Saturday, April 28, 2012

Water: The Big Thirst

Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, 
But there is also a third thing, that makes it water 
And nobody knows what it is. 
--D.H. Lawrence, "The Third Thing"
Heads up on a new book; THE BIG THIRST - The Secret Life & Turbulent Future of Water,  by Charles Fishman, published last year by Simon & Schuster.

The book is about our relationship with water; it uses live examples from different locales that share similar challenges, including Las Vegas, Atlanta, Australia, India and others. 
He points out that we are stuck with the amount of water the earth contains, and that water is free; although it often does not exist in sufficient quantity and/or quality where or when we humans may need -or want- it. 

While the impacts of population growth/demographics and climate change do exacerbate water availability challenges, still many of these can be overcome by understanding local situations and simply changing our attitudes and habits about water.
A large part of the problem is assuming that water is free, yet neglecting the costs of cleaning and distributing it which are certainly not free, especially if we aren't willing to differentiate between basic needs and wants that are wasteful. 

An example is why should we treat all water to drinking standards -even for watering the lawn or flushing toilets?
Why not recycle gray water, or use collected rainwater for these purposes? 
There are places where these practices are now being followed, both out of necessity and costs. So-called 'purple pipes' have already become essential in Las Vegas and parts of Australia, where conservation is now being considered not only smart, but critically important.
Of course, each community must decide on the changes that it needs, and how to pay for these.

Another common sense concept is having each area agree to a basic water allocation model along these lines:
First, a certain percentage of any fresh water source needs to be retained for sustaining itself, whether a surface lake or steam, or underground aquifer supplying wells. 
Next, a certain percentage of the water is retained for free human needs; drinking water, food preparation, sanitary purposes.
For critical institutional and essential processing purposes requiring a secure supply, a percentage of treated water is provided at a price to reflect its value.
Last, the remaining water -which may vary based upon higher priorities- is provided at a price for general purposes, but only as it s available.
Doesn't that sound like a reasonable way to allocate water?

We tried to develop a system similar to that several years ago, but that effort failed to reach agreement and now languishes as expensive 'shelf art' somewhere in the bowels of our County Courthouse, where it awaits the coming of a County Executive and Council bold enough and wise enough to dust it off and complete it.

I have posted a few blogs on this very topic, but these two entries summarize it best:

9/30/07  WRIA-1: Whatcom County's Unfinished Water Business

5/23/09   WRIA-1: Wasted Resources or Important Asset?
There is also a reading group guide at the end of the book which poses some really insightful questions.
For those interested, here's a couple that seem to fit us here pretty well:

#5 Throughout The Big Thirst, Fishman returns to the idea that water is too inexpensive. At one point, he writes, "If you had to pick one thing to fix about water, one thing that would help you fix everything else - scarcity, unequal distribution, misuse, waste, skewed priorities, resistance to reuse, shortsighted exploitation of natural resources - that one thing is price. The right price changes everything else about water." [see p. 291]
Do you agree?
If water should be priced more fairly, how would you go about doing that? What would you do with the fresh revenue from more expensive water? Is there a way of increasing the price of water without hurting poor people, without increasing the price of every product that reins on water?
When you start to think like we think, you don't see water in the pipes. You see dollar signs. --Eric Berliner, IBM water manager in Burlington, Vermont

#8 Plenty of places in the U.S. have ample water resources. Is there any value in "conserving" water, or creating water awareness, in communities that have abundant water?
How would you make the case for smart water use to citizens in a community where the water supply itself isn't under any pressure?
Are there any other issues besides simple availability that ordinary people should be paying attention to?
"When I came to work here, our attitude was, "Just shut up and turn on the faucet." That was a huge mistake. We were all going to run out of water in 1995. --Patricia Mulroy, water czar of Las Vegas since 1989
Here's a Crosscut blog on this same book.