The Big Thirst — The Review

The Big Thirst — The Review

I enjoyed this book (subtitle: “The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water”) by Charles Fishman. It has a good pace, is easy to read, and provides a lot of useful insights on how we see and manage water.

I started reading it a few days after publishing my book, and it was weird to read similar stories to the ones I covered. (I am not sure of Charles was reading my mind or blog, but it was nice to be in good company 🙂

In the book, Fishman hits a lot of important points: water management is local, the problem is not water “use” but slow natural recycling, the importance of politics/power/security in management, abundant water doesn’t need to be managed or priced like scarce water does, there’s little incentive to conserve free water, and so on. His business writing background is handy for adding context, e.g., each tanker bringing water to Barcelona supplied sufficient water for 32 minutes of demand.*

Here are notes that I made while reading, by chapter:**

  1. Gives an overview and manifesto for the book, i.e., the new era of water scarcity requires that we recognize its value and discard old cliches.
  2. Covers the physics and physical properties of water.
  3. Covers water management in Las Vegas. Fishman is awed by Pat Mulroy’s “results” there, but I am not. Per capita use may have dropped by 31 percent between 1989 and 2009, but it’s still (using his numbers) 240 gallons/person/day. That gigantic number would spin heads in Asia, Australia or Europe, where 930 liters per capita per day is perhaps 400-600% of local averages. The chapter has good stories of how businesses facing higher prices or shortages reduce their water use and an interesting profile of the head-in-the-sand attitudes of Georgia’s politicians towards impending doom. (Although they appeared to be right, given their recent victory in claiming water from Lanier.) Mulroy also seems a bit unhinged, as she rants against Great Lakes residents who do not want to export their water to people like her who “need” it more.
  4. Contains a great profile of the destruction and post-hurricane rebuilding of Galveston’s water supply and other “modern” cities that face engineering supply problems.
  5. Looks at how businesses reduce their process water demands at a wool shed, hotel, a Coca Cola plant, cruise ship, bottling plant, IBM fab, etc. The chapter goes well until he claims that “tap water is much more tightly regulated and monitored than bottled water” [p. 134 in final version], repeats an unjustified claim that bottled water undermines our willingness to pay higher prices for public water systems, and makes a false equation between retails sales of bottled water and money spent on maintaining the public water system in the US. I argue against all three of these opinions in my book, but I doubt that your average bottled water drinker is unwilling to pay $5 more per month (10%!) to increase the reliability or quality of his water.It gets worse. When discussing drinking water services, Fishman says “The global economy has contrived to deny the most fundamental element of life to 1 billion people” [p. 136 in final version]. This is just a total failure of a statement (it’s the politics!) from a business reporter. He recovers a bit when saying that less bottled water drinking in Maine isn’t going to help someone in India, but then he goes on to blame “the market” for “failing to find any solutions for real water problems.”These three pages are a pity, and they reveal a flaw in an otherwise excellent book: Fishman appears to be more nervous of competitive, for-profit companies that deliver value (GE selling a glass of water to you in the desert) than the monopolistic and corrupt politicians who don’t care if you die in the desert or down the street from their offices. Moving right along…
  6. Describes an Australian town’s emotional (and ultimately futile) rejection of recycled water. His conclusion from the tale of Toowoomba’s dry taps is that times are changing (End of Abundance!), and American would be wise to watch and learn from Australia’s experience. I agree with that, but add the hopeful thought that America’s 52,000 water systems mean that there are 52,000 managers with the opportunity to do the “right thing” (manage scarcity) without waiting for permission to make necessary changes.
  7. Ventures into the bush to look at Australian agriculture. He spends time with a farmer facing drought and does a good job explaining the ignorance of city folk who call farmers “water wasters” without understanding either agronomy, irrigation or economics. He uses the idea of “water envy” to describe how some people think others are wasting, but I think “water ego” is more appropriate. The presumption that one person deserves water more than another is not based on some objective measure of consumption (my car, your salary) as much as a subjective decision that my use is more important than yours. It’s not like you need a car like mine — you need MY car. That’s the case with water. The end of abundance means there’s not enough to please everyone, so some people think they should have yours. Fishman’s discussion misses this point, I think, because he mixes up water as a natural resource and water as an environmental good.Later in the chapter, Fishman makes a good point (not for the first time, not for this idea): “Our water systems are anything buy robust. They are durable…[but] they have no adaptability, no flexibility. Our water habits rely on… assumptions of water availability.” Exactly. That’s why I wrote my book, to extend the story from situations Fishman describes to an analysis of why those situations arise and how to address them. The Wall Street Journal‘s review on Fishman’s book clued me in on this part one-part two quality: The Big Thirst describes the issues; The End of Abundance explains how they arose and how to correct them.
  8. Moves to India to describe a place with less than 24/7 service and unsafe water. This chapters is really good. It describes water management (and failure) from urban to rural, from industrial to agricultural uses. The lessons there offer useful parallels to the successes (and failures) in the developed world.
  9. Discusses the problem with “free” water. Fishman rightly points out that water in Las Vegas is quite cheap, but then overshoots in claiming that much cheaper water in Imperial Valley (which also draws from the Colorado River) is “exactly the same water.” That’s not true when you consider the importance of pressurized and treated water; property rights; and the fact that the price of water service doesn’t reflect the price of (free) water as much as the cost of running the system (Fishman later says this, but his reason for cost pricing — “people need water” — is not my reason: water is provided by regulated utilities or agricultural cooperatives). These missing factors mean that Fishman’s outraged text (a penny for the water in a bag of carrots!) is misplaced. That said, I found these passages quite fun to read, since I discuss nearly identical material (Vegas vs. Imperial) in my book.In a later discussion, Fishman absolutely blows apart one water manager fantasy: higher prices do nothing to reduce demand and hurt the poor. (Mulroy claims that higher prices in Vegas will not make sense “because the Sultan of Brunei will not use less.” But she forgets that they WOULD impact other customers.) Fishman then advocates a version of “some for free, pay for more” water pricing. (No, he doesn’t quote me or this blog. He does talk to Mike Young, so there’s something in the air.) The rest of the chapter on pricing, markets and monopolies gives an excellent summary of these ideas.
  10. Concludes with good illustrations of the ways we enjoy water, the political role of leading the fight to improve water service and how our ignorance can lead to mismanagement. He hits two good points: water management is local and management failure is political. Unfortunately, he then makes a few too many shortcuts (e.g., end “silly” practices) in assuming or advocating greywater systems, more crop per drop, mandatory water footprinting, and so on.Fishman temporarily backs away from pushing certain ideas; he claims “we need to change our relationship with water;” but then he returns with two pages of [paraphrasing] “we must change silly attitudes.” I agree with that, to a point. In my book, I take attitudes (silly, cheap, green or traditional) as givens and spend more time on setting incentives to reach economic and environmental sustainability. I do not worry as much as Fishman about the black box of human behavior. (I am guessing that we’d agree on this in conversation, but I’ve only the book to read!)

Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS. Read it to learn about “our relationship” with water, but turn to my book (sorry, but I can’t avoid saying it) to understand the underlying reasons for our current water conditions and how to improve water management.

* But his journalistic style can be too breezy:

  • “Statistical alliteration” — repeating the same numbers, ratios, etc. three times in the same paragraph — slowed me down as I tried to understand non-existent differences.
  • It’s not true that a “flat screen TV… needs its own water supply.” Sure, power generation requires water for cooling, but the implication is that a flatscreen TV needs a rooftop reservoir.
  • I am not sure that “we think of places like Barcelona as water wealthy,” or that our emotional relationship to water explains why “water pipes beneath our streets are poorly maintained.” I don’t like having thoughts attributed to me that I do not possess.
  • He says that “IBM’s new water division reaches other companies” when he means it SELLS to other companies.
  • 36 million visitors to Las Vegas, 86 percent of them from the US, does NOT translate into 20 10 percent of the US population when you count repeat visitors. There were other examples of lazy statistical inference.
  • Reductions in water use do not automatically increase profits if they come with heavy capital expenditures. Fishman knows this, but sometimes he does not emphasize the importance of that trade-off.
  • The Murray-Darling is not “running out of water” — there’s too much demand for the annual supply. He then confounds various demands exceeding supplies with “no wonder there’s a water shortage.” False explanations lead people to pursue the wrong remedies.

** I also had a pre-publication draft, so I am not 100 percent sure that all of these comments are relevant to the final version.