Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book was (as I discovered afterward) last year’s selection for “One Book, One Bakersfield,” our local event series which includes forums and speakers and stuff in addition to a single book everyone reads at the same time. This was started 15 years ago, with To Kill A Mockingbird, which is the only one I actually participated in. The problem was, I had kids, and events were harder to go to, and I kind of forgot about it. I did read a few of the books afterward, such as The House On Mango Street

The Big Thirst was likely chosen because California just went through two years of historically unprecedented drought, and my section of California is still considered in severe drought despite the rains this year. California’s San Joaquin Valley is a fascinating place for many reasons, but many of these reasons mean a complicated water situation any time we have a below-average year.

While The Big Thirst doesn’t mention Bakersfield, it does address a number of issues which affect us. In fact, other places that are examined have been forced to deal with the same problems, and these can be lessons for us.

First and foremost, naturally, is Australia, which went through an extended and horrific drought they call The Big Dry. As in, rivers stopped flowing, reservoirs dried up, and extreme measures had to be taken to keep water flowing for basic needs. As I’ll mention later, it was the Australian experience that led to a proposal near the end of the book by one of Australia’s foremost voices in water policy, water economist Mike Young that makes great sense as an approach to scarcity.

First of all, Fishman makes a great point: on our planet, water isn’t going away. (I mean, a few billion years from now, it probably will, but we will be gone one way or another by then…) Water isn’t created or destroyed, it just becomes more or less available to us and at different costs. Technology means that we can clean water beyond what we need for drinking (and to the point where it becomes toxic because it leaches minerals out of us - it’s a fascinating story in this book), although the cost may not be low in every case. We have an abundance of water, but it is not always where we need it, in the purity we need it, or at the price we wish to pay.

The overarching point here is that we cannot “run out of water” the way we can run out of petroleum. But we can fail to utilize it in a sensible and sustainable way. There isn’t some impossible “water crisis” facing us, but in certain places, and in certain ways, we will need to adjust how we use water. This is a very hopeful tone set in this book for this reason. The technology, knowledge, and ability exist already. We just need to make good decisions.

One very encouraging note about this is that the United States uses less water now than it did in 1980, when I was a kid. Not just less per capita - a lot less per capita - but less in actual total amount, despite a population increase of 70 million, and a doubling of the inflation adjusted GDP. Since industry and agriculture use far more water than individuals for their personal needs, this means we are producing far more using much less.

I’ll just hit the highlights of the specific stories in this book. One that is particularly amazing is that of Las Vegas. I’ve been through Vegas dozens of times (on the way to the National Parks in Utah) and it is obvious that it is in the middle of a desert. In the middle of a desert which stretches a hundred miles or more in every direction. And yet, it is an oasis. It is fed by the waters of the Colorado River, stored in Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam. Nearly every drop of water that Las Vegas uses comes from rain and snow in the mountains to the east, as far away as the Rockies. Las Vegas also shares this water with numerous farms in the Imperial Valley in California downstream - an incredibly fertile area in the middle of another vast desert. (For those who care, Vegas is in the Mojave Desert, while the Imperial Valley is in the Sonoran Desert. The two come together in Joshua Tree National Park.) So, when an extended drought lowered the level in the lake to the point where the pipes that feed Vegas might suck air, it was time for major changes. I won’t get into the details, but a combination of regulation, incentives to reduce use, grey water recycling, and hard-headed bargaining, Vegas made a major turnaround in usage. Also, Patricia Mulroy is a badass. (Read the book if you like strong, intelligent women.)

The tale of how Atlanta nearly ran out of water is also fascinating for a couple of reasons. First is that a lot of the issues which bedevil California turned up then. Namely, when there isn’t enough water, the fights get vicious between the different interests. For example, there will be the claims that we can and should destroy the environment before other uses (urban and agriculture) should have to cut back. In the case of Atlanta, this was rivers and oyster beds on the Gulf of Mexico. And, despite the rhetoric, killing a river and a fishery would actually have negative economic results. To people of another state, though, so whatever, right? The second issue intrigued me as well. Atlanta could have had access to a tremendous amount of water from a particular lake and dam. When it was built in the 1950s, Atlanta was asked to contribute a paltry one million dollars to the construction. (A laughably low percentage of the cost.) The city counsel declined, believing they had enough water. They failed to anticipate the growth that Atlanta would undergo over the next six decades.

