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

This article was produced in partnership with

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 Barnett in 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.

I opened the book in Sacramento because no metro area in the nation better captured this irony. This progressive municipal government was spending heavily on light rail, constructing only green city buildings, diversifying its energy portfolio – while neglecting the fact that it has some of the highest per-capita water use in the world.

TL: Blue Revolution is a call for a water ethic for the nation. How do you define a water ethic, and how do you spread it across a country that, as you point out, is covered in 63,240 square miles of turf grass?

CB: A water ethic means making sure the way we live with water today doesn’t jeopardize fresh, clean water for our children and ecosystems tomorrow. Aldo Leopold gave us a land ethic. His son Luna Leopold, former chief hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a distinguished professor at UC Berkeley, extended the land ethic to water. Luna described it as a set of guiding beliefs for government, large water users and citizens. So yes, while it’s crazy that we’ve covered the nation with more than 63,240 square miles of turf grass, the shared nature of our responsibility to water is key. We know that agriculture and energy each drink up about 40% of the U.S. water pie. So the ethic is much bigger than asking citizens not to water the grass. It’s a new way of living with and valuing water in every sector of the economy.

The water ethic will take hold in the same way we’ve come to change other norms, like littering. I interviewed psychologists who study littering behavior. The research shows we’re absolutely capable of significant ethical change in one generation. In 1969, half of all Americans littered. By 2009 it was 15%. We owe this remarkable change in part to inspired political leadership, private industry buy-in, successful educational campaigns and government regulation. But what changed the culture more than any other factor was emergence of a public conviction that littering is unacceptable – an ethic. Once citizens came to the ethic, it was they who pressured government and private industry. It will be the same with water. Neither regulators, nor industry, nor environmentalists, nor the courts have been able to lead this change. It’s up to the rest of us.

TL: You talk about how the Dust Bowl helped give rise to Aldo Leopold's land ethic. How do you think the drought now gripping more than half the United States might frame the water ethic?

CB: When the Dust Bowl carried apocalyptic black clouds and tons of dirt across the nation in the 1930s, including to Washington, DC, Americans and their political leaders began to see the relationship between our treatment of the land and its health – and how soil conservation and land management could help avoid future disasters. In the 1940s, Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac picked up that message from a tiny community of conservationists and broadcast it to the world.

While he also talked about the connection to water, that part never took hold as strongly. This is because the water crisis is hidden to most Americans; we live under an illusion of water abundance. Water flows from our taps like magic. We enjoy an endless and cheap supply of clean water. And we are more than happy to be absolved of the realities of wastewater. Americans don’t see anything wrong with pumping precious groundwater up from a declining aquifer, treating it at their great expense to meet federal drinking-water standards, then flushing it down the toilet or pouring it on the grass – because the enormous ecological impacts, expense and effort behind each step are invisible.

TL: Do we need something as catastrophic as massive drought to spur action?

CB: The question is whether even catastrophe will make a difference. As you pointed out, more than half the country is withering in drought. The High Plains region, where aquifer depletion is some of the most severe in the nation, is suffering “exceptional” drought. At the same time, meteorologists are reporting rainfall extremes month after month. Just as the 1930s drought and soil disasters cried out for us to change the way we lived with the land, today’s climate conditions make clear that it’s time to change the way we live with water.

TL: When people think about our country’s water woes, they often first think of the desert Southwest , but what kind of water issues are you seeing where you’re based in the Southeast?

CB: My first book, Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S., tells the strange tale of how water is disappearing in the nation’s second-wettest state. The CliffsNotes are that Florida set out to get rid of water, but got rid of too much. In the 19th century, we perfected the art of draining swampland. In the 20th century, we got really good at pumping groundwater up from the Floridan Aquifer. Beginning in the 1950s, the Floridan, one of the most prodigious aquifers in the world, began to suffer the consequences – plummeting groundwater levels, dried-up lakes and springs, saltwater intrusion along the coasts.

