Review: Unquenchable–America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It

5 Star, Complexity & Catastrophe, Culture, Research, Education (General), Education (Universities), Environment (Problems), Environment (Solutions), Intelligence (Public), Nature, Diet, Memetics, Design, Politics, Priorities, Survival & Sustainment, Values, Ethics, Sustainable Evolution, Water, Energy, Oil, Scarcity
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5.0 out of 5 stars Real book, real facts, desperately needs visualization

August 29, 2010

Robert Glennon

I was torn between a four and a five and came down on the side of five because this is a real book with real facts and real interviews and it covers a vital topic very ably. I was tempted to drop to a four for two reasons: this book desperately lacks visualization, something publishers are going to have to learn to integrate if they want to survive (see the TED Briefing “Data is the New Dirt” by David McCandless); and because this book is part of a twelve-book read and review series started for UNESCO, I don’t see all the solutions well represented at the end–the book ends weakly. Still, it is a vitally serious, desperately serious book, a sequel to the author’s Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping And The Fate Of America’s Fresh Waters, and should be read with When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century and The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink.

At Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog you can do what Amazon does not provide for: see all of my reviews on all books on water with one click, and explore my integrative summative reviews of non-fiction books and DVDs in 97 other categories.

Published in 2009, this is a current book that should be completely redone with proper visualizations including state by state visualizations and accompanying data sets, and then issued in paperback along with lists of “who to call” state by state.

The author impresses me greatly with his mix of detailed facts and face to face interviews woven into a story, but it is not an easy story to follow and time, space, water reality just does not come across in plain text.

Notes that stayed with me:

+ Las Vegas is the icon of irresponsible behavior and ran out of water in 2001
+ Hoover Dam made Las Vegas possible, built by the Mob after gambling legalized for the dam workers
+ Today Las Vegas spends $1 million per hotel room in total construction and service costs to create
+ $2 billion pipeline is planned from the Mississippi, this is an example of money over thinking

+ Hotels use only 3% of the Las Vegas water–this was an eye opener for me. The hotels and casinos have been totally responsible, have understood the crisis, thrown money at it, and represent state of the art water recycling and gray water utilization as well as water conservation.

Observation: If Las Vegas truly runs out of water one day and the USG Government chooses to bail it out at our expense, it will be ten to a hundred times more costly than the Wall Street bailout. It’s time we reestablished public control over the public purse.

QUOTE (17): Water lubricates the American economy just as oil does. It is intimately linked to energy because it takes water to make energy and it takes energy to divert, pump, move, and cleanse water. Water plays a critical role in virtually every segment of the economy, from heavy industry to food production, from making semiconductors to providing Internet service. A prosperous future depends on a secure and reliable [and clean] water supply. And we don’t have it. To be sure, water still flows from taps, but we’re draining our reserves like gamblers at a crap table.

+ Droughts are a threat to URBAN areas, I really appreciated the insights in this section
+ Private wells are not understood or monitored, they are consuming a lot and also have chloride & other concentrations

Much of the book covers ground I have walked in other books. For the US audience, I would certainly recommend this book and the others above. For the international audience, I recommend instead, in this order:
The Atlas of Water, Second Edition: Mapping the World’s Most Critical Resource
Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource
Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water
Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit

As a general observation, although the author scared me at first with his advocate of placing an economic value on water, in the end he proves to be an advocate of a REGULATED marketplace, not a “free” market where costs can be externalized to the public. Of course this requires public intelligence in the public interest, something that does not exist today in structured reliable form.

+ People simply do not know where their water is coming from
+ Rivers have massive amounts of sewage effluent, mercury from power plants, and concentrated contamination on the river bed from past era
+ Mixing storm and sewage in one infrastructure was a HUGE mistake that needs to be rectified
+ Pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers are into the water so fast, the public has no clue, government is not serious

Despite my four pages of notes I found the Solutions portion of the book disappointing but still valuable.

