Got this one as a gift from my awesome bro-in-law Maury Sterling, who heard the author on an NPR story & thought he sounded like the Michael Pollan of water. Sounds good to me, though perhaps a tall order. Fishman’s got great material and a lively, slightly breathless, prose style, but not quite Pollan’s speculative range. I do like the watery focus.
I especially like the second chapter, “The Secret Life of Water,” which reminds us that our planet’s water originally “came from an interstellar cloud somewhere in the Milky Way” (29), that liquid water is concentrated on the planet’s surface, except that roughly 5 times as much water as flows above ground is stored inside rocks within the planet , which perhaps explains the relative stability of the depth of the oceans (39), and that all the water on the planet has been circulating for a very long time — each glass of water we drink or drop of rain that hits our skin fell or flowed during the age of the dinosaurs, and much earlier also. Water is also, as he reminds us, the essential chemical for life as we know it.
There’s some very nice reporting here from Australia, working through a brutal 10-year drought that’s drained the Murray River, and India, with perhaps the most dysfunctional domestic water policy of any large, growing-rich, nation. Mike Young, who teaches at the U of Adelaide, has an elegant scheme for proper water use allocation: first, “maintenance water” (enough to keep the rivers flowing), next “critical human needs” (washing and drinking), then “high security water” (which is somewhat expensive), and last “low security water” (which is fairly cheap, but on dry years might not be plentiful). He estimates that the first 2 categories will take 20% off the top in most years, then a price system will allocate the high v low security needs of agriculture, industry, etc (281-87). It rationalizes the currently haphazard system: “Allocating the opportunities to use water gives us the quality of life we have” (287).
Thinking about fresh water, which is the bulk of water use policy questions, also leads Fishman to a striking aphorism
There is no global water crisis, because all water problems are local.
Simply b/c it’s so hard to move water, and so much water is lost in transit, this watershed-centric mantra suggests that we might need to push back against our globalist views. I’m reminded of the sage of Middlebury’s vision of local energy and food economies.
I wonder if we might want to revise that aphorism a bit —
All fresh water is local; all salt water is global.
That doesn’t quite work for the fresh water moved by clouds and rainstorms, in which water molecules spend an average of 9 days in gaseous form, but it’s an interesting way to think about local/global issues. Or maybe what Fishman means is that all water shortages are local — the only way to repair them is to clean & reuse the water that’s already near at hand. The planet-wide circulation of salt water, which drove global commerce and settlement in the Age of Sail, doesn’t really speak to irrigation or “thirst,” except perhaps via big desalinization plants like the one Fishman describes in Perth.
Fishman also takes pains not to sound too gloomy — here he reminds me a bit of the “least depressing book on fishing” that came out last year — and he cites Las Vegas’s strict recycling system, recently constructed in the face of massive population growth and very little water, as a model. Despite resistance to “toilet to tap” cleaning systems, he seems pretty convinced they are the wave of the future, as in a two-tier systems providing drinking water and also “purple-spigot” water for outdoor use. Farmers especially needs to improve water policies, whether in the Murray Basin or the Imperial Valley of CA: “Agriculture needs a blue revolution to follow its green revolution” (303).