The sad part of the story is that 40 years after Florida created a progressive system of water management to try and halt these losses, the state still hands out groundwater permits like candy. I live in a springs region known for the greatest concentration of freshwater springs in the world. Some have stopped flowing. In some, formerly pane-clear, azure water has turned to algal brown soup.

This might seem relative to a region such as Las Vegas, which lost its freshwater springs in the 1960s. But now, we know how to live differently. We know that everything we do takes less water than it used to – that we can live well without extracting more and more.

I should also mention the tri-state water wars that have raged for more than 20 years among Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers harnesses water for the city of Atlanta in a reservoir called Lake Lanier. This is water that once flowed down the Chattahoochee River and into Florida’s Apalachicola River and Bay, a prime oyster grounds. This summer, by declining to hear the case, the U.S. Supreme Court let Atlanta’s use of the Chattahoochee stand, and sent the three states back to the table to figure out a water-sharing plan.          

A friend who spends a lot of time on the Apalachicola describes a “thin, gaunt ribbon of water where the ‘Big River’ once flowed,” tall grasses growing where sandbars used to be, navigable creeks turned into footpaths, former ponds vanished from the surrounding woods.  Meanwhile taxpayers in the three states have spent more than $30 million in legal fees in just the past 10 years on this fight.

Such situations make clear that neither the legal system, nor government regulation, nor costly technical fixes are working to save our freshwaters for future generations and ecosystems. The one solution that stands above these others is the ethic – transforming our water practices today in the same tangible ways we changed soil practices in the wake of the Dust Bowl.

Deliberately different choices like not subsidizing the crops that are going in freshwater ecosystems. Water-efficient power plants. Reusing water and harvesting rain for irrigation, cooling towers and toilets before diverting the river or building the energy-intense desalination plant. Re-making the miles of concrete culverts that carry stormwater out of thirsty metro areas from Miami to Los Angeles – into miles of rain gardens, trees and green roofs.

TL: What were some of the most inspirational places you visited, in the US and abroad, that were really getting it right with water policies or innovations?

CB: The Dutch and the Australians are inspirational for how they’ve learned to live amid the two extremes that America faces – too much water in the Netherlands and too little in Australia.  

Blue Revolution’s chapter on the Netherlands tells the story of how that country spent more than $6 billion and four decades on the Delta Works – intense barricades meant to protect the country from the North Sea – only to be surprised by river flooding as one of the first impacts of climate change.

The coastal barriers meant there was no place for all that extra water to go – but up and over river dikes, causing more than $1 billion in flood damage. Today, the Dutch have made an extraordinary turnaround for a country whose history is defined by building stronger and stronger dikes. They are working to re-establish historic watersheds, tearing down some dikes, flooding agricultural land with fair compensation to farmers, restoring wetlands on the grand scale.

Australia is another country that has turned around its relationship with water, in its case after enduring a drought so severe that some people predicted Perth might be the world’s first major metropolis abandoned for lack of freshwater. Most of what you read about Australia’s response to the Big Dry involves desalination plants on the coast or water markets in the agricultural areas.

But another important part of the story is the new urgency to keep as much water as possible in natural systems – restoring wetlands, managing forests for water supply, returning water to nature as a water-supply strategy. Most dramatically, half the country’s “new” water is coming from conservation efficiency, thanks to a revolution of small technologies – small as in micro-irrigation for farming and waterless everything, from waterless urinals to waterless carwashes to waterless woks in the Chinese restaurants.

Here in the United States, San Antonio, Texas, is an interesting case of an extremely wasteful city that developed an ethic for water. Even as the metro economy and population are some of the fastest growing in the nation, people and businesses there use about half the water they used to. It was interesting to see how the ethic and the feeling of responsibility for water spread among players as diverse as building supervisors and church groups. Now, the idea is to spread it across the rest of the country.

TL: You say in Blue Revolution that “challenging America's water giveaways in 12-oz servings is like confronting climate change on the basis of lightbulbs alone ....” Do you believe bottled water activists have hurt the larger cause by taking attention away from the largest users?

