PROLOGUE: UNDER PRESSURE 1
PART I: QUALITY: WHAT IS IN OUR WATER? 7
PART II: DROUGHT: A CREEPING DISASTER 115
PART III: FLOOD: COME HELL OR HIGH WATER 201
PART IV: WATER IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY: CONFLICT AND INNOVATION 237
CONCLUSION: THE RIPPLE EFFECT 343
361 Acknowledgments 363
Thirty-five feet down, on the bottom of a concrete tank filled with a million gallons of bitterly cold water, lay a body. The tank’s fifty-pound lid was slightly askew; its usually secure bolts were loose or missing. Shards of glass—the remains of a beaker for taking water samples—were scattered across the concrete floor. This was in early February 2005, in a state-of- the-art water purification plant in suburban New Jersey.
The victim was Geetha Angara, a well-liked forty-three-year-old hydrochemist. She was the mother of three, the wife of a banker, had a PhD in organic chemistry from New York University, and had worked at the Passaic Valley Water Commission plant for twelve years. In 2004, the plant underwent a $70 million upgrade, during which a chlorine treatment system was replaced by an ozone-based system. At the same time, Angara was promoted to senior chemist. Her job was to maintain water quality to standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and to oversee the new ozone generators, which would suffer from cracks and other problems. A colleague recalled that during the plant’s rededication, Angara was “in such a fabulous mood, [but] other people around her weren’t.”
An autopsy showed that Angara had been forcibly subdued but that she was still alive when she fell, or was pushed, into the tank. “There was no way out,” said Passaic County prosecutor James Avigliano. “The water level was five feet below the opening. It was pitch-dark, ice-cold, thirty- six-degree water. There were no ladders. It was just a horrible way to die. There is no doubt that this is homicide.”
The Passaic treatment plant sits on the outskirts of Totowa, a bustling suburb of ten thousand, just west of Manhattan. The plant purifies 83 mil- lion gallons of drinking water a day. Although New Jersey has relatively large water reserves, the state’s rapid growth has put tremendous pressure on its water supplies. Towns are competing for the same resources, water rates are rising, decades of pollution have poisoned rivers and aquifers, and infrastructure is aging.
As in many states that suffer from similar problems, private water companies sensed an opportunity in New Jersey and began to move in. By the mid-1980s, the Hackensack Water Company controlled hundreds of acres in the watershed of northern New Jersey, supplied water to many towns, and had acquired numerous smaller water companies. When in the early 1990s the company announced it would turn some of its wetlands and forests into housing developments, arguments broke out in town meetings. Local environmental groups—worried that the developments would contaminate the watershed—filed lawsuits to block them. A 1993 settlement preserved 650 of the disputed acres. But in 2000, the company—renamed United Water Resources, and operating in fourteen states—pushed to develop a twenty-acre parcel adjacent to the Oradell Reservoir, near the town of Emerson, and just a few miles from the Passaic Valley water plant. This time, the Environmental Defense Fund, a national environmental group, spearheaded the drive to protect drinking supplies. Both sides were threatening legal action when the giant French water company Suez took a controlling interest in United Water—for $1.36 billion, in mid-2000—and brokered a truce. In December 2001, the borough of Emerson purchased the disputed lot for $7.8 million and turned it into a nature preserve— though the battle still rankles New Jerseyans.
Water is now a big, if unglamorous, business. Disputes over the control of supplies, and the privatization of utilities, have become increasingly common across the country—from Atlanta, Georgia, to Stockton, California—and around the world, from China to Bolivia. In some cases, privatizing water leads to better service; in many cases, it results in higher fees; occasionally, it has led to social upheaval and violence, as people protest the commoditization of an essential resource.
