Alex Prud’homme Says Mankind Has Taken
Water for Granted, Now Faces Looming Crisis
Brooklyn-based writer Alex Prud’homme has covered a broad spectrum of subjects as a contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Talk and Time. He co-authored a book, My Life In France, with Julia Child, and another, Forewarned, a book about terrorism and global politics, with Michael Cherkasky.
In this Q&A provided to the Eagle, Prud’homme describes how he latched onto the topic of water for his new book, The Ripple Effect.
Water is quite a departure from Julia Child and French cooking, the subject of your last book. What inspired you to take on H2O?
I have always had water on the brain — I like to swim, fish, boat, ski or just stare at water, and I minored in oceanography in college, so I was predisposed to write about water. The spark for The Ripple Effect was the day I shared a bottle of French mineral water with Julia Child over lunch. She explained how the French enjoy the taste of minerals in their water and consider bottled water a healthy “digestive,” while Americans prefer water stripped of minerals and taste, and think of bottled water as a refreshing “beverage.”
Then she told me about the private water companies that began in Napoleonic France, and have since grown into very profitable, and controversial, global businesses. That evening we continued the conversation with her niece’s husband, Bob Moran. He is a hydrogeologist who does water projects around the world, a kind of Indiana Jones of hydrology. Bob explained that water is an “axis resource” — the resource underlying every other one, from electric power to gold to oil and food — and that humans are using it at unsustainable rates. I was both fascinated and horrified by this insight (always a good sign for a reporter) and as soon as I was finished with Julia’s book, I dove into the subject of water.
Why have experts predicted that water is set to become the “oil of the 21st century”?
Oil is an important resource, in limited supply, and it’s fair to say it dominated geopolitics over the last century. But that was an exception. For most of history, water has been the crucial resource for man. We have always built our communities around a reliable supply of potable water. In the 21st century — as the population grows and the climate changes — water will reassert itself as the defining resource. Unlike oil, water is essential. It is life. As the saying has it: “You can live without oil, but not without water.”
Today, there are 6.9 billion people on earth: 1 billion of us don’t have access to clean water, and over 2.6 billion — mostly the very young or old — live in unsanitary conditions, which lead to disease and death. By 2050, the global population is expected to surpass 9 billion people. As nations like China and India rapidly develop, and shift to a more meat-centric diet, water use is doubling every 20 years. The U.N. fears that human demand will outstrip the earth’s supply of accessible, potable water by 2030.
Climate change complicates matters further. Some parts of the world will become hotter and drier, and will suffer increased drought; others will become wetter, and suffer floods. Storms will become more frequent and more intense. The hydrologic cycle will speed up, which will have a whole series of repercussions.
So, the earth’s finite supply of fresh water is under pressure, and like oil, it could become a flashpoint for conflict, maybe even wars, this century.
What are the most immediate threats to our country’s water supply?
The main problem is that we don’t value water highly enough: we take it for granted, and that approach is not sustainable. This results in a ripple effect — a series of consequences that are often unintended, and that most of us are unaware of. Some of these ripples include:
-Today, nearly 40 years after the environmental movement of the early 1970s that brought us the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, we are faced with the astonishing fact that our water quality is actually getting worse, not better. Water pollution seriously impacts human and environmental health.
-Because water is priced very low, or is free, we waste it. There is little metering to find out how much we use,[and] there is not much incentive for people to use it efficiently. In places like the Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer, we are depleting our water supplies for short-term gain instead of managing it wisely for the long term. This is like running your savings account dry.
We are not preparing ourselves for climate change, especially the predicted increase in droughts and floods. [And] we manage water today in much the same way we did a century ago, but the world around is changing. It’s like we’re using the manual for a 1910 Model T to try to repair a 2010 Prius — it makes no sense, and unless we adapt ourselves, we will suffer the consequences.
Most Americans never think twice about their water. Why should they/we pay attention now?
To start with, there is the obvious point: We humans are made up of about 71 percent water, so the state of the earth’s water has a lot to do with our health and happiness.
But the larger answer is that the planet contains the same amount of water today that it always has had — about 332.5 million cubic miles of H2O. It sounds like a lot, but that number is misleading. Most of the earth’s water is too salty or frozen to use. In fact, only three-tenths of 1 percent of the earth’s water is clean enough, and accessible enough, for human use. In the meantime, the number of people using this finite supply, how they use it, and where and why they use it has changed dramatically.
We are depleting our supplies – many of our biggest rivers, like the Colorado, no longer reach the sea.
And historically dry places, like Atlanta, Georgia, or Australia, are suddenly faced with unprecedented floods. Meanwhile, historically wet places, like Seattle, are facing unexpected dry periods or drought. This is the new hydrologic reality, and we have no choice but to adapt to it — the sooner, the better.
What are the main questions you answer in The Ripple Effect?
- What is in our water?
