The fate of fresh water in the twenty-first century

Fresh water will be the defining resource of the 21st Century.

Experts call it “the next oil,” and predict water will be the focus of increased tension and great innovation in coming decades.

The result is THE RIPPLE EFFECT. The book’s title comes from my observation that every time we use water – even for something as mundane as washing our hands, spraying the lawn, or generating power for light – it sets off deep and wide hydrologic ripple effects, with consequences that most of us are unaware of.  But today we no longer have the luxury of ignorance: we must understand how our actions impact the earth’s limited supply of fresh water, and learn to value H2O more highly.  After all, we can live without oil, but not without water.

I think of this book as an intellectual adventure story.  In the course of reporting, I traveled from inside New York City’s new Water Tunnel No. 3 (the $6 billion water tunnel being drilled 600 feet beneath Manhattan) to the disputed aquifers of Poland Springs, ME, the “intersex” fish and Dead Zone of the Chesapeake Bay, poisoned wells and flooding rivers in the Midwest, the “water-energy nexus” in oil and gas fields, the failed levees of Katrina-wracked New Orleans, drought-threatened Las Vegas, California’s vulnerable San Francisco Delta, and up to the resource wars of the Alaskan Peninsula.

Each of these stories features compelling characters who grapple with crucial water issues, and is written in a narrative style for a broad audience. Water is a vast subject, and while THE RIPPLE EFFECT is inclusive it is not encyclopedic.  The book is divided into four parts: water quality (what’s in our water?); drought; flood; and water in the twenty-first century.

Some of the themes I address include:

  • New types of water pollution, and their mitigation
  • The cost of failing infrastructure such as dams and levees
  • Debates over bottled water and water privatization
  • Climate change, population growth, and changing diets
  • Sewage treatment
  • Water law and the prospect of water wars
  • Weather modification and desalination

Although I did not report abroad each story is a local drama with global implications: I compare US water pollution to that of China; drought here to that in Australia; US floods to those in Europe; mining and energy use here to that of Central America and other parts of the world, and the like.

Water is a timely issue.  The U.S. is using water in unsustainable ways, but now – some forty years after the burning of the Cuyahoga River and the poisoning of Love Canal, the founding of the EPA, and the passage of the Clean Water Act — there is a slowly growing public awareness of the value of water, a booming market for water efficiency and treatment technologies, and a vibrant dialogue about potential solutions to the water problems of the coming decades.









361 Acknowledgments 363

Notes 365

Index 405


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 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



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


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!”

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I have always had water on the brain — I like to swim, fish, boat, ski, or just stare at water, and I minored in oceanography in college, so I was predisposed to write about water.  The spark for The Ripple Effect was the day I shared a bottle of French mineral water with Julia Child over lunch.  She explained how the French enjoy the taste of minerals in their water and consider bottled water a healthy “digestive,” while Americans prefer water stripped of minerals and taste, and think of bottled water as a refreshing “beverage.”  Then she told me about the private water companies that began in Napoleonic France, and have since grown into very profitable, and controversial, global businesses.  That evening we continued the conversation with her niece’s husband, Bob Moran.  He is a hydrogeologist who does water projects around the world, a kind of Indiana Jones of hydrology.  Bob explained that water is an “axis resource” — the resource underlying every other one, from electric power to gold to oil and food — and that humans are using it at unsustainable rates.  I was both fascinated and horrified by this insight (always a good sign for a reporter) and as soon as I was finished with Julia’s book, I dove into the subject of water.
Oil is an important resource, in limited supply, and it’s fair to say it dominated geopolitics over the last century.  But that was an exception. For most of history, water has been the crucial resource for man.  We have always built our communities around a reliable supply of potable water.  In the 21st century — as the population grows and the climate changes — water will reassert itself as the defining resource.  Unlike oil, water is essential.  It is life.  As the saying has it: “You can live without oil, but not without water.”

Today, there are 6.9 billion people on earth: 1 billion of us don’t have access to clean water, and over 2.6 billion — mostly the very young or old – live in unsanitary conditions, which lead to disease and death.  By 2050, the global population is expected to surpass 9 billion people.  As nations like China and India rapidly develop, and shift to a more meat-centric diet, water use is doubling every 20 years.  The UN fears that human demand will outstrip the earth’s supply of accessible, potable water by 2030.

Climate change complicates matters further.  Some parts of the world will become hotter and drier, and will suffer increased drought; others will become wetter, and suffer floods.  Storms will become more frequent and more intense.  The hydrologic cycle will speed up, which will have a whole series of repercussions.

So, the earth’s finite supply of fresh water is under pressure, and like oil, it could become a flashpoint for conflict, maybe even wars, this century.

The main problem is that we don’t value water highly enough: we take it for granted, and that approach is not sustainable.  This results in a ripple effect – a series of consequences that are often unintended, and that most of us are unaware of.  Some of these ripples include:

– Today, nearly 40 years after the environmental movement of the early 1970s that brought us the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency, we are faced with the astonishing fact that our water quality is actually getting worse, not better.  Water pollution seriously impacts human and environmental health.