CB: I understand their commodification arguments and I don’t think it makes sense to buy bottled water. I just wish people knew the greater context – the much-larger giveaways of our freshwater to other private industries, well underway since the mid-19th century. When you look around the country at the most alarming impacts to freshwaters, they involve agriculture, mining, diversions for utilities, and so on.

A water ethic would take stock of all use, including that of the beverage brokers, which pump about 9 billion gallons a year in the United States. Thermoelectric power diverts 201 billion gallons a day. Agricultural irrigation pulls 128 billion gallons daily. U.S. industries tap 18 billion. Mining is 4 billion. We also must look in the mirror, at water for the public – 44 billion gallons a day.

TL: What should activists be focusing on to increase awareness of our water problems?

CB: What are the major water uses in your community? Are government and industry working together to use less, or are some industries extracting more while citizens are asked to use less? What are the major causes of water pollution in your community? Is your government’s water strategy based on the 20th-century model of reaching farther and farther out to find new water, or on a 21st-century vision to return as much water as possible to aquifers, rivers and wetlands?

TL: In Blue Revolution you write: “A natural water body somewhere feeds every tap and toilet in the nation. But most people couldn’t identify their water source. So how would they know if it’s in trouble?”

Is our main problem really just a total lack of ecological literacy?

CB: That’s a big part of it. A Nature Conservancy poll last year found that 77 percent of Americans didn’t know the natural source of the water flowing out of their faucet. I suspect a much higher percentage don’t know where their water ultimately ends up after it swirls down the drain.

Don’t get me wrong: The conveyance of clean water into our cities, and the movement of wastewater out, was among the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, saving countless lives. But now, that great achievement has become an entitlement. The resulting ethos has led to these degraded freshwaters, enormous energy consumption to move water around, financially unstable utilities and other problems.

It’s entirely possible to live differently and it’s cheaper to live differently, but why would we, when the problems are largely invisible?

TL: Increasingly we are turning to more extreme forms of energy extraction — tar sands mining, mountaintop removal mining, fracking. How do we get water to become part of the equation when we evaluate how we get our energy?

CB: Not only the extractive industries you mention, but almost every type of energy generation – including low-carbon power sources – has an intense impact on water resources, from corn-ethanol production in some of the most drought-prone regions to nuclear facilities, which demand more water per kilowatt-hour than any other type of power plant. One part of the answer/ethic is that ecological literacy. We’ve seen proposed coal plants fall all over the country, partly in response to citizen opposition to mountaintop-removal mining and the impact it has on fellow Americans and mountain streams.

Almost every state outside the Southeast has a renewable-energy portfolio standard (see the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency). State and national energy policy should aim for lower freshwater use just as they do lower carbon emissions. Scientists who’ve analyzed all energy sources in the broader context of sustainability point to wind as having the least impact on water. At the very least, we shouldn’t be subsidizing energy sources that damage freshwaters.

Of course, the most important part of the answer is that changing the way we use water would dramatically lower U.S. energy demand.

TL: What’s the likelihood we’re going to hear a question in the presidential and vice-presidential debates coming up that is related to water? What’s the most important question we should be asking of our highest elected officials?

CB: To put a twist on the Steve Jobs line: As likely as asking for and receiving a glass of ice water in hell? Even if asked, neither candidate seems to grasp the type of change needed. Earlier this month, Scientific American asked both candidates to answer the top science questions facing the nation, including: “What steps, if any, should the federal government take to secure clean, abundant freshwater for all Americans?” Your readers can find the 14 Q&As here and decide for themselves, but it was clear to me that the freshwater answers were the weakest of the 14.

No mention of the epic drought, surely a top concern of voters in the Heartland. If you dig a little further, into each party’s platform, the message seems to be that more money for more water infrastructure is the answer.

That was the 20th-century answer – and it has left us high and dry.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.