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Only a Revolution in Our Thinking Can Save Us From a Water Crisis

Cynthia Barnett's new book, "Blue Revolution" issues a call for an American water ethic.


This article was produced in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

We like to flush our toilets. A lot. Our flush figure for the U.S. is at 5.7 billion gallons a day in our homes alone. It's one of the great examples of American excess -- people across the world don't have enough clean drinking water, and yet we're happy to send it down the drain.

Of course, the last laugh may be on us. As we head into the fall nearly half of U.S. states are experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. Lack of rainfall is the easy culprit, but the truth is we don't manage our water resources well enough to deal with times of shortage. Just ask Atlanta, which went nearly bone-dry in 2007 or Las Vegas, which is working on an engineering a pricy $15 billion water pipeline to supplement its dwindling stocks. We can't blame it all on our flushing frenzy though; power plants and agriculture suck up the vast majority of our water. Not to mention the fact that industry often gets a free pass to pollute, our city managers fail to account for water when green-lighting new development, and we turn the other way when asked to consider the impacts of climate change.

"America needs nothing less than a revolution in how we use water," writes water journalist and author Cynthia Barnettin her book Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis (Beacon Press). The book, which was just released in paperback, calls for not just a green movement but a blue one, in order to recognize the critical importance of water in our lives and how threatened freshwater reserves have become -- whether in our lakes, rivers, aquifers or reservoirs. Barnett takes a critical eye to the U.S. in how we use water, but also takes readers on a worldwide journey so we can learn from countries like the Netherlands, Singapore and Australia.

While highlighting the crises we face, the ultimate goal of the book is transformation. The "revolution in how we use water" is no understatement, but it can be accomplished. Barnett gives concrete examples to help get us there, but the change we need is massive and it begins, she says, with the need for an American water ethic, reminiscent of Aldo Leopold's famous land ethic.

In a conversation with AlterNet, Barnett explained how we can achieve a national water ethic, why it's so critical that we change our actions and our views, and what tough work we need to begin doing now.

Tara Lohan : Blue Revolution opens in Sacramento, which you describe as a green city missing the blue. What do you mean by that, in the context of both California and the nation as a whole?

Cynthia Barnett: I began reporting on Blue Revolution in the context of the green craze. As Congress and the president’s office crafted the stimulus bill in early 2009 with an eye toward sustainability, it was incredible that water wasn’t a bigger part of the conversation. Using water is one of the most energy-intensive things we do as a society – pumping water up from our aquifers, piping it around our cities, heating it, treating it. So one of the best ways to use less energy is to use less water. Ultimately, less than 1% of the stimulus went to water and wastewater. But the real shame was that almost all of that money went to old-style infrastructure rather than efficiency projects that would help us live differently with water, which is what is desperately needed.

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