at wastewater not as a burden, what are going to do with this dirty water, but as a resource.

Baskin: You suggest we need a little bit of visionary leadership to help jumpstart a different kind of water thinking. One such leader you site is a water economist in Australia, Mike Young. Young has been helping Australia reshape its water policy after a decade of drought, followed by record floods. He explained his idea to you of how water systems could be more functional by drawing a sketch.

Fishman: Young is a very smart and thoughtful guy. He sketched a glass of water on a cocktail napkin. On a single cocktail napkin he was able to redesign the entire water system of the world. With a sketch of a glass of water he described how we might want to change our water habits. He reserves the first layer of water in the glass, the very bottom for the environment. His first question is what water system are people tapping and how much water does the system need so there’s always water not just for the environment but for those of us who depend on it. The layer above that layer is the layer for basic human needs. Everyone gets a quantity of water that humans need to do what they need to do — basic needs. Then the layers above that come in.

Baskin: But the layers for critical human water needs and the environment remain outside the market, affordable for all. All other water uses, says Young, should come at a higher cost to reflect potential scarcity and water’s uncertain availability.

Fishman: Young says you should pay as you go for the kind of water you want. If you have a low profit margin, relatively low risk business, you buy what he calls "low security water"; that’s a layer of water above the everybody-gets-one-quantum water and that’s relatively inexpensive. But in a drought people with  low security water would see their water go away first. Then there’s a layer over the low security water, which is the high security water. So if you’re running a micro-chip plant and you’ve got $2 billion worth of capital and you need a guaranteed water supply, you would pay more not just when there’s scarcity but all the time. And that water supply would be guaranteed if there was a drought. His point is you need to set up a water system in advance that anticipates problems. And we don’t do that in this country or most of the world. His point is if you set up a system in advance that asks what will we do if there’s scarcity and then put in place the right economic incentives you actually allow people to make smart decisions in advance of there being a crisis.

Baskin: You contend the price of water, even for basic needs, needs to be raised everywhere so we become aware of how fragile it is.

Fishman: Water is really too cheap everywhere in the world. Even poor people would be willing to pay a little more if their water supply were guaranteed. But in a place like the U.S. water is too cheap in a couple of different ways. First of all, ordinary Americans at home and at work don’t even pay the cost of getting their water delivered to them. So the water bill we pay at home or business doesn’t even cover the cost of the electricity or the staffing to run the water utility to get the water to us. The water system is desperately starved. If there’s not even enough water to pay the electric bill and the staff of those water utilities are cross subsidized by general tax revenue, there’s certainly no money for modernization or innovation or protecting the original source of the water whatever that is. The home water bill in the U.S. is $34 a month for a family of  four.

A basic smart phone is $80 a month. The other problem with water that is too cheap is the system doesn’t get the resources necessary to sustain and modernize. A resource that is free, essentially free, is always wasted and always badly used because there’s no incentive to think smartly. 

Baskin: You write there never was a time when drought didn’t plague the world. Mayan civilization may have been undone by climate change and water shortages. A thousand years later, the Dust Bowl in America drove 2.5 million people to leave the Great Plains states. What makes this moment different?

Fishman: The general wisdom now is that the Mayan civilization, which lasted a lot longer than American civilization, was undermined and then collapsed because of a fall-off in rainfall. The Mayan water system was very sophisticated but it was also very rigid. It was robust but was not adaptable at all. So when the rain stopped falling and the reservoirs and the cisterns stopped filling, there was nothing to be done.

The difference between the Mayans and ourselves is we can see what’s going on if we’re willing to. We can adjust where we get our water, how we use the water, how we reuse water. But we can’t do those things if we’re not willing to look honestly at what’s happening. But just like the Mayans we have a very robust but very rigid water systems. So if we’re going to adjust both our use and where the water comes from and how it gets to us, that’s something we have to start doing now because you can’t change water systems for a city the size of Seattle or Tacoma or L.A. of San Francisco in a year. You have to have long-range planning. So we have the advantage of being able to look honesty and scientifically at what’s happening but we have to take action just the way they would have had to take action.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.