Geetha Angara was proud of her work at the Passaic Valley treatment plant, and she always conducted her water tests conscientiously. On the day she went missing, she was alone by the water tank for only a short time. That afternoon, colleagues noticed an odd sight: an uneaten sandwich on Angara’s impeccable desk; they began to search for her but did not call the police for ten hours. The following afternoon, police divers were called in and eventually discovered her radio and clipboard at the bottom of a tank. But Angara’s body had migrated from the main tank into a second tank, the “clear well,” and wasn’t discovered until hours later.
Plant administrators worried that the water might have become contaminated and decided to drain the entire 1-million-gallon tank. By the time Angara’s body was recovered, chlorine used as a cleansing agent had destroyed any potential DNA evidence.
As news of Angara’s death spread in surrounding communities, rumors flew. Officials canceled school, and some local businesses temporarily closed. (A dead body will generally sink as soon as the air in its lungs is replaced by water; once submerged, liquids and feces escape the cadaver, which begins to decompose, rendering the surrounding water unhealthy to drink.) As a precaution against contamination, the Passaic Valley Water Commission issued a “boil order”—a suggestion that the public boil drinking water, to purify it—to seventeen towns. The citizens of Passaic County were forced to confront an uncomfortable fact: their hereto- fore safe, dependable, boring water supply was not as secure as they had always assumed it was.
Investigators were unable to discover a clear motive for Angara’s killing, but they felt sure of one thing: the plant was protected from outside intruders, so she was likely murdered by one of her eighty-five coworkers. All fifty employees present on the day of her death were interviewed and provided DNA samples. Eight of them were deemed of “special interest”; three of them were especially suspect because their stories didn’t add up. But without a clear motive or proof of a crime, the investigation stalled in 2006. Detectives were no longer working full-time on the case, though it remained technically open (and therefore I was not allowed to view the voluminous investigative files). The following year, the Angara family filed a wrongful-death suit against the PVWC and a number of individually named supervisors and lab technicians, claiming the water plant—which had a history of accidents involving extremely high levels of chlorine in the water, open and unguarded water tanks, dirty work spaces, a lack of internal security measures, and a record of fifty-five health and safety violations—was a dangerous workplace that the PVWC allegedly knew about but failed to correct. In 2009, a state judge instructed attorneys to mediate the lawsuit. The commission’s lawyer declined to comment, other than to say, “The PVWC continues to deny these unproven allegations.”
With Angara’s death still a mystery, questions remain. Why would someone murder a respected hydrochemist? Did it have anything to do with the quality of water at the plant? Had the water at the PVWC really turned a pinkish color the week before the murder, as Angara had confided to her husband? If so, what did that mean? Did Angara blow a whistle on a colleague? Did the expensive new ozone disinfectant system, which had caused Angara headaches for weeks, have some kind of embarrassing problem? Had she inadvertently stumbled over something illicit, such as a drug deal, or a tryst, as some have alleged? Were any of the more outrageous conspiracy theories—such as the claim, whispered to me in a windy parking lot, that the New Jersey mob had been angered by the PVWC’s switch from chlorine to ozone treatment, a move that supposedly curtailed work done by contractors under mob control, and had put out a hit on Angara—true? (No evidence has been presented to back this theory.) One indication that her death may have had something to do with water quality, and not professional jealousy or personal antipathy, was that the EPA sent agents to review PVWC maintenance records. State prosecutors played down the importance of the visit, saying the federal agents “were just dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s. They found nothing.”
To the public, the most pressing question surrounding Angara’s death was, how could a body enter the drinking supply in one of the nation’s most densely populated regions and remain undetected for a day and a half without sounding an alarm? The answer was that in the PVWC tank, the sensor designed to warn of any change in water displacement wasn’t working. So when Geetha Angara fell, or was pushed, into the water tank, no alarm sounded to warn that something weighing 175 pounds had entered the water. It could just as easily have been 175 pounds of cyanide, or a biological weapon, as a body.
This revelation led to further questions. If a body could contaminate 1 million gallons of water with no warning, then what other contaminants might lie unidentified in the drinking supply? In light of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in nearby Manhattan, were the PVWC’s treatment chemicals—such as chlorine (a potentially deadly gas that was used as a chemical weapon during the First World War)—used properly and secure?