+ Business as usual is still in vogue
+ No one has inventoried dried up rivers and springs–simply not documented
+ Dams don’t add water, they just redirect it
+ Federal government is out of money, municipal bonds are a hard sell
+ Shocking number of dams still being proposed today
+ Dam removal is WORKING, restoring ecology and especially fish
+ Legal rules have not kept pace with technology
+ One quarter of US water supply comes from pumping groundwater
+ Rights of USE IN COMMON versus rights of EXCLUSIVE OWNERSHIP are two different things
+ Everyone talking about “moving” large amounts of water artificially is generally ignorant or unethical
+ Cloud seeding does not work
+ On desalination does not fully address the toxic outputs
+ Water requires complex engineering, we are not there [I am reminded of my friend Chuck Spinney’s comment on how national “defense” has spawned an entire generation of engineers who know only “government spec, cost plus” engineereing, which is to say, very bad engineering. His book, Defense Facts of Life: The Plans/Reality Mismatch applies to every aspect of our national domestic and global policies–Washington is out of touch with realities, the Governors are in denial.
+ Drugs in water are miniscule but mixed–the science is not there


Intel is a case study in understanding and addressing the problem, the author partially addresses my concerns over computer toxicity (see for example, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health.

Water rights and water pricing are an emerging area of study and not yet in the policy and legal arena in proper form. I am impressed by the author’s depiction of how developers WILL pay for water rights as part of the deal, it just has to be decumented and presented.

QUOTE (251): For privatization to be successful, governments must regulate water as a social good, ensuring access to all. PUCs must carefully monitor the financial returns to the private company and link any rate increases to agreed-upon improvements in service, conservation programs, or environmental stewardship. … In any event, government should retain ownership of the water resources.

I buy in to the author’s views that only by charging for water can we press forward in modernizing archaic infrastructure including farming infrastructure where cheap water has incentivized the life extention of very leaky inadequate water routing systems. Farmers still use 70-80% of the water in any given state, but at the same time, their share of the food dollar has dropped from 40 cents to 20 cents. My own observation: we clearly need to do holistic analysis to optimize food growing (not meat growing) in relation to where the water is and how best to keep the water clean–at the same time, and the author documents this brilliantly, we need to understand the “return on investment” that water yields, for example, under $300 for an alfalfa unit and over one million dollars for a computer chip using the same amount of water.

The section on conservation movements and land trusts is impressive and carried the book to a five. I am expecially impressed by the combination of

HYBRID consortiums and


J. F. Rischard understood this and articulated it in his book, High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them. We have antiquated governments, corporations, non-governmental organizations, and universities, all nearly brain-dead for having been in the “rote” by regulation mode for so long. INFORMATION IS THE FACILITATOR, HYBRID COALITIONS ARE THE ACTORS.

The author speaks of “an unlikely coalition of farmers, environmentalists, and business interests….” and on closer examination this boils down to persistent informed personalities showing each group, from that group’s point of view, the economic, social, and ecologicial advantages in their own terms. PUBLIC INTELLIGENCE LEADS TO SELF-REGULATION THAT IS EFFECTIVE.

QUOTE (303-304): We must break the relentless cycle of overuse by restricting new access to the public resource, by protecting existing users with quantified water rights, by making these water rights transferable, and bvy insisting that new users purchase and retire existing water rights in exchange for permission to place a new demand on the resource.

A truly deep book rich in detail, lacking in visualization. My bottom line is that we have not done our homework. WE have not inventoried the history of water zip code by zip code, we have not quantified and evaluated the return on investment for water use at every location and in relation to every product, and therefore we have no basis for intelligent policy making from the zip code level to the national, regional, and global levels. There is a lot of common sense and professional research in this book–to me as a professional intelligence officer it shouts out: COLLECT, PROCESS, ANALYZE, SHARE. Public intelligence in the public interest–that’s the missing link in Water, and in relation to the other eleven core policies itemized by Earth Intelligence Network (Agriculture, Diplomacy, Economy, Education, Energy, Family, Health, Immigration, Justice, Security, Society). See the strategic analytic model–and the impact of CORRUPTION on all matters, at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog.

A solid five, needs more work, and a follow on book that visualizes and quantifies and compares, state by state, district by district.

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