Water, water everywhere. Or not.
“Somehow, America’s green craze has missed the blue,” writes environmental journalist Barnett (Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S., 2007). A good citizen of Sacramento wouldn’t dream of throwing a plastic bottle in the trash, and yet, California’s capital, which calls itself “Sustainable Sacramento,” uses 300 gallons of water per person per day, 8.5 times the consumption of watery Holland, and about four times the consumption of similarly dry Perth, Australia. Small wonder that reservoirs such as Lake Mead, on which Las Vegas depends, are rapidly being drawn down to the sand—though, admittedly, drought and climate change have as much to do with it as careless drinkers. The problem is endemic, writes the author. It’s not just the arid West that is suffering, since even moist places such as Florida are rapidly using up their groundwater supplies. As with so much else, it all comes down to human actions: Conserving water and changing how we manage it would do a great deal to relieve the ever-accelerating crisis. Yet “using water ethically” in this way, as she puts it, faces formidable challenges, among them the “water-industrial complex” and its powerful lobby, aimed at preserving the huge profits that come with the control of one of the few things that humans actually need to live. Other enemies of progress, writes Barnett, are the squabbles over water fought by “lawyers billing by the hour rather than by communities drawn together in a shared ethic”; agricultural subsidies seemingly designed to encourage major users of water to be profligate; and politicians who resist the notion that Americans should have to curb their appetites at all. The subject is ripe for moralizing, but Barnett generally keeps the conversation at a practical level, noting, helpfully, that no American set out deliberately to exhaust the nation’s water supply any more than the Soviets “set out to create the disaster of the Aral Sea.”
Thorough and packed with data but a touch dry. General readers will find much of the same information in Brian Fagan’s more engaging book Elixir (2011).