Chapter 1: The Defining Resource
Thousands have lived without love—not one without water. —W. H. Auden
It is scarcity and plenty that makes the vulgar take things to be precious or worthless; they call a diamond very beautiful because it is like pure water, and then would not exchange one for ten barrels of water.
—Galileo Galilei, 1632
THE PARADOX OF WATER
The received wisdom is that America has some of the best water in the world—meaning that we have the cleanest and most plentiful supply of H2O anywhere, available in an endless stream, at whatever temperature or volume we wish, whenever we want it, at hardly any cost. In America, clean water seems limitless. This assumption is so ingrained that most of us never stop to think about it when we brush our teeth, power up our computers, irrigate our crops, build a new house, or gulp down a clean, clear drink on a hot summer day.
It’s easy to see why. For most of its history, the United States has shown a remarkable ability to find, treat, and deliver potable water to citizens in widely different circumstances across the country. Since the seventies, America has relied on the Environmental Protection Agency and robust laws—most notably the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, which have been further enhanced by state and local regulations—to protect water supplies. Even our sewer systems are among the best in the world, reliably limiting the spread of disease and ensuring a healthy envi- ronment. At least, that is what the water industry says.
To put the state of American water in perspective, consider that by 2000 some 1.2 billion people around the world lacked safe drinking water, and that by 2025 as many as 3.4 billion people will face water scarcity, accord- ing to the UN. What’s more, as the global population rises from 6.8 billion in 2010 to nearly 9 billion by 2050, and climate change disrupts familiar weather patterns, reliable supplies of freshwater will become increasingly threatened. In Australia and Spain, record droughts have led to critical water shortages; in China rampant pollution has led to health problems and environmental degradation; in Africa tensions over water supplies have led to conflict; and in Central America the privatization of water has led to suffering and violence.
At a glance, then, America seems to be hydrologically blessed. But if you look a little closer, you will discover that the apparent success of our water management and consumption masks a broad spectrum of underly- ing problems—from new kinds of water pollution to aging infrastructure, intensifying disputes over water rights, obsolete regulations, and shiting weather patterns, among many other things.
These problems are expensive to fix, difficult to adapt to, and politi- cally unpopular. Not surprisingly, people have tended to ignore them, pre- tending they don’t exist in the secret hope that they will cure themselves. Instead, America’s water problems have steadily grown worse. In recent years, the quality and quantity of American water has undergone stagger- ing changes, largely out of the public eye.
Between 2004 and 2009, the Clean Water Act (CWA) was violated at least 506,000 times by more than twenty-three thousand companies and other facilities, according to EPA data assessed by the New York Times. The EPA’s comprehensive data covers only that five-year span, but it shows that the number of facilities violating the CWA increased more than 16 percent from 2004 to 2007. (Some polluters illegally withheld information about their discharges, so the actual contamination was worse.) The culprits ranged from small gas stations and dry-cleaning stores, to new housing developments, farms, mines, factories, and vast city sewer systems. Dur- ing that time, less than 3 percent of polluters were punished or fined by EPA regulators, who were politically and financially hamstrung.
During the same period, the quality of tap water deteriorated, as the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was violated in every state. Between 2004 and 2009, a study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit watchdog organization, found, tap water in forty-five states and the District of Columbia was contaminated by 316 different pollut- ants. More than half of those chemicals—including the gasoline additive MTBE, the rocket-fuel component perchlorate, and industrial plasticiz- ers called phthalates—were unregulated by the EPA and thus not sub- ject to environmental safety standards. Federal agencies have set limits for ninety-one chemicals in water supplies; the EWG study found forty-nine of these pollutants in water at excessive levels. Translated, this means that the drinking water of 53.6 million Americans was contaminated.
