Published in Rolling Stone
We take water for granted. And why not? We turn a tap and out it comes. But that’s going to have to change, says author Alex Prud’homme. As he explains in a new book, The Ripple Effect, the basic problem is this: the quantity of water in the world is finite, but demand is everywhere on the rise. As oil was in the 20th century – the key resource, a focus of tension, even conflict – so water will be of the 21st, as states, countries, and industries compete over the ever-more-precious resource. So we need to figure out how to use it more sustainably. But that’s not all. In the United States fresh water is under threat from new kinds of barely understood pollutants, from pesticides to pharmaceuticals, and from a last-century infrastructure of pipes, dams, levees, sewage plants that urgently needs upgrading.
All this and (much) more you’ll learn from The Ripple Effect, a book that will forever change the way you think about what comes out of your faucet. (A film based on the book, titled Last Call at the Oasis, produced by the same folks who brought us An Inconvenient Truth and Food Inc., is in preparation.) Rolling Stone recently got Prud’homme on the phone to talk about thirst, waste and the fate of fresh water.
Reading the book, I was really struck by how fundamental water is to so many processes.
Right. Water is considered an “axis resource,” meaning it’s the resource that underlies all others. So whether you’re building a computer chip, or growing crops, or generating power, all these things require lots of water. But there’s only a finite amount of water, and now resources are butting up against each other.
At the same time, you point out, we waste a lot of water.
We’re using our water supplies unsustainably. In America, we can turn the tap on at any time of day and get as much water as we want at any temperature for as long as we want. And, consequently, we take it for granted. Which is unusual: In most places in the world it’s very difficult to get water on a regular basis.
Water is virtually free. Is that a big part of why we take it for granted?
Yes. There’s not a great economic incentive to use it efficiently. I came to believe after all this research that we need to value water more highly.
Does that mean putting a price on water? Even privatizing it?
That’s probably the trickiest question in water today, because it raises a moral dilemma. Is water a common, like the air we breathe? If it is, it should be free to everyone. Or is it a commodity, like oil or gas, that process and sell in the marketplace? On the one hand, if you don’t price water, people waste it. On the other hand, if we price it too high, then you are playing a game of life and death, predicated on making a profit.
Is there a middle ground?
Yes. We need to provide a certain amount of water to every person, essentially for free. And that figure is about 13 gallons per capita per day. In the U.S., that’s not very much water, but in a place like sub-Saharan Africa or China or India, it’s a lot. Beyond that, we should institute a tiered price structure. So that the more water you use, the more you will pay for it.
Let’s talk about what’s in our water. I was shocked to learn that our water is more polluted now than it was 30 years ago.
The environmental laws that were instituted in the ’70s – the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the founding of the EPA – were largely the result of water issues, and we tend to say, “Okay, we’ve dealt with that, let’s move on.” But the EPA has been under-funded and weakened even as the stresses on the system have grown and new kinds of pollutants have come on to the marketplace.
What kinds of pollutants?
There’s something like 700 new chemicals – they’re called “emerging contaminants” – that come on the market every year. Many of which are not tested for their toxicity, because there’s just too many of them. And the questions are, what’s the impact of all these things, individually, and what is the combined effect? What happens when that cocktail of things – say, lead, plastic, anti-bacterial soap, Chanel No. 5, narcotics and, say, Viagra – is in the water supply? What does it do to us? Again, we don’t know the answer, but these are the cutting-edge questions right now.
How much do we know?
To take one example: You spray your lawn with herbicides, which contain a chemical called Atrizine, which, if and when it gets in the waterways, will disrupt the endocrine system of fish. In the Chesapeake Bay, where I spent a lot of time, the U.S. Geological Survey is now looking at male bass that are developing eggs in their testes. And there are other cases where the female fish are developing testes. It turns out the endocrine system of fish is very similar to that of humans. So, again, what is this doing to us?
And these are on top of the old-fashioned pollutants.
Right. You have the “legacy pollutants,” like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), that have been in waterways for decades, and traditional pollutants like sewage and storm water runoff.
Talking of sewage, I was shocked to find that the water treatment process is only partially effective.
Me too. I was surprised to learn that the federal law is that sewage must be cleaned to 85 percent of cleanliness, which means that, even on the best of days, 15 percent of the pollutants get through!
Another big theme of your book is that our water infrastructure is in bad shape. How bad?
The state of our dams and levies and pipelines is shocking. They call this the dawn of the “replacement era,” meaning water pipes are starting to burst, and it’s really difficult – and expensive – to dig them up and replace them. Many levies were not well built, not well maintained, and they’re starting to breach. City sewage systems needs to be totally revamped. New York City’s, for instance, was state-of-the-art 150 years ago, but now it gets overwhelmed, and we actually end up dumping raw sewage into New York’s harbor when that happens.
Let’s get back to the sustainability issue. We need to change the way we value water. What else?
We need to focus on efficiency and conservation. I talk in the book about Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, who is sort of the champion of a new ethos that comes under the name of the “soft path,” as opposed to “hard path” engineering. Soft path is technologically driven, it’s kind of a smarter, less dramatic way of conserving the water supplies that we have, and using them more efficiently.
Fairly simple steps – low-flow showerheads, low-flush toilets, drip irrigation, side-mounting washing machines, storing water underground instead of above ground, where it evaporates. These are not super hi-tech, they’re existing technologies, we just haven’t used them intentionally enough yet. And Gleick will tell you that if everyone in California got low-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads, that even there, in the fastest-growing state in the union, they wouldn’t have to build new dams.
Did working on the book change the way you use water?
It did. Once I got into this, I discovered to my horror that I was wasting water in many small ways. So now I recycle water much more. I’m very careful about what I put down the drain; I used to put pharmaceuticals down the drain, because that’s what we were told to do, but I realize now that many of those survive the treatment process and end up in the water supply. We now have a more efficient, low-flush toilet. I have fixed leaks in my house. The stat that I remember is that a dripping faucet can drip ten gallons a day of water – water that’s been carefully collected and cleaned and piped to you. That’s just a crazy waste of resources.