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Essay
Hustle and Flow
As water becomes increasingly scarce, we may have to charge for every drop.

Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It

Island Press, 400 pages, $27.95

In a now-famous interview with The New York Times in 1995, Ismail Serageldin, the World Bank’s vice president for environmentally sustainable development, said, “Many of the wars in this century were about oil, but wars of the next century will be over water.” While the situation is currently considerably less dire in the United States than in many other places around the world, an escalating fight over water in the coming years is in the making. We are “entering an era of water reallocation, when water for new uses will come from existing users who have incentives to use less,” says Robert Glennon, the Morris K. Udall professor of law and public policy at the University of Arizona, in his new book Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It. Those reallocations can take place through contentious politicking and in the courts, or, Glennon argues, more peaceably, through market forces.

A chronic and growing shortage in our water supply lies behind the mounting fight. Through an impressive array of anecdotes, Glennon illustrates the depth and complexity of our country’s water problem, which careens from staggering wastefulness and the mismanagement of our dwindling groundwater to pollution, privatization, and limited technical solutions, such as desalination and cloud seeding, for “creating” more of the coveted resource.

During the fall of 2007, for example, Georgia’s two-year drought culminated in crisis. The Atlanta metro area was a mere four months from depleting its primary water supply, and all nonessential outdoor water use had been banned. Yet Stone Mountain Park, a popular Georgia theme park, proceeded to open—in 80-degree weather—its new attraction, Snow Mountain, an outdoor hill that required 200 tons of manmade snow daily. After ridicule by a newspaper, the project was shut down for a year.

Glennon also highlights the wastefulness designed into our urban water systems, with toilets topping the list. A 2003 study found that in California, 32 percent of indoor water was literally going down the toilet, one flush at a time. Nationwide some 5.8 billion gallons a day is flushed. Intimately tied to our toilets are sewer systems that combine storm runoff and sewage, which requires unnecessarily treating much of the water. Only 10 percent of the water we use in our homes is for consumption and cooking, and yet we filter it all to potable standards. While low-flow toilets, which often use 20 percent less water, and waterless toilets can go a long way to reducing how much water we waste, Glennon calls on the president and Congress to spearhead a large-scale infrastructure overhaul by finding an alternative to combined sewer and storm-water systems and promoting the development and deployment of waterless toilets and urinals.

The heart of Glennon’s analysis is a belief that our water crisis is a tragedy of the commons. Because water is free and everyone has a right to it, it’s abused. If we had to pay for each gallon of water we consume, we’d use it more sparingly. On average, Americans spend $2.50 per 1,000 gallons, although that money is for extraction and delivery, not the water itself. But with a growing population, a maxed-out groundwater supply, and increasing droughts due to climate change, we can no longer continue to grant new projects access to water willy-nilly. And yet there is a tremendous demand for just that.

Our current water laws and permitting processes vary throughout the country, but generally Glennon views them as lax, allowing everyone to dip a straw into the glass without sufficient regulation. He sees a market economy providing a graceful, albeit controversial, solution. If we quantify existing water rights, make them transferable (the vast majority currently aren’t), and greatly limit any new allocation, we’ll encourage trading in those rights. This refers primarily to farmers—who in every state have claim to and use 70 percent to 80 percent of the water—who could shift their rights to cities, industry, and developers in exchange for money. Currently, farmers have few incentives or means to change wasteful or water-intensive, marginally profitable practices. For example, alfalfa is our fourth-largest crop and among the most water-intensive, and yet it fetches only about $300 per acre. In a water market, a farmer could potentially make more money leasing or selling the water he would normally use on that alfalfa crop. Giving new value to water would encourage farmers to conserve it—either by retiring water-hungry crops such as alfalfa and cotton or by investing in more efficient irrigation systems—in order to sell it. 

Glennon acknowledges that “the idea of charging for water curdles the blood of people who think that would be like charging for air . . . it seems unfair and perhaps immoral to extract fees for an essential resource.” To guard against burdening the most vulnerable, he espouses a “water lifeline,” an idea put forth by water advocate Maude Barlow in which a minimum amount of water—enough to cover basic consumption and sanitary needs—would be provided for free to everyone by the government. He further argues that a state-regulated market will help ensure that transfers don’t harm the environment or cause undo hardship for surrounding communities and workers who depended on the agricultural businesses. (In some cases, leaky irrigation systems have become an essential part of a local ecosystem.)

Addressing another potential criticism—that it may be unfair for farmers who never paid for water rights to make windfall profits on their sale—Glennon says that without the monetary incentive, farmers will continue to grow low-value, water-intensive crops. He concedes that transferring water rights from agriculture to development will contribute to sprawl, but he maintains that we currently have both sprawl and wasteful farming practices; a water market would at least require us to swap one use for the other rather than continuing both. Finally, environmentalists are rightly concerned that they’ll be unable to outbid developers and industry for water rights, but Glennon suggests a model promoted by various conservation groups, most notably The Nature Conservancy, that uses member donations to purchase land and its water for protection.