Many people have turned to bottled water as a convenient, supposedly healthier alternative to tap, but a 2008 test by EWG found that bottled water (purchased from stores in nine states and the District of Columbia) contained traces of thirty-eight pollutants, including fertilizers, bacte- ria, industrial chemicals, Tylenol, and excessive levels of potential car- cinogens. The International Bottled Water Association, a trade group, dismissed the EWG report as exaggerated and unrepresentative of the industry, demanding that EWG “cease and desist.” EWG stuck to its con- clusions and objected to the industry’s “intimidation tactics.”
The health consequences of water pollution are difficult to gauge and likely won’t be known for years. But medical researchers have noticed a rise in the incidence of certain diseases, especially breast and prostate cancer, since the 1970s, and doctors surmise that contaminated drinking water could be one explanation. Similarly, the effect of long-term multifaceted pollution on the ecosystem is not well understood. What, for instance, is the cumulative effect of a “cocktail” of old and new contaminants—sewage, plastics, ibuprofen, Chanel No. 5, estrogen, cocaine, and Viagra, say—on aquatic grasses, water bugs, bass, ducks, beavers, and on us? Hydrologists are only just beginning to study this question.
In the meantime, human thirst began to outstrip the ecosystem’s abil- ity to supply clean water in a sustainable way. By 2008, the world’s con- sumption of water was doubling every twenty years, which is more than twice the rate of population growth. By 2000, people had used or altered virtually every accessible supply of freshwater. Some of the world’s mighti- est rivers—including the Rio Grande and the Colorado—had grown so depleted that they reached the sea only in exceptionally wet years. Springs have been pumped dry. Half the world’s wetlands (the “kidneys” of the environment, which absorb rainfall, filter pollutants, and dampen the effects of storm surges) were drained or damaged, which harmed ecosystems and allowed salt water to pollute freshwater aquifers. In arid, rapidly growing Western states, such as Colorado, Texas, and California, droughts were causing havoc.
A report by the US General Accounting Office predicts that thirty-six states will face water shortages by 2013, while McKinsey & Co. forecasts that global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent in 2030.
The experts—hydrologists, engineers, environmentalists, diplomats— have been watching these trends with concern, noting that the growing human population and warming climate will only intensify the pres- sure on water supplies. Some call freshwater “the defining resource of the twenty-first century,” and the UN has warned of “a looming water crisis.”
“We used to think that energy and water would be the critical issues. Now we think water will be the critical issue,” Mostafa Tolba, former head of the UN Environment Programme, has declared. Ismail Serageldin, the World Bank’s leading environmental expert, put it even more bluntly: “The wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water.”
How did this happen? How did the United States, the world’s most power- ful, wealthy, and technically savvy country, find its water supplies becom- ing more, not less, polluted in the nearly forty years since the Clean Water Act of 1972? How did the nation find itself running dry in some histor- ically wet regions, while suffering devastating floods in historically dry regions? How is water being turned into an expensive commodity, such as oil or gas, and why is it a flash point for conflict? What kind of solutions can we—as individuals, and collectively—build? These were some of the questions that intrigued me, and that this book seeks to answer.
Chapter 11: Water Scarcity
And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.
—John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1952
PLUMBING THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD
On a cold, bright aternoon in March 2007, I walked across a busy construction site on a windy corner of Eleventh Avenue, on the far west side of midtown Manhattan, stepped aboard an orange steel elevator cage, and dropped into an enormous hole in the ground. The hole, called Shat 26B, was the main portal to a new subterranean labyrinth, City Water Tun- nel No. 3. Pressed around me were half a dozen men dressed, as I was, in yellow slickers, muddy rubber boots, and orange hard hats. “The tun- nel can be dangerous,” said Ted Dowey, the project’s executive construc- tion manager. “It can flood. Water pressure can hemorrhage a pipe. And there’s groundwater seepage through the rock—about two hundred thou- sand gallons a minute along the nine-mile tunnel. If you don’t pump it out every day, the water’ll shut it down.”
