America has a problem. We’re a thirsty nation. Actually, it’s more like we’re addicted to water, abusing it. We subsidize its use on a grand scale in industries that use it inefficiently, even wastefully, and in locations where it is naturally hard to come by. We allocate it based on facts that are no longer true, and were doubtful or changing even as we made our policies. In our sometimes blind enthusiasm, we overreached and now we are mire in unintended consequences. To top it off, we rarely change our ways until a crisis is already upon us.
Cynthia Barnett describes these problems in her book Blue Revolution. She also looks around the country and the world for solutions. Her essential solution is a water ethic.
At one time, people were intimately connected to water. Farmers watched for rain. Children fetched pails of it from the stream or worked a pump handle. Communities were built around watermills where people brought in grain or carried away flour.
Of course, water is no less essential to modern life. We depend on it for drinking, cleaning, sanitation and green lawns. It is essential or the energy that light and cools our homes and powers our computers. The abundance of food in our groceries stores is partly a testament to the abundance of water used to irrigate fields that don’t get enough rainfall for the crops we grow.
What is different is the way we view water. For most of us it is cheap, nearly free in comparison to other utilities and services we use in our homes. We can get as much as we want whenever we want by opening a valve. Water is something we hold back with dams, divert with canals, and pump through pipes. It bends to our will—except when it doesn’t.
Our water policies and technologies have often had unintended consequences. We turned deserts into productive fields, but much of the water is lost to evaporation. We moved water great distances to supply cities, but it encouraged profligacy that threatens those distant, expensive supplies. Dams that were engineering marvels may soon stand at the ends of empty lakes.
Sure, changes in technology and policy are needed to stop, and hopefully reverse, these problems. Barnett doesn’t stop there. Our approach to water arises from the way we value it, think about it, and relate to it. Our present state came from valuing water little, thinking about it little unless it was our job, and relating to it little except for those who intensely depended on a highly subsidized supply.
The water ethic Barnett proposes would value water, both in the sense of personal appreciation and economic cost and opportunity. It would seek the best use of the water we have, especially what is locally available. It creates opportunities for people to contact water and understand where it comes from and how it is affected by use. It is something that spreads organically from person to person, neighborhood to neighborhood, business to business, and city to city.
It is an ethic that is within reach, too. Barnett describes how places that have long had extreme relationships with extreme water environments, like the Netherlands, Singapore and Australia, have changed their relationship with water. These are not just policy shifts, they are cultural changes. Even in the United States, there are places where a new water ethic is taking hold and people understand how important and fragile water is.
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