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Book Review: Running Out of Water

RP Siegel | Monday September 13th, 2010 | 2 Comments

More and more people are beginning to recognize that water is going to be the next oil. As oil has become scarce due to our voracious consumption, so has water. But the analogy can only go so far. For while countless civilizations have existed and thrived without oil for centuries, no man or woman has ever lived without water for more than a few days.

And while water is theoretically a renewable resource, at least in the sense that what goes up, unlike oil that’s been burned, must come down; clean, safe, available water is not.

Water that is polluted, or that falls into the ocean, or that rushes down a mountain too fast to be absorbed by the land, can no longer be considered clean, safe, and available. That quantity is getting smaller as the quantity of water consumers is getting bigger. At the same time, global warming is wreaking havoc with the water cycle in ways that we can’t really predict.

These points and many others are covered in detail in a new book entitled, Running Out of Water by Peter Rogers and Susan Leal, published by Macmillan. Rogers is an Environmental Engineering professor at Harvard while Leal is the former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

The book addresses this alarming topic in a pragmatic manner which is decidedly solutions-oriented and therefore hopeful, giving numerous examples of turning scarcity into abundance, from around the globe usually from a utility policy perspective. Some of these include:

  • Wastewater recycling in Orange County, CA, St. Petersburg, FL, and Singapore.
  • Agricultural water conservation in Nebraska and in California’s Imperial Valley
  • Sewer restoration projects in San Francisco and Brazil
  • Demand management in Boston
  • Turning sewage into energy in San Francisco and Santa Rosa
  • Trans-boundary river basin management initiatives in India-Pakistan, along the Nile and the Mekong

Most of these initiatives produced substantial rewards in water savings, with the aid of a core of dedicated thought leaders and visionaries as well as a well informed citizenry willing to support a significant upfront investment, either in taxes, fees or sweat equity because they understand the ultimately higher cost of doing nothing.

The book is written in clear and simple prose and while it is somewhat uneven in its coverage of the issue, focusing primarily on specific examples rather than on trying to paint an overall picture, it does shed quite a bit of light along the way. Personally, I would have liked a little more technical detail on exactly how the water savings were achieved, like in the rather extensive section on the Imperial Valley, where we are left to infer that the savings were achieved through reduced evaporation and ground absorption, though it never explicitly says so.

My other complaint about the book is that I would have liked to see a little more elaboration of the problem statement. I’m not sure exactly who the intended audience for the book is, but my sense is that the authors’ relatively brief introduction to the problem assumes a level of familiarity with the water crisis that may not be as high among the general public as those of us who worry about it would like to think.

It’s kind of the opposite of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth in that way. People complained about the fact the 90% of that book focused on stating the problem in indisputable terms with only a short section focusing on solutions. I think that this book’s emphasis on solutions is great, but given the level of general complacency out there, I would have liked a little more Al Gore, because, as Mark Twain once said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

Still, for those who don’t need convincing that this problem is real and who want to learn about a number of projects that have dealt with this in a variety of interesting and effective ways, this book is definitely worth a read.

RP Siegel, PE is co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails

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  • http://www.SoleraGroup.com Kevin Carney

    You might enjoy this. Perth, Australia, has installed a desalination plant, at cost of $360M (I’m guessing Australian dollars), that is capable of desalinating and purifying 50,000 gallons a minute. However, considering that the population of Perth is 1.3 million, the cost of that desalination plant is $277M per person. Where I come from, that’s expensive, but as Perth is surrounded by dessert, they probably felt they had no choice.

    Kevin @ Solera Home Improvement

    • Nick Aster

      $277M? My math says it’s $277 … that doesn’t seem too horrible to me.

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