Dowey slammed the gate shut. “Okay!” he said. The construction eleva- tor shuddered disconcertingly, and with a grinding noise began to drop. We passed through a couple of inches of asphalt, perhaps a foot of con- crete, several feet of brown dirt, then continued down through sixty stories of dark gray granite called Manhattan schist, 450-million-year-old meta- morphic rock that is flecked with mica and prized for its ability to support one of the densest clusters of skyscrapers in the world. At two hundred feet down, the hole at the surface through which we could see blue sky was reduced to the size of a quarter, and the light was growing murky. By three hundred feet down, we were completely enveloped in a warm, humid blackness. By five hundred feet, I heard the sound of dripping water. Ater a long four-minute ride, Dowey said, “Almost there!” A single dim light- bulb rose up from below, like some kind of phosphorescent deep-sea fish, then a bell rang, and the cage bounced to a stop. Dowey opened the gate, and we filed out into a world of smudged light, ankle-deep water, and sot gray mud. We were roughly 580 feet underground, inside New York City’s most urgent water supply project.
At this depth, I sensed the weight and density of the city’s bedrock. My eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom, and I saw muddied yellow drill rigs mounted on Caterpillar tracks. The rigs were armed with twin hydrau- lic bits and stood next to a long, mud-spattered conveyor belt. Giant air ducts and thick, looping power lines carrying 13,200 volts of electricity to power the tunnel-boring machine snaked along the wall beneath a line of dim bulbs. In either direction, the massive tube seemed to recede to infinity.
Dowey, a tall, lean man with a dark goatee, pointed straight ahead, along the tunnel. “That way is north,” he shouted over the roaring fans that supplied fresh air. “From here, the tunnel runs straight uptown to Sixty- Eighth Street, with no stop signs.” Then he turned downtown. “Let’s go this way and see if we can find some sandhogs.” Sandhogs is the nickname for the tunneling specialists who have excavated New York’s subways, sew- ers, and skyscraper foundations since the mid-1870s, when they dug out the caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge.
Manhattan is a relatively dry island in a relatively wet region. Viewed through the lens of water supply, New York City has more in common with dry Western cities such as Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas than it does with most places in the East. Just like those cities, New York has responded to its water demands by building a gigantic siphon to bring water into the city from rural sources far away.
Tunnel No. 3 is a project of the New York City Department of Environ- mental Protection (DEP), which comprises the largest and most complex municipal water system in the country—known to many engineers as “the eighth wonder of the world.” The DEP’s exquisitely engineered network of dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, and tunnels draws from a watershed stretch- ing across 1,972 square miles—an area about the size of Delaware—and contains 580 billion gallons of water. The distribution system supplies roughly 1.3 billion gallons of freshwater to 8 million city dwellers and 1 million suburbanites every day. The DEP system encompasses sixty-five hundred miles of water mains and sixty-six hundred miles of wastewater pipes; 95 percent of the water it carries flows dozens of miles into the city by gravity alone. Dropping from aqueducts as high as fourteen hundred feet above sea level down to pipes a thousand feet below sea level, the water builds up so much pressure that when it reaches Manhattan’s water mains, where it flows at roughly ninety-five pounds per square inch, it will rise to the sixth floor of most buildings unaided by pumps. Pressure in the system is so great that in some parts of the city it must be lowered mechanically by regulator valves.
New York City’s water system was well designed and robustly built but has grown leaky and decrepit with age. Parts of the system are 140 years old and require significant upgrades. The city’s drinking supply has had a higher profile under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but much of the sys- tem suffers from years of underinvestment and deferred maintenance, and the DEP faces a growing list of problems: infirm dams and seeping water tunnels, sewage overflows and industrial water pollution, pressure from development and gas drilling in the watershed, tension between rural communities and the city over control of water, competition with neigh- boring states for future drinking supplies, and worries about the impact of climate change on water quality and quantity.