- How secure is our water supply — from both natural and man-made disasters?
- Are we running out of water, or do we have too much of it?
-Should water be a right — as free as the air we breathe — or is it a commodity, like oil, that should be sold at market rates? Who makes this decision. In other words, who controls the tap?
-As demand for water increases this century, how should we allocate finite supplies — to generate electricity, drill for natural gas, plant corn for ethanol, build new communities, mine precious metals, or sustain fisheries? And what about leaving some water in the environment, for the rest of the ecosystem, on which we depend?
These are difficult questions, without easy answers.
Can you explain briefly what you address in each of the four sections of The Ripple Effect?
Part I is about quality: what’s in our water. I look at pollutants — from manure and industrial waste to so-called emerging contaminants, such as synthetic estrogen, that are causing “intersex” and leading to disease and death in fish. I also look at some surprising new approaches to pollution control, such as using toxic water for medical research, or turning human sewage into drinking supplies.
Part II is about drought: where and why certain parts of the country are becoming drier, how people are adapting (or not), and what the consequences are likely to be.
Part III is about flood: how America’s hydro-infrastructure, such as dams and levees, is aging and underfunded, and insufficient for a future of more frequent and violent storms. Hurricane Katrina was a very serious warning, yet we have not really learned its lessons and are not preparing ourselves for the even greater deluges that have been predicted.
Part IV is about how we use water today and will use it in the future. Here I discuss privatization, bottled water, “resource wars,” and the likelihood of violence over water, but also how we are developing new strategies and technologies — such as desalination, weather modification, efficient irrigation and Soft Path engineering — to adapt to what the U.N. calls “the looming water crisis.” What’s interesting here is that we already have many of the answers in hand, we just haven’t implemented them very well yet.
How long have you been writing The Ripple Effect, and how extensively did you research this topic?
Water is a very large, constantly evolving subject, so it took me a while to wrap my arms around it. I worked on this book for about three-and-a-half years, and interviewed at least 60 or 70 people for it. In the course of reporting, I went across the country — 600 feet underground into New York City’s massive new Water Tunnel No. 3, up to the aquifers around Poland Springs, Maine, down to the dead zones in Chesapeake Bay, the levees that failed New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, out to Hoover Dam and the desert around Las Vegas, an Intel chip plant outside of Phoenix, up to the giant pumps in the San Francisco Bay Delta, and way out onto the Alaskan Peninsula, where I discovered a “resource war” between salmon and copper miners.
Along the way, I met a fascinating cast of characters — people of all stripes who are obsessed by water. It turns out that water, which seems so simple, is actually a complex and highly charged subject. It’s anything but “dry.” Writing this book was a fascinating, grueling, enlightening adventure.
What are the three most “endangered” cities in the U.S. and why they are in peril?
In terms of pollution, I’d argue New York City is the most endangered: It is the most densely populated place in the country, yet its sewer system is ancient and discharges thousands of gallons of rain and untreated sewage into local waters every year (though things are slowly improving). That’s bad enough, but my hometown also features one of the largest oil spills in history, right in the heart of the city. Along Newtown Creek, in Greenpoint, 17 to 30 million gallons of oil and other toxic chemicals, covering 55 acres, has been leaking into the water and soil for over a century. Cleanup has been minimal, and few people understood the scope of the problem until recently. There is anecdotal evidence that the pollutants have contributed to serious health problems, such as clusters of rare bone cancer, in certain neighborhoods — though, of course, it’s impossible to directly connect the seeping oil with any specific disease. I was able to meet some of the people who believe they were affected, and their stories are shocking. Luckily, the EPA has just named Newtown Creek a Superfund cleanup site, and class action suits have been filed against the companies allegedly responsible for its pollution. It’s a remarkable story, and I was shocked to find it practically in my own backyard.
In terms of drought, you could call Los Angeles, or Phoenix, or Dallas “the most threatened city,” but I’d wager that Las Vegas is in the most serious trouble. It’s already the driest city in the nation — it gets only 4 inches of rain a year now, and is in the bull’s-eye for climate change in coming years — and it takes 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, which is in its 12th year of drought. The river and the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam and Lake Mead are at historically low levels. Yet Las Vegas continues to grow, and spread into the desert, and it uses significant amounts of water. The water authority pays people to remove their lawns, and has a controversial plan to pipe water from rural ranches 300 miles north, near the Utah border, but that idea has faced legal challenges and its future is uncertain. So Las Vegas is spending nearly a billion dollars to bore out a new water tunnel that goes deeper into Lake Mead than the existing two. They are very concerned about drought.