A water market has notable drawbacks, charging citizens by the gallon will raise hackles, and the ripple effect of growing less of some staple commodities warrants serious discussion, a topic mentioned only fleetingly in Unquenchable. But what Glennon makes clear is that if we do nothing to curb our water consumption as the U.S. population grows by an expected 120 million by 2050, what is now a concern will fast become a crisis.
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Editors’ Choice

Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet
By Edward Humes
Ecco, 367 pages, $25.99

Former fashion king Doug Tompkins bought vast stretches of Patagonia in order to preserve them. Kassie Siegel, a rafting guide-turned-lawyer, fought to designate the polar bear as a threatened species in order to combat climate change. Cosmetics queen Roxanne Quimby conserved thousands of acres of Maine wilderness. Although these people may seem improbable environmental heroes, they endured threats and defamation while pursuing their noble efforts to preserve the planet’s ecosystems. In his latest book, Eco Barons, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Edward Humes tells their inspiring stories fluidly and thoughtfully. From the two men who were owl hooters before they started the Center for Biological Diversity to the pool cleaner who became California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s environmental adviser, Humes has a deep, contagious respect for the individuals he profiles. “They see, clearly, that what we’re doing as a society is not working. Their response is not to shout about it or lobby about it or generate self-aggrandizing headlines about it. Their response is to do something about it, and their results have been spectacular.”—Susan Cosier
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The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists
By Peter Laufer
The Lyons Press, 271 pages, $24.95

The U.S. government’s seven-year search for a wanted butterfly smuggler ended in July 2006 when a Fish and Wildlife Service agent arrested the criminal at Los Angeles International Airport. To snare the smuggler, the agent had gone undercover, growing a mustache and posing as a potential buyer of $294,000 worth of endangered and threatened butterflies. (Yes, they’re really worth that much.) This is just one of the captivating stories journalist Peter Laufer relates in The Dangerous World of Butterflies, the culmination of his two-year quest to learn everything he could about the insects. Laufer weaves his tale with a genial flair. At times he gets bogged down by detail, like a three-page tribute to pop-culture butterfly references. But his affection for these animals is unmistakable and infectious: “I watch their flight paths with new appreciation for their purpose. . . . I consider the nourishment they’re reaping when they stop off at flowers. And I ponder the magic and miracle of the metamorphosis that changed them from one distinct form to another.” The journey with Laufer is one well worth taking.—Michele Wilson
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Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science
By Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano

Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins,
286 pages, $26.99

For anyone wondering what the return rate is for a message sent in a bottle, oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer is your man. (It’s about 10 percent, he’s found.) In the zesty and informative Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science, he and journalist Eric Scigliano recount how Ebbesmeyer’s research on floating debris has led to breakthroughs in scientists’ understanding of ocean currents. His quest for all things flotsam began when, in 1991, he traced thousands of Nike sneakers that washed up onto Oregon beaches back to a cargo ship spill in the Pacific Ocean. These days he receives alerts from all over the world and uses a computer simulator of ocean currents to track pumice, Guinness bottles, human remains, tub toys, sea beans, and more across the globe and onto beaches, where currents can unload rubbish thousands of miles from its origin. Ebbesmeyer’s research has revealed the rhythms of interlocked, oblong ocean patterns called gyres, which are responsible for dispersing countless explorers to new shores, as well as for the litter that chokes marine animals and pristine beaches. His work has also shed light on how we’ve turned a precious ecosystem into a dumping ground: We toss an estimated 10 million tons of plastic into the water every year. “Long after the world runs out of oil,” Ebbesmeyer muses from Junk Beach on Hawaii’s Big Island, “some of this scrap will still be circling the ocean.”—Katherine Tweed

For a kid-friendly book that discusses Ebbesmeyer’s work, check out Loree Griffin Burns’s Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion, reviewed in Audubon’s May-June 2007 issue.
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Film Review

Film Review
Earth
Disneynature
99 minutes; Rated G

A mother polar bear teaches her two cubs to hunt in the Arctic. An African elephant herd crosses the Kalahari Desert in search of water. A humpback whale and her calf migrate thousands of miles from the tropics to the Southern Ocean. Earth loosely weaves together the tales of these families’ struggles to survive over one year. It’s the first feature film from Disney’s Disneynature division, and marks the company’s return to family-friendly nature documentaries, a genre it spawned with its True Life Adventures series in the 1950s. Much Earth footage is repackaged from the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth series, but rather than feeling stale, the spectacular cinematography comes to life on the big screen. Narrated by James Earl Jones in his unmistakable sonorous voice, it touches lightly on changing environments, with brief mentions of melting polar ice caps and desertification. But the scope is really the animals’ exploits, and not just the three families. There are plenty of asides, from shots of adorable mandarin ducklings’ first flight, to slow-motion footage of a cheetah, muscles rippling, chasing down a gazelle. In such instances, the audience doesn’t actually see the bloody death. It is, after all, a G-rated production.—Alisa Opar
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Book Excerpt: Unquenchable
A water market could rescue the country from an impending hydro-crisis.