AWRA Water Blog

Big Hit: Charles Fishman’s ‘The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water’

Finally! Time for your dose of my stream-of-consciousness book review writing. Nice catchy post title, too.

And people wonder when I tell them I could not write a book. Here goes…

When Charles Fishman’s publisher sent me a free copy of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water (aka TBT) almost four (!) months ago, there were two things I could not imagine, that: 1) it would take me so long to read and review the book; and 2) I’d be writing the review in Honduras, while on a hydrophilanthropic mission. People die in this country from malaria, cholera, dysentery, and dengue – afflictions virtually unknown to those of us in the developed world.

As for (1). Fishman’s book was not at all hard to read, but my reading vision problem again reared its ugly head. As for (2), I am certain that my location will color my review, and that is appropriate.

I’m starting this review in La Ceiba, a city on Honduras’ northern (Caribbean) coast, which bills itself as the gateway to the Bay Islands, La Mosquitia and the country’s party city – like New Orleans is in the USA. But it’s not the partying I’m contemplating; it’s the fact that the municipal water in the place where I’m staying is unavailable between about 4 PM and 5:30 AM each day and whenFish-Author-Photo-2011-2-copy-239x300 it’s on, you don’t drink it.  These are two facts of life in Honduras and many other countries.  The first thing I did when I disembarked in San Pedro Sula was buy a reputable brand of bottled water. If that fails, I’ve got my little bottle of chlorine bleach. And my Imodium A-D.

My main reason for being in Honduras is investigating potential drinking water projects for my students and foundation. But it just prompts me to tell my readers — in the developed world anyway – be thankful for the water you have emanating from your tap, and to my friends in the USA, you’re not paying nearly enough.

But enough about me.


Short storyI thoroughly enjoyed Fishman’s book. It’s well-researched and well-written, with extensive notes. Fishman works for the business magazine Fast Company and the book reflects, but is not dominated by, a business perspective.

TBT’s opening paragraph really piqued my curiosity. In it, Fishman describes the launch of the space shuttle from Cape Canaveral and the huge amount of water – 300,000 gallons – required for the launch. Sure, you say – as a heat sink and flame suppressant.  But no, Fishman says, those are not the reasons; it is something else the water provides. And I’m not going to tell you, but it is something I did not know. Certainly a different way to start a water book.

He eloquently describes our complex relationship with water – we love to play in it, look at it, listen to it, desire it, but undervalue (in an economic sense) it and fuss when we think we are paying a water bill that is too high. Yet we pay outlandishly high prices for bottled water, which, in most cases, is an absolute frivolity. We forget how essential good tap water is to public health. We have let our water infrastructure deteriorate to the point where some fear that those wealthy enough will walk away from our tap water and switch to the bottled stuff. Water has become invisible.

And there are numbers – lotsa numbers! So many gigaliters for this, so many megaliters for that, etc. But Fishman does an exemplary job illustrating how much water is actually represented by those  large numbers with strange units. He even has a list of conversion factors  and water facts in the back. So some might be put off by the numbers, especially the unfamiliar units, but not I.

We are regaled with water’s secret life. Where it came from – not from planet Earth. The is fact that most of Earth’s water is locked up in rocks and minerals deep beneath our feet. In my late 1960s Stone-Aged petrology and mineralogy classes my instructor, Dr. Steve Clement, referred to that as ‘water of crystallization’ or some such. It really is not a fourth state of water but I understand why Fishman uses that expression.

So Fishman’s description of water’s secret life, whether it is ensconced far beneath the surface involved in tectonic processes, in some far-off galaxy, or as an ultrapure compound (courtesy of IBM) that tastes horribly bitter and is a ferociously hungry beast, was welcomed by me. There’s more to water than something from the tap or as a carrier of our waste.

Another interminable aside: when I first taught hydrogeology in 1976 I started using the legendary George Burke Maxey’s notes and was astounded to find about 20 or so different terms for subsurface water, a few of which described the deep water Fishman discusses. I think those terms came from O.E. Meinzer’s tome, Hydrology. But Burke had been trained as a paleontologist/stratigrapher, (joke from one of my geology profs: Q: What’s the difference between stamp collecting and paleontology? A: Stamp collecting is actually useful.) so terminology and categorization reigned supreme. But I chucked those words and went straight to the well hydraulics, written in a language I knew – mathematics.

Some short cuts

Things I liked or that otherwise made an impression on me:

1) The terms ‘water envy’, ‘water poverty’ and ‘ostentatious water’. The last one? You got it – Vegas, baby!

2) A tale of two Aussie cities: Perth and Toowoomba. One had a visionary water manager who recognized nonstationarity and successfully tackled water shortages whereas in the other, a tough-minded mayor tried to shove a water policy down its citizens’ throats.

