Cynthia Barnett’s book, Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the scope and taproots of the growing U.S. water crisis, the role of the water-industrial complex, the harm from the constant reengineering of natural systems, and the need for a new water ethic.
By vividly describing the way the Netherlands and Singapore met their water challenges, the book paints a dramatic picture of the possible. Even water-wasteful Western Australia finally adopted a new water ethic.
Singapore treats enough wastewater (a word it eschews in favor of “used water”) to meet 30% of its water demand. Even Singapore couldn’t accomplish its water objectives with a carrot and stick until it decided to change its water culture and created places where Singaporeans could develop a deep connection with water.
Americans look for new sources of water, transport it with pumps, bring it up to drinking water standards, then flush it down the toilet and spray it on the lawn. This “take, make, waste” approach to water no longer works in the climate change era.
“Efficiency can often net as much water as many infrastructure projects” and it’s far cheaper. Water efficiency costs between $450 and $1,600 for every million gallon it saves,” far less than every other new water source, including desalination which now “costs about $15,000 for the same million gallons.”
The future will require highly local and decentralized solutions, which may require a big reversal of the transformation of the water supply industry over the last two decades as a result of a wave of acquisitions in the 1990s and early 2000s. Locally owned water management firms have been acquired by global conglomerates. The U.S. defense and water industries “are increasingly one and the same: three of the top 20 water engineering concerns in the U.S. are part of global conglomerates that also make the list of the top 20 private defense contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Barrett writes.
Barrett does a good job explaining “the business of blue.” She urges people: “Look beyond the two extreme views of privatization—it is neither evil nor a panacea.”
Citizens must get involved in pricing water so they stop subsidizing big users without hurting the poor. We need to think hard about pricing to reflect water’s value. It is quite a challenge to figure out how to price the essence of life. One solution would be David Zetland’s model: “Some water for free. Pay for more.”
But neither pricing nor technology is the answer, as Barrett argues. “What America needs most is a water ethic, flowing seen and unseen through the culture like the lifeblood that courses through our rivers and underground.”