4 Jan 2012

Blue Revolution -- the review

What if everyone in the US (or China or Italy or...) woke up one morning with a complete and proper respect for the value of water to themselves and all that surrounds them?

Would such a revolution change the way we used water? Would it end the disputes over water for the environment or agriculture? Would it put regulators out of business, as water companies delivered the water their customers wanted, at appropriate prices and quantities? Would such a revolution end the headlines of "water crisis" or make the Human Right to Water an obvious result instead of a powerless slogan?

There is no doubt that such a sea change would have major impacts on the way we use and manage water. There is also no doubt that such a change would not end the problems we have with conflicting visions of how water should be used. People already appreciate the value of water used to grow food, power industry, keep us hydrated (and so on). What they lack is an appreciation for the value that others put on these activities (and vice versa). The real question then, is how to make it easier to reconcile our different values when allocating scarce water among multiple demands.

These are the thoughts that remained with me after I read Cynthia Barnett's Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis.*

I heard Cynthia give a talk on this book a few months back (@ AWRA in Albuquerque), but I have known of this project ever since we spoke on the phone in May 2010 about water governance (she records those conversations, my application to California's Water Commission, and my views on water with admirable accuracy in the book). If there's one thing I know, it's that Cynthia has a passion for this topic -- the way we manage water -- and a professional's way of addressing it.

And here's the most important part: I agree with pretty much everything she says in this book. She and I are approaching the same problem (water governance) from different angles. She's into the intrinsic motivations to do the right thing, and I am into the extrinsic motivations of prices and markets. Both of us know that these motivations reinforce each other; both of us push our perspectives with respect for the power of the other perspective.

Markets and prices will not help us manage water for personal and social uses (part I and part II, respectively, of my book) without appropriate policies enacted by people who must have an intrinsic desire to do the right thing. People with respect for water cannot know how exactly they should act without assistance from price signals or market mechanisms. It's just a fact that intrinsic and extrinsic mechanisms are mutually dependent (I refer to them under the "20/80 rule").

Keep those ideas in mind as we look at the chapters one-by-one:

Chapter 1 (the illusion of water abundance) works on this theme: American lawns are the biggest crop in the country -- at 63,240 mi^2 (164,000 km^2, or the same size Tunisia and much larger than Bangladesh or Greece), and we dump a lot of water on them. Cynthia sees this result as a lack of a water ethic. I see it as the result of cheap water policies. Either way, there's a lot of activity that depends on lush water use, and Cynthia absolutely nails a huge implication of that little fact: industries from real estate and construction to gardening and energy have grown around a cheap water model. These "water-industrial complex" businesses are quite pleased with that model, and they are willing to fight to keep it.

Chapter 2 (reclamation and restoration) expands on that theme, looking at the iron triangle (my phrase) of politicians, businessmen, and engineers who build big projects to direct water to favored uses. Cynthia lives in Florida, and her comparisons between engineering the Everglades and California's water plumbing are dead-accurate (and totally disgusting).

Chapter 3 (The Netherlands) covers territory that's familiar to me (I still learned a few things!), but Cynthia's explanation of how the Dutch learned to respect the water that threatened them with death (and work together in that struggle) provides an excellent example of a "water ethic" that leads to appropriate management.

Chapters 4 and 5 cover the use of water for energy generation and irrigation. Guess what? Both industries like cheap water (and don't worry too much about using too much!)

Chapter 6 (the water-industrial complex) is my favorite in the book, because Cynthia looks at the incentive to build big projects (public money! ribbon cutting! consultant fees!) and -- more interesting -- traces the flow of campaign funds from engineering firms. CH2MHill and Black & Veatch make appearances, but she goes into detail on PBSJ, which started by working for government projects in Florida. Do I need to spell it out to you? Engineers are keen lobbyists to build more projects to divert water from here to there (and back again!), since they make their money on reports, projects, and so on. Nobody makes any money when a river flows from the mountains to the sea.

Chapter 7 (Singapore) reviews how the city-state built a water ethic based on renaming reservoirs as lakes as well as a need to wean the city off water imported from (semi-hostile) Malaysia. Citizens with a stronger connection to "their" water reduce their demand at the same time as they support the big changes, such as drinking "NeWater" (reclaimed wastewater).

Chapter 8 (the Big Dipper) covers hairbrained schemes to move "surplus" water from rivers to thirsty cities (Vegas baby!).

Chapter 9 (the business of blue) covers water for business, pricing and human rights. Milwaukee, Maude Barlow and I appear, and I thought the chapter presented the issues of "appropriate" pricing well. She says that "price isn't everything," and I don't mind agreeing with that (since it's still a long way from Barlow's plea of "give everyone water and charge banks the cost of delivery" populism).

Chapter 10 (Australia) offers another example of a water ethic having an impact on water use in Perth, but I think that Cynthia still takes it a bit far. Yes, people started to live with twice-per-week irrigation, but they still BUILT a desalination plant. I say that 20% of the people care about doing the right thing and 80% care about saving money, and this chapter does not give me any reason to think that those numbers should be 100/0. I'd say 50/50 at best.

Chapter 11 (an American Water Ethic) traces many examples of people working to improve our water condition.

Chapter 12 (local water) makes this important point [p. 220]:
A natural water body somewhere feeds every tap and toilet in the nation. But most people couldn't identify their water source. So how would they know if it's in trouble?
As someone who used "local" 142 times in my book and wrote "Most water management is local, and locals can do a lot to make sure their water is well managed," I couldn't agree more.

From this overview, you may have got the feeling that you've seen this kind of book (stories of what works and doesn't) before. I know that I have, and I recommend this book over both The Big Thirst and Unquenchable for its quality discussion based around a big organizing theme -- the need for a revolution in the way we think about water. And that brings up a tricky problem: how will this book's natural audience bring these ideas into the minds of people who don't care? That's perhaps a good reason for why I see this book as a suitable complement to mine, which does spend a lot of time on the problem of getting action out of the "unenlightened."

Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for being easy to read, accurate, perceptive (the water-industrial complex!), and passionate in its call for a revolution in the way we treat water.

* I received a review copy of this book. I'm also quoted in it.

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