Friday, July 27, 2012

On "Water" by Fred Powledge ****

Perhaps the fact that I grew up in Southern California draws me to water issues. In So-Cal, on one level, water is not exactly a given; on another, it almost disastrously (for others) is. We get our water from the mountains, from mountains hundreds and thousands of miles away. It comes down concrete ditches into reservoirs and eventually into our homes. Elsewhere, the water that we have is absent so that we can have. And yet, it's not enough. It's never enough. Somehow, our lawns are green, but there's also a nagging sense of propriety, of not using water to wash down the sidewalk, of limiting the amount one uses on the car, of watering one's plants only on certain days and at certain times. Water concerns are a constant, even if water usage seems somehow out of whack with the reality of the ever-blue sky above (except, of course, for a few weeks in winter, when water comes crashing down in torrents, relieving the soil of its resting places on hillsides, sending it as mud into our homes or into sandbagged streets).

That's one reason, after coming to Georgia, I've been astounded by how many water problems we have here, in a place that gets three times the amount of rain--and all year round at that. How, how, when Californians live on fourteen inches, can Georgians--even smaller in number--not live on forty-eight?

Powledge's book is about this kind of profligacy, our wasting of water resources, our destruction of them, and the coming reckoning. Powledge's book was also written thirty years ago. His sense of almost immediate impending doom, of a crisis that is just over the horizon, seems in some ways laughably over the top. The world has gone on. We did not run out of water in the year 2000. Of course, panic sells books, and that's likely part of the reason for the tone.

But the points within the book still have quite a bit of relevance (especially now that we're in one of the worst droughts in U.S. history). We are drinking up our resources--or rather, not drinking them but spoiling them so that we can't drink them. We are doing this with pollution, with needless public works, and with waste.

Overall, Powledge's point seems to be that we need to recognize that water has rights too. That's right, we should give water its own set of rights. Seems a bit crazy to me. I would prefer to think of it more as we have a set of responsibilities toward water--as we do toward our environment, our neighbors, and other species. (But I've never been a fan of "rights" talk on any level, which I think focuses on the wrong side of the equation. Give me my rights. It's all about what others should do for us. The real focus should be on what we should be doing for others. What are our responsibilities toward each other as human beings?)

Water rights would consist in balancing our need for the resource against the resources own "needs" to be pure, to be unentangled, to be free to exist as a natural agent.

But the real story is in the details, of which Powledge gives plenty. I finally came to understand, for example, why rainwater is superior to irrigation. Water is extremely good at absorbing other materials; it's a solvent. And it's best purification system, from salt to fresh, is the atmosphere. Water coming from the natural desalinization plant that is the hydrological cycle has a perfect balance of acid and alkaline. And it also doesn't contain much in the way of other minerals mixed in. Water coming from rivers, by contrast, and spread over the land, has absorbed the various minerals that river has drifted across. As a result, it has a slightly higher content of salt. Over years, this salt, if spread over the soil consistently, begins to build up in the soil, destroying its ability to sustain plant life. Aw, rain.

The story of our impending water crisis may seem like a bit of hyperbole, but it could happen and has. Powledge talks of how a Native American in the old Southwest actually did just that--used up its water and oversalted the soil to the point that farming ceased and the civilization collapsed. We should take the warning seriously.

In that same region of Cerrillos, New Mexico, in the early 1980s, where water is scarce, a small number of people continue to live. The area has gold. Powledge tells of how mining companies have tried to extrapolate the gold--want to desperately. The problem is that all the easily gotten gold is gone. The financially feasible way to get what's left is to blast surface land apart (i.e., strip mine) and pour water over the land with a special chemical secretion that will leach out the stuff that isn't the gold wanted. Problem? Where does that chemical-laden water go? It goes into the soil, down, down, into the small aquifer that locals depend on for drinking. It's safe say the companies, even though the technology has never been used, and no one actually knows what the chemical would do to the aquifer. Residents fought against the first mining operation for years and won before activities commenced. Then, a second company came, and residents fought again. The end of the story wasn't known in 1980, but one thing was. The company started work before it had permits. Oh, sorry. Oops. It had to pay a small fine. By small, I mean, speeding ticket small.

Such concerns, of chemicals and toxics leaching into our aquifers make up much of Powledge's text.

Also under fire in the book are developers, especially government developers, like the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, which come under fire in Cadillac Desert as well. To maintain their existence, they have to continually come up with new projects, even ones that aren't feasible or needed, and for that reason, nearly every river has been dammed at numerous points in the United States. Reading stories of projects built over the protests of the communities that will benefit from them, at astronomical costs paid for with tax dollars, for little benefit (other than for the construction firms and agencies for whom the project supplies jobs), certainly makes the reader angry. One project, for example, that will connect the Tennessee River to another, apparently will get little use by shippers and will cost more than the Panama Canal.

Agriculture gets heat also. Industry, initially, gets less scathing. After all, it doesn't actually use up the water it gets most of the time. It returns the water to the environment--but usually in a much-degraded form. And that's where Powledge nails industrial America.

No one comes out looking very good--not government, not industry, not ag. Powledge particularly dislikes the Reagan administration, whose appointees to environmental positions are largely people who see water as something to be exploited. Water flowing all the way to the sea means that we have "wasted" it, failed to put it to use.

One long section of the book is about New York City. It was interesting to learn that some of the best drinking water in the country goes to New York, as most of its tap comes not from local sources but from upstate New York, at springs that are close to pure. But not so much when there's a heavy drought, as there was for a period during Mayor Koch's term in office. Then, the talk was of maybe even perhaps using the Hudson for tap water, even though that water really is polluted. Powledge shows how the community banded together, got serious, and conserved enough water not to have to fall to such desperate measures. And yet, the city, once the drought was over, went back to its wasteful ways. The infrastructure of piping, as Powledge shows, is full of holes, and large amounts of water are simply lost because the city hasn't repaired its plumbing lines and allows residents to wash cars with and play in water from fire hydrants. I'm not sure if post-1980s NYC is quite as wasteful, as I know much changed under Giuliani and Bloomberg.

Still, the crisis reminded me somewhat of our own here in Georgia a few years ago, when we were encouraged not to even flush our toilets at one point. Conservation was the buzzword. And then, a summer later, the rain returned, and most of our lessons, our tightening of resources, simply washed away--until the next drought causes us again to panic and scream for wiser utilization of this precious resource.

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