Aging infrastructure is a growing problem nationwide, but the decline has occurred largely out of sight, both literally and figuratively. The Amer- ican Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the nation’s oldest engineering society, has reported that much of the nation’s hydro-infrastructure is on the verge of failure. In its 2009 Report Card, ASCE gave the nation’s infrastructure a D, or “Poor,” grade, and waterworks earned some of the worst grades of all: the nation’s dams were given a D, while drinking water, wastewater treatment plants, inland waterways, and levees all received grades of D-minus, meaning they are dangerously compromised.
In New York, DEP engineers are especially concerned about the state of the city’s two main water arteries—City Water Tunnels No. 1 and No. 2.
Chapter 19: Praying for Rain
With over 5.4 million residents, the Atlanta metropolitan area was the fastest-growing, most populous region in the Southeast in 2007, and the city promoted itself as being “the economic engine of the South.” But as Atlanta grew rapidly—starting in the mid-seventies, with the city’s rise accelerated by its hosting of the 1996 Olympic Games, which led to a con- struction boom—city and state leaders failed to create comprehensive water policies or invest in water infrastructure.
The spring and summer of 2007 were virtually rainless, and Atlanta’s main reservoir, Lake Sidney Lanier, dropped a record fiteen feet. Front- page photographs across the nation showed docks high and dry and boats stranded on the lake’s gravel ledges. In April, Georgia was placed under statewide restrictions that limited outdoor watering to three days a week.
In May, Atlanta allowed watering only on the weekends. In August, tem- peratures reached 104 degrees, one degree below Atlanta’s record, set in 1980. In September, officials banned all outdoor watering in the northern half of the state for the first time in history. In October, Atlanta officials asserted that Lake Lanier was less than three months from turning empty, while smaller reservoirs were dropping even faster. In November, Geor- gia governor Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency for the north- ern third of his state, asked President George W. Bush to label it a major disaster area, and cut public utilities’ water withdrawals by 10 percent. Then Perdue joined hands with supporters on the statehouse steps to pray for rain.
To some, the calamity was no surprise. Years of pro-growth policies and lax zoning had led to poor water management and urban sprawl; hydrol- ogists had warned Georgia for nearly two decades that such a drought was possible, but legislators had never developed a coherent response. In the 1990s, plans to build a network of state reservoirs were defeated, largely by developers who were angered that they would not be allowed to build homes around the new lakes. A 2003 plan to sell water permits, which would limit water use, was derailed by Georgians who feared that neighboring states would be able to outbid them. A 2004 initiative to build a state-funded regional reservoir was defeated. At the same time, local farmers planted thousands of acres of water-intensive sod to embellish the growing supply of new housing developments, while golf courses and car washes faced no restrictions on water use during the three-year drought.
“There’s no question this situation could have been avoided,” said for- mer governor Roy Barnes. “We’ve known this for a long time. We have a state approaching nine million people . . . [and] we have no plan for water.”
The Southeastern drought began in late 2005 and lasted through the summer of 2007. Many commentators blamed global warming, which seemed to make sense. But ater carefully reviewing historical climate data, experts concluded that global warming was not the culprit. In 2009, a team of climate researchers led by Columbia University’s Dr. Richard Seagar (who argues that the Southwest is facing a permanent drying out) undertook a dispassionate appraisal of the Southeastern drought and dis- covered that the three-plus-year dry spell was “quite typical” for the region and will be repeated.
What Atlantans didn’t focus on was the second major finding of Seagar’s study: “In the near future, precipitation will increase year around in the Southeast.” This prediction was borne out almost immediately.
In June 2009, Governor Perdue’s theatrical prayer for rain was finally answered with light precipitation, and Atlanta was able to lit water-use restrictions for the first time in three years. Over the summer, the weather seemed to normalize. Then, on Tuesday, September 15, a low-pressure system crossed Georgia, collided with a high-pressure system over the East Coast, and stalled. It began to rain. As the week wore on, the rain fell harder and then harder still.
