The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century Paperback – Apr 10 2012
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"A tightly written, thoroughly researched, almost encyclopedic book.”—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[Prud’homme] patiently lays out the staggering extent of the world’s water problems.”—The New Yorker
“A reader only has to look at the latest headlines to judge the timeliness of Alex Prud'homme's The Ripple Effect."—The Denver Post
“The Ripple Effect is true to its title, following the myriad reverberations from our use and abuse of this most abundant, ubiquitous resource. The book plunges in and rarely comes up for air.”—Washington Post
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Defining Resource
Thousands have lived without love—not one without water.
—W. H. Auden
It is scarcity and plenty that makes the vulgar take things to be precious or worthless; they call a diamond very beautiful because it is like pure water, and then would not exchange one for ten barrels of water.
—Galileo Galilei, 1632
THE PARADOX OF WATER
The received wisdom is that America has some of the best water in the world—meaning that we have the cleanest and most plentiful supply of H2O anywhere, available in an endless stream, at whatever temperature or volume we wish, whenever we want it, at hardly any cost. In America, clean water seems limitless. This assumption is so ingrained that most of us never stop to think about it when we brush our teeth, power up our computers, irrigate our crops, build a new house, or gulp down a clean, clear drink on a hot summer day.
It’s easy to see why. For most of its history, the United States has shown a remarkable ability to find, treat, and deliver potable water to citizens in widely different circumstances across the country. Since the seventies, America has relied on the Environmental Protection Agency and robust laws—most notably the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, which have been further enhanced by state and local regulations—to protect water supplies. Even our sewer systems are among the best in the world, reliably limiting the spread of disease and ensuring a healthy environment. At least, that is what the water industry says.
To put the state of American water in perspective, consider that by 2000 some 1.2 billion people around the world lacked safe drinking water, and that by 2025 as many as 3.4 billion people will face water scarcity, according to the UN. What’s more, as the global population rises from 6.8 billion in 2010 to nearly 9 billion by 2050, and climate change disrupts familiar weather patterns, reliable supplies of freshwater will become increasingly threatened. In Australia and Spain, record droughts have led to critical water shortages; in China rampant pollution has led to health problems and environmental degradation; in Africa tensions over water supplies have led to conflict; and in Central America the privatization of water has led to suffering and violence.
At a glance, then, America seems to be hydrologically blessed. But if you look a little closer, you will discover that the apparent success of our water management and consumption masks a broad spectrum of underlying problems—from new kinds of water pollution to aging infrastructure, intensifying disputes over water rights, obsolete regulations, and shifting weather patterns, among many other things.
These problems are expensive to fix, difficult to adapt to, and politically unpopular. Not surprisingly, people have tended to ignore them, pretending they don’t exist in the secret hope that they will cure themselves. Instead, America’s water problems have steadily grown worse. In recent years, the quality and quantity of American water has undergone staggering changes, largely out of the public eye.
Between 2004 and 2009, the Clean Water Act (CWA) was violated at least 506,000 times by more than twenty-three thousand companies and other facilities, according to EPA data assessed by the New York Times. The EPA’s comprehensive data covers only that five-year span, but it shows that the number of facilities violating the CWA increased more than 16 percent from 2004 to 2007. (Some polluters illegally withheld information about their discharges, so the actual contamination was worse.) The culprits ranged from small gas stations and dry-cleaning stores, to new housing developments, farms, mines, factories, and vast city sewer systems. During that time, less than 3 percent of polluters were punished or fined by EPA regulators, who were politically and financially hamstrung.
During the same period, the quality of tap water deteriorated, as the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was violated in every state. Between 2004 and 2009, a study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit watchdog organization, found, tap water in forty-five states and the District of Columbia was contaminated by 316 different pollutants. More than half of those chemicals—including the gasoline additive MTBE, the rocket-fuel component perchlorate, and industrial plasticizers called phthalates—were unregulated by the EPA and thus not subject to environmental safety standards. Federal agencies have set limits for ninety-one chemicals in water supplies; the EWG study found forty-nine of these pollutants in water at excessive levels. Translated, this means that the drinking water of 53.6 million Americans was contaminated.
Many people have turned to bottled water as a convenient, supposedly healthier alternative to tap, but a 2008 test by EWG found that bottled water (purchased from stores in nine states and the District of Columbia) contained traces of thirty-eight pollutants, including fertilizers, bacteria, industrial chemicals, Tylenol, and excessive levels of potential carcinogens. The International Bottled Water Association, a trade group, dismissed the EWG report as exaggerated and unrepresentative of the industry, demanding that EWG “cease and desist.” EWG stuck to its conclusions and objected to the industry’s “intimidation tactics.”