A court eventually apportioned the water, ruling that Atlanta had waived any right to the water, and a mad scramble took place to secure other water rights. (Moral of the story: don’t be cheap!)  

Australia takes up a solid portion of the book. Fishman examines the effect of the Big Dry on a number of communities, from small towns on the edge of the Outback to major cities on the river to rice farmers in the large valleys.

The main thing that impressed me about this section is the way that reality has the ability to clarify things. All the political bullcrap and infighting eventually goes away when the water is actually gone. When it can no longer be denied that there isn’t enough for everyone to have what they want.

We have not yet reached that point here in California, unfortunately. There has been just enough water for the political yelling to continue. I hate to bag on one particular group, but, like nearly everywhere that has mixed water use, agriculture uses that vast bulk of the available water in the Central Valley. There has been a lot of dishonest propaganda about the environmental use of water (most of which is in rivers which do not and never have connected to the water grid here) in an effort to abolish environmental flows in the Sacramento River Delta. The problem is, if we have bad drought years, even if we dried up every river (instead of merely most) to feed the farms, there still wouldn’t be enough.

Here is the satellite image of winter snowpack for a below normal but typical year, 2013 (bottom) versus the historical drought year of 2014 (top). 

After 2014 and 2015 and the nearly total lack of rain, the trees started dying in the Sierra Nevada. Mind you, these are mostly a few hundred to a few thousand years old. The evidence from biologists via tree rings and other sources shows that this is a rather unprecedented event, at least over the last thousand or so years. It’s a big deal.

I bring this up not just because of the ag versus environment debate, but because a significant percentage of the local farmers were not just voting for Trump. They were raising literal shrines to him on their properties (one we saw in December had hundreds of flags, YUGE lettering, and religious wording.) I swear, some of these people literally seemed to believe he could bring rain. It was worship level fawning, not like typical political partisanship. I guess they believe that he could either change the weather, or tell the other people with rights to the water in California to go f__k themselves.

For now, the decisions can be put off, because we are having a decent year for snow. But if Vegas and Australia are any indication, the issue probably will return with a vengeance. If climate change is happening, and climates certainly have changed in the past (the Petrified Forest used to be a real forest…), water may not be available to grow food in the desert. Things will have to change. Fortunately, like the rest of the United States economy, agriculture has done a lot to grow more with less water. Here in the Valley, just during the 19 years I have lived here, crops have changed. We have less rice and less cotton (both thirsty) and more almonds (moderately thirsty, but lucrative for the water use) and wine grapes (less thirsty). Eventually, adjustments will be made by necessity.

There is one section which is much more depressing, and that is the story of India. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways, India has grown and improved. But it has unquestionably gone backwards from the Colonial days in terms of water. What was left of the British systems has fallen into disrepair, and very, very few - even of the wealthy - have reliable, always on water. The problem, as usual, is a lack of will, not a lack of technology or even money. Fishman does a great job of putting his finger on the problem.

Basically, water systems, like most infrastructure, require belief in a public sector. They require putting aside individuality for the common good. Everyone pays. Everyone contributes to maintenance. The rich pay more because they can afford more. Everyone gets what they need, but not necessarily as much as they want.

Fishman draws an interesting analogy between Indian water systems and failed public school systems in some United States cities. In both cases, reform and improvement is greatly hampered because the rich have opted out of the system altogether. In India, the wealthy can simply hire a water truck rather than come together to build a functional system. In the US, the wealthy go to private schools, or richer districts, and leave the poor to rot. The poor in both instances lack the political power and time to make the needed changes. They, after all, don’t have money or time to spare, and are trying to survive. The reason this is particularly depressing right now is that my former political party, the GOP, appears to have abandoned any pretense of believing in a public sector or the public good. Privatize and monetize everything, from education to libraries to roads. We can see from around the world how this works. The rich get what they want, and everyone else is left with far less. But more than that, even the poor in Western countries have better water than the rich in India. Because when we have a functioning public sector, everyone benefits. The cost is ultimately lower for cooperative, cost sharing systems than for individual solutions. Once, we agreed about that here in the US. Our Interstate Highway system is one example, our aging public transit in some cities is another. I fear that we have lost that vision for the common good, and have devolved into a hyper individualistic culture, where we worry more that someone “undeserving” gets something than that our society as a whole will suffer.

