The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, by Charles Fishman, a three-time winner of the Gerald Loeb Award for business journalism, is a brilliant, engrossing, and invaluable book that entertains while it educates. Fishman writes lyrically, passionately, and often humorously about water, using his considerable storytelling skills to describe our relationship to water.
He writes that the golden age of cheap and abundant water is ending. “Everything about water is about to change—how we use water, how we share it, how we think about it.”
All water crises are local or regional, as their solutions must be. The good news is that most water problems are eminently solvable, and that our water management has been “so cavalier, so profligate” that we can do better fast.
One out of every 6 gallons that U.S. water utilities pump into water mains simply leaks away. Americans clean up water to drinking water standards, then flush most of it down the toilet or spray it on the lawn.
“The brilliant invisibility of our water system has become its most significant vulnerability.” Americans take their always-on, cheap supplies of water for granted. To buy a bottle of water, they pay 3000 times the price for the same amount of tap water. In one year, they pay almost as much for bottled water as it costs to maintain the entire water system of the country.
“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 water resources—that one thing is price.”
However, some water has to be outside the market system to fix “the first glass problem” (to ensure everyone has access to enough cheap water to satisfy their basic needs), and to ensure enough water is preserved to sustain the ecosystem itself.
The chapter “The Yuck Factor” which describes how communities have dealt with “the toilet-to-tap” conundrum is particularly enlightening. We purify water for high-tech industries until it’s so clean it would be toxic to drink. Yet mental filters remain a problem, making it hard for people to accept using recycled wastewater (what goes in the sewer) as drinking water.
Only a few cities have had the courage to solve that challenge, and it turns out that some approaches work better than others. There’s a lot to be learned from Fishman’s stories about recycled water and dinosaur pee.
The Big Thirst goes a long way to solving our biggest problem with water: our water illiteracy.