3) A tale of two USA cities: Las Vegas and Atlanta. Two growth monsters, but the former had Pat Mulroy as ‘water czarina’, and visionary, the latter, no such persona.

4) India – that rising, high-tech economy, the folks who debug our computers, yet don’t provide 24/7 clean water to its residents and pollutes its sacred rivers. I still don’t really understand, but I now sort of see they do what they do (or don’t) do what they do. But Indians also have some innovative, grassroots aquifer recharge projects.

5) Las Vegas and its effort to stretch its ‘meager’ Colorado River supply to accommodate more residents. Interesting contrast: a place characterized by opulence, excess, and conspicuous consumption, yet trying to conserve water. That’s why Fishman doesn’t talk about conservation in places such as Tucson or Albuquerque – because, they’re…well, not Vegas!

6) Australia as a harbinger: “a gift to the rest of the developed world.” Will we look it in the mouth?

7) GE getting into water purification in a big way, yet dragging its feet regarding its contamination of the Hudson River with PCBs. Charity begins at home, folks.

8) 8) Water economist Mike Young

9) Aussie rice farmers in the Murray-Darling basin, growing rice in an arid region.

10) Great notes!

11) Galveston, oh, Galveston!

12) Evian facial mister? $427/gallon. WTF?

13) Water experts I’d never heard of – great!

14) Pat Mulroy quotes:

“People don’t understand water.” And, referring to the folks in the North American Great Lakes region,“They’ve got 14% of the population of the United States, and 20% of the fresh water in the world [Oh, no, Pat!] – and no one can use it but them? ‘I might not need it. But I’m not sharing it.’ When did it become their water anyway? It’s nuts!”

I think Mulroy doesn’t understand people. Talk to the rural folks in Nevada and western Utah who would be impacted by her massive groundwater pumping scheme; see if they understand water [Forgive the editorial comment.]

Some issues

Early on (page 19) , Fishman makes the statement “All water problems are local.” He almost immediately qualifies that by saying that it’s not quite so simple as that, and even later states that water problems are local or regional. That’s getting better. Are the water quality problems in the Lower Mississippi River local or regional? Will a decrease in wheat production in the southern High Plains because of declining groundwater supplies cause Saudi Arabia to use more of its groundwater to grow wheat that it might have imported from the USA? He’s right, it’s not that simple.

Privatization. I was surprised that there was no mention of this, despite the fact that Fishman is a business reporter. Corporations are well represented but not in the water or wastewater system privatization discussion. A lot of people are concerned about this issue. Yet I do not recall his discussion of this, or people like Maude Barlow and Vandana Shiva and their proponents.

Note added on 13 August 2011: On page 16, Fishman starts discussing the ‘resiliency’ of water and then on page 17 suggests we are drinking dinosaur pee because the water molecules that are around today have been around for at least for the past few hundred million years – ‘No water is being created or destroyed on Earth’ (page 17). But an individual water molecule is not ‘eternal’; the strong covalent bonds binding the oxygen to the two hydrogens can be broken by photodisocciation and biogeochemical reactions, to be reformed when OH- and H+ combine. Even the so-called misnamed ‘fourth state of water’ deep within Earth that Fishman discusses is not really water, which is H2O, but likely occurs as OH- and H+. So I have to think about the ‘dinosaur pee’ argument, which has been heard elsewhere as well. I first heard one form of it last fall at the PGWI Conference from Dr. Robert Giegengack (access his presentation at the PGWI site) although he cast it in the form of drinking water that passed through Moses. Here is my post on that issue.

Bottom line

Great book; highly recommended. If you haven’t read it, you need to, WaterWonk or not.

It actually had the opposite effect on me than what I feared. I thought this book would further add to my water-book burnout. But it has actually whetted my appetite for other water books: Cynthia Barnett’s is due next month, then there is David Zetland’s to read on the flights home, plus Alex Prud’homme’s The Ripple Effect, Will Sarni’s Corporate Water Strategies, and Brian Fagan’s Elixir. I may even tackle Tom Swihart’s Florida’s Water.

It will be very nice to see and hear Barnett, Fishman, and Zetland at the AWRA November meeting.

Too many water books, too little time.

Gotta get this thing out the door!

“I think the days of big water are gone.” – Laurie Arthur, Australian rice farmer

“I think our relationship with water is going to be one of the deciding things of the next century. I don’t think water’s in trouble. But we might be.” — Dr. Richard Wolfenden

“I think petroleum is better managed than water. With all its ugliness, at least it works.” – Mike Young

“Nothing says indulgence, in fact, like paying for something you don’t need to pay for, like paying for something you don’t need.” — Charles Fishman, referring to bottled water

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