In terms of flood, Sacramento, Calif., is the most vulnerable — even more so than New Orleans. Sacramento is sited at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, and adjacent to the San Francisco Bay Delta, which is ringed by old, leaky levees. Californians have been fighting over what to do about the delta since the 1980s, and the result is gridlock. In the meantime, scientists predict a major earthquake or Pacific storm will hit the region, which could liquidate the earthen levees, unleash massive flooding, contaminate the freshwater supply to 25 million Californians and some of the richest farmland in the country. If this were to happen, it would seriously impact California — now the eighth-largest economy in the world — hobble the nation, and send shockwaves through global markets. It would be a catastrophe that would dwarf Hurricane Katrina.
What is the most surprising thing you learned during your research?
I was shocked to learn the poor state of American water in the 21st century. Our waters are becoming more, not less, polluted; and although an increase in droughts and floods has been predicted with a great deal of certainty, we are dithering and not making serious changes to how we manage water.
Having said that, I was also inspired by the many improvements we’ve made, often out of the public eye — for example, the U.S. is using water more efficiently than ever now (though we can do a lot better), which gives me hope that we can make significant strides if we put our minds to it.
So, this mix of concern and inspiration made me think that this was a good time to take the pulse, as it were, of American water.
What makes The Ripple Effect different from other books on water?
First, while there are many books on water out there, most of them are about a single topic — drought, say, or bottled water. I set out to write a book for the general public that covers most of the major water stories of our time without being encyclopedic. If people are curious about water — the resource that will define this century — then I’ve tried to provide a single source of information for them to turn to.
Second, most water books are written by scientists or academics, or someone with an agenda, and while those books are invariably filled with interesting facts, not many of them are told in a narrative, journalistic way. People like stories, regardless of the subject matter, and they care about other people. I am not a hydrologist, but I am a storyteller. I set out to write a topical, entertaining book about the key issues around water, and to tell it in a way that would appeal to a broad audience. I hope it educates, entertains and provokes people.
The U.N. has called the water situation a “looming global crisis”. What will happen if we don’t address the perils facing our water supply in the next 5 years, 10 years, 20 years?
Today, 1 billion people don’t have access to clean water, and more than twice that number don’t have adequate sanitation. The population is growing exponentially. If we don’t figure out how to use water more efficiently and sustainably, the U.N. worries we could tip into a global water crisis — not enough to drink, not enough to eat, disease and death, mass exoduses, perhaps even wars over water.
In the U.S., we need to value water more highly, learn to respect its destructive power, and use it more sustainably. We need to be willing to invest in our dams, aqueducts, levees, and sewage treatment plants, because if we don’t we will face a general collapse. We need to enforce the regulations we have, and write new laws to adapt to new conditions. We need to rationalize the Byzantine system of water governance — Eastern and Western water laws are completely different, and about 20 federal agencies have jurisdiction over water, which causes all sorts of problems. We should develop a comprehensive water plan for the nation, perhaps even appoint a “water czar” or water board to oversee the nation’s supply in a holistic way — as Singapore has done.
What does The Ripple Effect say about why we should be concerned about our consumption of bottled water?
Bottled water isn’t evil, but it is a luxury good that can cost 2,900 times more than tap water. In the U.S. we have some of the best tap water in the world, and we get it practically for free — at any temperature, volume, or time of day we want. In fact, 40 percent of bottled water is simply tap water in a plastic bottle.
I think we should devote more money to our municipal water systems and spend less on plastic bottles of water transported here from Fiji or the Alps.
-Bottled water labels are misleading and incomplete, when they should be accurate and helpful.
-The EPA does a good job of monitoring quality of municipal water systems, but the FDA doesn’t monitor bottled water quality as carefully. This should change.
-Bottled water has a large environmental “footprint.” Water is heavy: it weighs about 8.33 pounds per gallon, so moving it great distances is energy and labor intensive. The plastic bottles used are environmentally unsound, and are not recycled at anywhere near the rate they should be. Companies should do more to reduce the amount of oil and energy used to produce, bottle and move bottled water, and the government should institute a much more aggressive plastic recycling program.
How has learning what you have learned about water changed your daily habits?
Writing this book has changed my water use in many ways, large and small. It comes down to being aware of water and how our use impacts it, and therefore using it more mindfully.
I am extremely careful about what I pour down the drain or spray on my lawn — even antibacterial soap can harm fish and other aquatic life. I drink much more tap than bottled water. I don’t flush the toilet as often as I used to. I turn off lights (power requires lots of water), and never leave the tap running when I brush my teeth. I love a long hot shower, but try to limit that indulgence. And I have come to really appreciate a tall glass of clean, clear, cold water on a hot day.
What does your title, The Ripple Effect, refer to?
The book’s title comes from my observation that every time we use water — even for something as mundane as washing our hands, spraying the lawn, or generating power for light — it sets off deep and wide ripple effects, with consequences that most of us are unaware of. But today we don’t have the luxury of ignorance: We must understand how our actions impact the earth’s limited supply of fresh water, and value water more highly. In fact, we should treat water for what it really is: the most essential resource on earth.