Trib+Water is joining with respected books authority Kirkus Reviews to bring you select reviews of books of note in the field of water studies. For more book reviews and recommendations, visit Kirkus.com.
by Cynthia Barnett
Water, water everywhere. Or not.
“Somehow, America’s green craze has missed the blue,” writes environmental journalist Barnett (Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S., 2007). A good citizen of Sacramento wouldn’t dream of throwing a plastic bottle in the trash, and yet, California’s capital, which calls itself “Sustainable Sacramento,” uses 300 gallons of water per person per day, 8.5 times the consumption of watery Holland, and about four times the consumption of similarly dry Perth, Australia. Small wonder that reservoirs such as Lake Mead, on which Las Vegas depends, are rapidly being drawn down to the sand—though, admittedly, drought and climate change have as much to do with it as careless drinkers. The problem is endemic, writes the author. It’s not just the arid West that is suffering, since even moist places such as Florida are rapidly using up their groundwater supplies. As with so much else, it all comes down to human actions: Conserving water and changing how we manage it would do a great deal to relieve the ever-accelerating crisis. Yet “using water ethically” in this way, as she puts it, faces formidable challenges, among them the “water-industrial complex” and its powerful lobby, aimed at preserving the huge profits that come with the control of one of the few things that humans actually need to live. Other enemies of progress, writes Barnett, are the squabbles over water fought by “lawyers billing by the hour rather than by communities drawn together in a shared ethic”; agricultural subsidies seemingly designed to encourage major users of water to be profligate; and politicians who resist the notion that Americans should have to curb their appetites at all. The subject is ripe for moralizing, but Barnett generally keeps the conversation at a practical level, noting, helpfully, that no American set out deliberately to exhaust the nation’s water supply any more than the Soviets “set out to create the disaster of the Aral Sea.”
Thorough and packed with data but a touch dry. General readers will find much of the same information in Brian Fagan’s more engaging book Elixir (2011).
by Bonnie Henderson
Eugene-based nature writer Henderson (Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris, 2008, etc.) organizes her narrative around the ways of Pacific tsunamis and the geology underlying them, with a focus on an utterly logical hero: Tom Horning, who, in 1964, barely escaped the freak tidal wave that destroyed much of the region.
Resulting from an Alaskan earthquake, though, that great oceanic swell might not have been as freakish as all that. As Henderson writes, though the average interval between such events was about 240 years in the “southernmost segment of the rupture zone,” the law of probability points to more frequent action along “a coast that only occasionally but devastatingly was wiped clean by giant tsunamis triggered by giant earthquakes.” Naturally, locals—not least Horning, now a geologist—paid close attention to the Japanese tsunami of 2011, and though that did not visit destruction on the Pacific Northwest, it’s pretty clear that even with the programs of retrofitting and building-code upgrading that Henderson describes, the region is likely to suffer greatly once the next big one hits. The author does service in pointing to possible events that have long been overshadowed by projections of the next major earthquake in the vastly more populated areas to the south. Although her prose is more scattershot than the densely layered encyclopedism of John McPhee’s geological writings, she covers a great deal of scientific ground while never losing sight of the human interest side of the story. As with McPhee, there’s poetry to her ground truthing, too: “Sonar alone could not reveal the existence of these ridges; sediments coursing down the Columbia River for millennia had filled and smoothed the bathymetry of the ocean floor here.”
Of more than local interest, though Northwesterners should pay particularly close attention to the news Henderson brings.
by Alex Prud’homme
Freelance journalist Prud’homme (The Cell Game: Sam Waksal’s Fast Money and False Promises—and the Fate of ImClone’s Cancer Drug, 2004, etc.) offers a comprehensive, even encyclopedic, survey of the dangers, debates, frustrations, failures, technology, greed, apathy and rage that whirlpool around the phenomenally complex issue of freshwater.
The author conducted interviews with principals on all sides of the issue—consumers, entrepreneurs, politicians, business executives, bureaucrats, the rich and the thirsty—and visited key sites, and he provides a generally balanced view of the looming freshwater crisis. He educates us about the depletion of aquifers, the role of big business in the race for water (billions of dollars at stake), the demands that power generation (coal, nuclear) place on water resources, the effects of agricultural runoff on rivers, oceans and marine life, the process of wastewater treatment, global warming, the difference between “gray water” and “black water,” the fragility of cities (due to water demand) as geographically distant as New York City and Los Angeles, the mining industry’s passion for some prime Alaska real estate, droughts and floods, dams and salmon, desalination, shrinking reservoirs and our human determination to keep doing what we’re doing until it’s too late to save ourselves. Prud’homme lauds the Dutch for looking ahead and protecting their land (at enormous expense), and the Singaporeans for their stewardship; praises Intel for recycling much of the water used in computer-chip fabrication; blasts the bottled-water industry, reminding us that about half of the products available are mere tap water—and they generate all those throwaway bottles that most people don’t bother to recycle. And what would a story about liquid gold be without a walk-on by T. Boone Pickens? Hopefully, the author’s commonsensical solutions will be heeded.
As essential work about a topic too-often ignored.