The health consequences of water pollution are difficult to gauge and likely won’t be known for years. But medical researchers have noticed a rise in the incidence of certain diseases, especially breast and prostate cancer, since the 1970s, and doctors surmise that contaminated drinking water could be one explanation. Similarly, the effect of long-term multifaceted pollution on the ecosystem is not well understood. What, for instance, is the cumulative effect of a “cocktail” of old and new contaminants—sewage, plastics, ibuprofen, Chanel No. 5, estrogen, cocaine, and Viagra, say—on aquatic grasses, water bugs, bass, ducks, beavers, and on us? Hydrologists are only just beginning to study this question.
In the meantime, human thirst began to outstrip the ecosystem’s ability to supply clean water in a sustainable way. By 2008, the world’s consumption of water was doubling every twenty years, which is more than twice the rate of population growth. By 2000, people had used or altered virtually every accessible supply of freshwater. Some of the world’s mightiest rivers—including the Rio Grande and the Colorado—had grown so depleted that they reached the sea only in exceptionally wet years. Springs have been pumped dry. Half the world’s wetlands (the “kidneys” of the environment, which absorb rainfall, filter pollutants, and dampen the effects of storm surges) were drained or damaged, which harmed ecosystems and allowed salt water to pollute freshwater aquifers. In arid, rapidly growing Western states, such as Colorado, Texas, and California, droughts were causing havoc.
A report by the US General Accounting Office predicts that thirty-six states will face water shortages by 2013, while McKinsey & Co. forecasts that global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent in 2030.
The experts—hydrologists, engineers, environmentalists, diplomats—have been watching these trends with concern, noting that the growing human population and warming climate will only intensify the pressure on water supplies. Some call freshwater “the defining resource of the twenty-first century,” and the UN has warned of “a looming water crisis.”
“We used to think that energy and water would be the critical issues. Now we think water will be the critical issue,” Mostafa Tolba, former head of the UN Environment Programme, has declared. Ismail Serageldin, the World Bank’s leading environmental expert, put it even more bluntly: “The wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water.”
© 2011 Alex Prud’homme
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Top Customer Reviews
The book is a fine piece of journalism but should not be construed as total honesty. Like most journalist venturing into a scientific area where they lack expertise, many truths are bent or stretched to meet the journalistic opinion. Still, all in all, a good read. Just avoid reading the book as the last word. I am giving it two stars but could have given it three.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Prud `Homme cannot be accused of forgoing research or skimping on facts. He transitions nicely from one troubled region to the next, giving proper weight to the severity of the problems but not sensationalizing, and offering advice by experts throughout. I came away thinking super-arid Arizona, remote Las Vegas, sprawling California and weather-troubled Georgia are in for some rough times, presently and in the future. The Midwest, where environmentally destructive farming methods and flooding are common, also has its share of water-related predicaments. Prud `Homme drives the point home that people all over the world -- from seasoned hydrologists to the average man and woman -- will need to rethink every aspect of water. As populations explode, drinkable H2O is dwindling -- something's got to give in this equation. Additionally, outdated, unregulated laws and a worrisome inclination by politicians and their constituents during the last decade or so to pay less attention to "the fate of freshwater in the twenty-first century" have exacerbated the problems.
Admittedly, my eyes and thoughts glazed over at times as Prud `Homme intricately covered numerous judicial cases and technical details to supplement the themes. But numerous things stuck with me. Harmful agricultural methods, for instance, have contributed to the runoff of contaminated groundwater into major rivers, causing numerous "dead zones" where aquatic life has stagnated and useable drinking supplies have been curtailed. In addition, though they are much needed and provide a cherished economic drive, electricity, thirsty crops like corn and raising farm animals account for much more wasted and detrimental water use than water coming out of taps by U.S. residents as a whole, a fact I found interesting.
Smarter techniques and habits could change things for the better, such as building porous concrete that absorbs rainwater in urban areas and not purchasing bottled water. But evolution comes slowly when high-stakes money and ever-moving progress (in areas where it's difficult to transport water) are on the agenda. As more and more pavement is laid down in urban areas all over the country, some of it covering precious wetlands where rainwater is easily absorbed, the runoff of tainted water into underground pipes is inevitable. The flushing of pharmaceuticals and everything else under the sun is also a potential issue, as is climate change and evolving weather patterns that much of the world is drastically unprepared for. Leaders in forward-thinking countries such as below-sea-level Holland have thought outside the box and adapted beautifully, working in tune with nature for results that work. Other locales, such as New York City, could come to a standstill if a weather-related catastrophe struck -- and experts claim such calamities will occur. All this just scratches the surface of what's covered in "The Ripple Effect."
Solutions? Prud `Homme offers hope, including a cautiously optimistic section about desalination plants, which extract salt from seawater to make it drinkable. All is not bleak, but many people in the know say that the preciousness of water could someday exceed that of oil, and it's worth noting that the two resources work hand in hand. This is an eye-opening book that's worth the time.
We have done such a whole lot of damage to this planet that I hold slight hope of it (and us) holding on a whole lot longer. Yes, I sound like a nut, but how long could you hold out without water? -- Maybe 3 days. So many people walk many miles each day to obtain water -- and really cruddy water at that. We're still lucky in the US to have fresh water -- just turn on the tap, there it is -- but we're using it up faster than we should. Agriculture and fracking and industry etc etc use billions of gallons per day. I sure don't know what the answer is, and I'm betting that by the end of the book the answer will still not be clear.