On Saturday, September 19, some 3.7 inches of rain fell on the city, which was more than double the record for that date, while over 5 inches fell on the suburbs. By Monday, creeks had overtopped their banks. Forty homes were flooded, power was knocked out across the Atlanta metropolitan area, trees heavy with water crashed to the ground, and the Red Cross began to evacuate people. It rained for eight days straight. In one seventy-two-hour stretch, 20 inches of rain fell on parts of Atlanta.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, fear of drought turned into fear of drowning.
Chapter 23: Liquidity: Privatization and the Rise of Big Water
On nearly every continent, groundwater in aquifers is being drained faster than the natural rate of recharge
—National Geographic, April 2010
I drained you dry, you boy. If you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw and my straw reaches across the room . . . I drink your milkshake. I drink it up!
—Daniel C. Plainview, There Will Be Blood, 2007
“WATER IS THE NEW OIL!”
In 1971 the oil and natural-gas entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens bought a 2,960-acre ranch along the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle. The Panhandle is a rectangular chunk of north Texas that juts up into New Mexico and Oklahoma. The ranch was in Roberts County, a remote area of hills and canyons, prairie grass and mesquite. Although it is roughly forty times the size of Manhattan, the county had only a few hundred residents. Some ranched there, but the topography was too rugged for irrigated agriculture. Pickens didn’t care about that. He loved the area’s scrubby remoteness. He moved a double-wide trailer onto his property and used it as a getaway. Fueled with cheese, crackers, and six-packs of Big Orange soda, he’d spend hours with his dogs hunting quail on the prop- erty, before racing ninety miles back to Amarillo, where he was building Mesa Inc. into the largest independent oil firm in the world.
In the 1980s, Pickens built a reputation as the country’s most fearsome corporate raider. He made hostile bids for companies many times larger than Mesa—including Gulf Oil, Phillips Petroleum, and Unocal—which helped to reconfigure the resource business and made him a billionaire. His enemies referred to Pickens as a “greenmailer,” and in 1985 Time mag- azine depicted him on its cover as a cagey poker player. But over the next decade Mesa was hobbled by a series of legal battles and business rever- sals that let it with a $1.2 billion debt. Pickens fought with nearly every- one around him and underwent two divorces. In 1996, he was forced to resign from the company he had founded in 1956. Angered and humili- ated, he let Amarillo for Dallas, where he started over again, building up an energy hedge fund called BP Capital Management. The one constant for Pickens throughout the tumult was his ranch, Mesa Vista, in the Cana- dian River Valley.
By the 1990s he had built a house there, installed electricity, and expanded his holdings to twenty thousand acres. Echoing Maurice Strong, who insisted he had decided to develop the giant aquifer beneath his Baca Ranch in Colorado only as an aterthought, Pickens declared to me, “I never thought twice about the water” that lay beneath Mesa Vista. At least that was the case until 1997, he said, “when I first saw the pos- sibilities.”
That year the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority (CRMWA), a local utility, bought the rights to forty-three thousand acres of water for $14.5 million. “I could not believe that number,” Pickens said, amazed that people would pay so much for mere water. “I thought it must be a misprint.” Two years later, Pickens’s ranch neighbor, a thirty-two-year- old money manager named Salem Abraham, assembled a seventy-one- thousand-acre parcel and offered Pickens the chance to join in selling the property’s water rights. He declined, but when Abraham sold the water to Amarillo for $20 million, netting a $10 million profit, Pickens was once again stunned.
For a resource specialist, the implications were obvious. Demographers predict the Texas population will leap as much as 43.5 percent by 2030, mostly in urban areas. Texas is the nation’s top producer of cattle and cot- ton and is a leading producer of many other crops. And Texas has suffered a string of drought years, most notably in the early 1950s and again in the mid-2000s.
The former wildcatter had a new mantra: “The hydrocarbon era is over. Water is the new oil!”