One more thing on this topic. The most heartbreaking part of the story about India is that for a huge portion of the population, water is only available at a significant distance. For these people, they will typically need to personally fetch their water using buckets or other containers at a distance of a mile or more each way. This requires, as you might imagine, several trips per day for a family. These burdens fall predominantly on women and girls, who often cannot obtain an education due to the need to devote many hours out of the day fetching water. Likewise, employment is difficult when one must wait for hours for an erratic water truck to show up. The economic impact is devastating on the poor, and is one of the greatest challenges in India in increasing female literacy.

It is for this reason that water is a significant human rights issue even apart from the loss of life due to contaminated water.

One more issue occupies the space between optimism and pessimism: recycled water.

Obviously, all water is recycled. We don’t make more of it, and it has been on earth for at least 4 billion years by current estimates. Every drop we drink has probably been peed by thousands of organisms in its history. But there is a psychological objection to the idea of drinking water that comes from sewage, no matter how filtered it is.

To a degree, I find this amusing. I am a backpacker and hiker. Even in the pristine Sierra Nevada, we don’t drink the water directly. Why not? Because animals pee and poop in it. I carry a filter with me to get out the nasty stuff. (Particularly the cute but dangerous Giardia lamblia.) And it doesn’t matter much where your water comes from. If it is surface water, fish, birds, and animals poop and pee in it. If it is ground water, it is animal pee that has soaked through sand. Let’s be realistic about this.

So the real question isn’t “where did the water come from” but “how pure is it?” If we take the bad stuff out, then we can drink it. And this goes for less visible (and less thought about) stuff like naturally occurring arsenic. (It naturally occurs in the rocks around here, so if you use well water, you might have to filter it for arsenic.)

Vegas has embraced water recycling. Treated water is used to water vegetation. But it is also further cleaned, and pumped back to Lake Mead, where it goes right back into the supply. Toilet to tap indeed.

But despite this, there is usually heated political opposition to recycling. Just an example here in Bakersfield. We do not have a discharge to the ocean. We treat our sewage and return it to the groundwater. Likewise for our storm runoff - except we don’t treat that. We divert it directly to settlement sumps every few blocks. So actually, our sewage water is cleaner when it enters the ground than the oily road runoff. People seem fine with the idea of this. After all, 100 feet or so of sand and soil is magical voodoo, making the water psychologically pure again. But extensive filtration above ground isn’t magical enough to erase the yuck factor. Go figure.

In the end, I believe that in most areas, water recycling will eventually take hold. It makes both economic and common sense. It many places, it may eventually be the only way to sustain habitation and agriculture. So we will do it. But some will complain, and buy their expensive bottled waters (which actually don’t have the same purity testing in many cases as tap water…)

Fishman’s writing style varies according to his topic. He understands the poetry and the symbolism of water, and he takes the time to talk about this too. The book has extensive endnotes, and does appear to be thoroughly sourced. Fishman relies substantially on his sources for each section, combining the narratives of people involved with expert information. I think he does a good job of remaining objective while still furthering the overall idea that we need to be more thoughtful and careful about our water.

I want to end with the proposal made by Mike Young for water allocation because I think it makes a lot of sense, combines the best of the public sector and the private sector for resolving disputes.

Fishman first talks about the “first glass” principle. This is the idea that everyone needs access to the minimum quantity of water for basic existence. Water to drink, cook, bathe, and safely eliminate waste. This is the “first glass” so to speak. For Mike Young - and Fishman and many others who think about water - this “first glass” needs to be priority, and it needs to be affordable to even the most destitute.

For Young, there are therefore two non-negotiable water uses which get priority over all else: the “first glass” for everyone, and the water needed for environmental sustainability. After all, a dead river hurts everyone, a dead estuary hurts everyone, and dead fisheries do the same. So under Young’s proposal, we first determine and set aside these first.

The rest of the water available each year is then divided into two categories. “High Security” water is water that is likely to be available every year, even in a drought. “Low Security” water is that which is only available in good years. Those who have rights to “High Security” water get their water first before any “Low Security” water rights holders get theirs.

