An ambitious, indignant study of an urgent problem: ""The era of cheap water is over,"" like the era of cheap energy; and we must, correspondingly, readjust. Powledge begins with the lulling, misleading statistics on the amount of the Earth's water--which, however, does not always occur where we need it, when we want it, or in a usable form. Thus, our attitude that water is an unlimited, renewable commodity--one that can be polluted, pumped, diverted, and wasted--is the underlying source of the problem. Powledge scores the government for ""a shocking lack of leadership"" and water-using industry for ""equally shocking efforts. . . to avoid responsibility."" Though the government had the authority to make polluters clean up toxic dumps, only 30 toxic waste suits were filed between 1972 and 1980. Meanwhile, the chemical industry--Dow, Allied, Velsicol, and especially Hooker--created hundreds of potential Love Canals across the country. Next, Powledge takes up the relationship between agriculture and water, moving with facility among the West's complex riparian water laws and demonstrating how subsidized water, along with the doctrine of ""first in time, first in right,"" leads to waste. (Among the statistical tidbits: it takes an average of 2,607 gal-long of water to produce a steak.) Moving East, he discusses the 1980-81 New York drought, in biting detail, as an illustration of the Northeast's water problems; decaying water systems, deferred maintenance, impotent bureaucracies. (No city employees, he writes, would agree to shut off fire hydrants--thus allowing close to a thousand hydrants to spill tens of gallons of water into the streets daily.) Also scathingly reviewed are federal water projects--and the role of pork-barrel politics, the TVA, the Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation. (The real Tellico Dam issue, Powledge finds, was not the endangered/overprotected snail darter--but inflated claims for the dam's benefits.) We should not, finally, rely on a technological breakthrough to solve our water problems, but challenge government and industry to act. And Powledge cites successful, local challenges as a model. A comprehensive source, then, with a strong activist thrust.