This is an important issue that should have TRUE cooperation nationally and internationally, it's above politics. It's about the survival of life on planet earth. And we can't survive without water.
As examples: methane is not toxic nor is iron a poison as Mr. Prud'homme claims they are. Those are just two of the erroneous statements that serve to undermine the credibility of the book. But, more on them later.
On page 41 there is a reference to an abandoned copper mine "...the thirty-nine-thousand-foot-deep pit..."
39,000 feet is equal to 7.4 miles. The deepest mine shaft in the world is the TauTona gold mine in the Witwatersrand region of South Africa, which is currently working at depths of 12,800 feet. Such a vast, deep pit that Prud'homme reports just does not exist.
On page 142 he states "While national water fees average about $458 per residence a year, some of Denver's expanding suburbs.... The town of Louisville charges $20,000 per house, and Broomfield charges $24,424 per house per year."
A simple email inquiry to the Broomfield water department elicited this response from the Billing & Accounts Administrator, City and County of Broomfield:
"Yes, I'm sure they are talking about the one time water impact fee. However, ours is currently $22,454.00. I don't know where the extra $1,970 comes from. Our average bill (water usage and water flat charge, no sewer) is approximately $485 per year. As for Louisville, I just looked online and their water impact fee is $24,140."
Improper use of scientific terminology
It is bad enough when news media frequently refer to carbon dioxide as "carbon," but that misuse appears to have become an accepted convention. However, Mr. Prud'homme takes the error to a new level. On page 209 he states, "Wetlands...(they also absorb carbon, a greenhouse gas...." and, on page 230, "...send millions of tons of carbon gas into the air...."
Carbon can appear in several familiar forms such as graphite, soot, charcoal, or diamond, but never as a gas.
Even that usage could be overlooked as an accepted slovenly shortcut by a journalist, but the author gives the same treatment to nitrogen. On page 93 he quotes "Some scientists have labeled nitrogen a `missing greenhouse gas' because it is not one of the four gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and sulfur hexafluoride)... named in the Kyoto protocol...."
Apparently the "scientists" he quotes cannot distinguish between nitrogen compounds and nitrogen gas. Further, the author did not read his own writing -- he lists nitrous oxide (a nitrogen compound) as being named in the Kyoto protocol he just quoted.
Further, if nitrogen is a greenhouse gas, then we're certainly doomed because nitrogen makes up over 78% of our atmosphere.
On page 67 while warning about the appearance of modern chemicals in our drinking water, triclocarban is described as "... an antibiotic...." less than one minute of research finds that triclocarban is not an antibiotic, it is an antimicrobial. Another minute reveals the difference between them. It's important.
Misleading or alarmist statements
Prud'homme's promiscuous use of the word "toxic" leads him to some absurd positions. On page 28 he states, "... saturated with other toxic compounds, such as xylene, toluene, and methane." Wrong. A person may be killed by methane through suffocation or explosion, but not by poisoning. Methane is not "toxic," it is biologically inert.
On page 16 he refers to "...toxic metals, such as copper and zinc..." and on page 102 "numerous poisons -- including arsenic, cobalt, iron, and thallium at dangerous levels,..."
Both copper and zinc are necessary dietary trace minerals: we need them to be healthy. Iron also is a necessary mineral in our diet. I'm sure even Mr. Prud'homme's editors (if there were any) have heard of "iron deficiency." If iron were toxic then all cast iron cookware should immediately be discarded.
Just plain nonsense
On page 51 we are told that "Sewage treatment requires enormous amounts of energy, which is costly and adds to climate change...." Is the author saying that sewage should not be treated, but, instead, dumped raw into our rivers as we used to do? We should do this to avoid climate change?
Another alarmist use of "toxins" is seen on page 77, "Endocrine disrupters are found in many everyday items, including... and plastics (especially plastic containers numbered 3, 6, and 7, which are associated with potentially harmful toxins)." Are the endocrine disruptors "associated with potentially harmful toxins" or is it the "plastic containers numbered 3, 6, and 7?" That sentence just does not make sense.
Then on page 339, writing about the ultra-pure water needed in electronic chip factories, "...which acts as a sponge for microcontaminants, such as colloidal solids, particles, total organic carbon, bacteria, pyrogens (fragments of bacteria), metal ions, and the like."
This list makes no sense. "particles"? Of what? "total organic carbon" is not a contaminant, but, rather, a measurement of contamination. That usage is nonsense in the quoted context. "Pyrogens" are not "fragments of bacteria" they are fever-causing agents.
The above are just a few of the examples of error, ignorance, alarmist statements, and nonsense found by a general reader in this book.
The Kindle edition was full of annoying typos. Spell check isn't the same as copy editing.
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