Young proposes that both High and Low Security water be priced on the market. That way, users can decide how much they are willing to pay. High Security water would thus fetch higher prices from those to whom the guarantee of availability is important. And users could decide how much they are willing to pay to guarantee that they will (almost) always get their water. The Low Security water would naturally be priced lower, as it would be less likely to show up any given year. Thus, a farmer (or factory, or golf course, or casino) could make an economic decision about how much water to purchase, and at what price and security level.

I found this proposal (which is probably explained better in the book) to be persuasive. We must meet basic human needs, and we can’t take a short term view of environmental needs. But one of our current problems is that water is so inexpensive for most of us that we don’t need to be mindful of our use.

The Big Thirst is by no means an exhaustive tome on water issues. Rather, it is a thoughtful look at water and its use. Academics and professionals will want works with substantive numbers and so on. This book succeeds in making us think about how we use water, and better understand the real issues behind the overheated political rhetoric.


I read it before I started blogging, so I can’t link a review. However, a great companion work to this book is The Big Necessity by Rose George, which takes a similar look at sewage systems. It’s much more fun (if every bit as gross) than it sounds.


Personal History:

I grew up in Los Angeles (specifically, the eastern San Fernando Valley) in the 1980s and early 1990s. Round about 1989, I believe, Southern California had another major drought, and LA put in place significant water restrictions. Well, not exactly restrictions other than the usual landscape restrictions. (Water only 3 days a week, and not during the heat of the day, etc.) But the price of water went way up if you exceeded your limits. So we changed to low flow showerheads, and recycled our clothes washing water for our plants.

I never got out of the habit of using low flow showerheads - I actually like the inexpensive ones that make a mist of sorts rather than drops.

Unfortunately, I can’t easily recycle grey water in my current house, as the drain for the clothes washer would have to be re-routed through a bunch of walls.

Still, it wasn’t that hard to conserve the last few years. I have let my lawns be a little less green, but have kept the trees happy with targeted watering. It’s a lifestyle that I think will need to be adopted by more of us in the West given growing populations.


  1. "All the political bullcrap and infighting eventually goes away when the water is actually gone."

    This reminds me of the passing comment in Why Societies Need Dissent that no western democracy has ever had a famine, because famines are more often a problem of political will and cooperation rather than a lack of resources. Which in turn reminds me of the things I've read about food being exported to England during the Potato Famine while destitute Irish children starved to death.

    1. Most modern famines are indeed political. I fear we are about to see one in action regarding health care in the United States. It won't be because we can't afford it - we are the richest nation on earth - but because a lot of people would rather suffer themselves than see "undeserving" people get something.

  2. Bakersfield Lawyer / Violinist —

    Thanks for such a thoughtful reading of 'The Big Thirst.' I appreciate that you connected the stories in TBT to your own experience in Bakersfield. I visited Bakersfield a few months ago, really enjoyed meeting people and speaking at CSU/Bakersfield.

    If you're of a mind, it would be a great favor if you post a short version of your review on Amazon — those reviews have a real momentum, and shape whether people think the book is worth reading.

    And thanks especially for a shout-out to the endnotes. A whole *second* book back there...



    1. It's always a thrill when an author stops by to comment! I really wish I had paid attention this fall, because I would have loved to have come out to hear your lecture when you were here.

      I left a short review on Amazon for you. I do hope people buy and read this book. Thank you for writing it.

    2. Sorry you missed the visit, too. But I appreciate you grabbing the book — and I love libraries (one of my talks at CSU/Bakersfield was a short one about the role of libraries in my own life... in their library, which is beautiful).

      Thanks for taking the trouble to read TBT, and to review in both places.

      You all in Bakersfield — despite the drought! — use twice as much water per home as the average US home. That's residential use, not ag use. So plenty of progress to be made right there in what was, and will be again, drought central.

      Best to you, Mr. S.


    3. Interesting about our water usage. I did not know that. I'd be curious to know how it breaks down. I would not be at all surprised if we were terrible on landscaping water. We love our lawns way too much, it is true, and I see a lot of water running in the street from sprinklers. We also (for obvious reasons) tend to have pools.

      And yes, we will indeed have drought again, and will need to conserve far better than we do.

      Thanks for stopping by!