– We waste water: because water is priced very low, or is free, and there is little metering to find out how much we use, there is not much incentive for people to use it efficiently.  In places like the Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer, we are depleting our water supplies for short-term gain instead of managing it wisely for the long term. This is like running your savings account dry.

– We are not preparing ourselves for climate change, especially the predicted increase in droughts and floods.  We manage water today  in much the same way we did a century ago, but the world around is changing.  It’s like we’re using the manual for a 1910 Model T to try to repair a 2010 Prius – it makes no sense, and unless we adapt ourselves we will suffer the consequences.

To start with, there is the obvious point: we humans are made up of about 71 percent water, so the state of the earth’swater has a lot to do with our health and happiness.

But the larger answer is that the planet contains the same amount of water today that it always has had – about 332.5 million cubic miles of H2O.  It sounds like a lot, but that number is misleading.  Most of the earth’s water is too salty or frozen to use.  In fact, only 3/10ths of one percent of the earth’s water is clean enough, and accessible enough, for human use.  In the meantime, the number of people using this finite supply, how they use it, and where and why they use it has changed dramatically.

We are depleting our supplies – many of our biggest rivers, like the Colorado, no longer reach the sea.

And historically dry places, like Atlanta Georgia, or Australia, are suddenly faced with unprecedented floods.   Meanwhile, historically wet places, like Seattle, are facing unexpected dry periods or drought.  This is the new hydrologic reality, and we have no choice but to adapt to it – the sooner, the better.

– What is in our water?

– How secure is our water supply — from both natural and man-made disasters?

– Are we running out of water, or do we have too much of it?

–       Should water be a right — as free as the air we breathe — or is it a commodity, like oil, that should be sold at market rates? Who makes this decision. In other words, who controls the tap?

–       As demand for water increases this century, how should we allocate finite supplies – to generate electricity, drill for natural gas, plant corn for ethanol, build new communities, mine precious metals, or sustain fisheries? And what about leaving some water in the environment, for the rest of the ecosystem, on which we depend?

These are difficult questions, without easy answers.

Part I is about quality: what’s in our water?  I look at pollutants – from manure and industrial waste to so-called emerging contaminants, such as synthetic estrogen, that are causing “intersex” and leading to disease and death in fish.  I also look at some surprising new approaches to pollution control, such as using toxic water for medical research, or turning human sewage into drinking supplies.

Part II is about drought: where and why certain parts of the country are becoming drier, how people are adapting (or not), and what the consequences are likely to be.

Part III is about flood: how America’s hydro-infrastructure, such as dams and levees, is aging and underfunded, and insufficient for a future of more frequent and violent storms.  Hurricane Katrina was a very serious warning, yet we have not really learned its lessons and are not preparing ourselves for the even greater deluges that have been predicted.

Part IV is about how we use water today and will use it in the future.  Here I discuss privatization, bottled water, “resource wars,” and the likelihood of violence over water, but also how we are developing new strategies and technologies – such as desalination, weather modification, efficient irrigation, and Soft Path engineering – to adapt to what the UN calls “the looming water crisis.”  What’s interesting here is that we already have many of the answers in hand, we just haven’t implemented them very well yet.

Water is a very large, constantly evolving subject, so it took me awhile to wrap my arms around it.  I worked on this book for about three-and-a-half years, and interviewed at least 60 or 70 people for it.  In the course of reporting, I went across the country — 600 feet underground into New York City’s massive new Water Tunnel No. 3, up to the aquifers around Poland Springs, Maine, down to the dead zones in Chesapeake Bay, the levees that failed New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, out to Hoover Dam and the desert around Las Vegas, an Intel chip plant outside of Phoenix, up to the giant pumps in the San Francisco Bay Delta, and way out onto the Alaskan Peninsula, where I discovered a “resource war” between salmon and copper miners.

Along the way, I met a fascinating cast of characters – people of all stripes who are obsessed by water.  It turns out that water, which seems so simple, is actually a complex  and highly charged subject.  It’s anything but “dry.”  Writing this book was a fascinating, grueling, enlightening adventure.

In terms of pollution, I’d argue New York City is the most endangered: it is the most densely populated place in the country, yet its sewer system is ancient and discharges thousands of gallons of rain and untreated sewage into local waters every year (though things are slowly improving).  That’s bad enough, but my hometown also features one of the largest oil spills in history, right in the heart of the city. Along Newtown Creek, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 17 to 30 million gallons of oil and other toxic chemicals, covering 55 acres, has been leaking into the water and soil for over a century.  Cleanup has been minimal, and few people understood the scope of the problem until recently.  There is anecdotal evidence that the pollutants have contributed to serious health problems, such as clusters of rare bone cancer, in certain neighborhoods — though, of course, it’s impossible to directly connect the seeping oil with any specific disease.  I was able to meet some of the people who believe they were affected, and their stories are shocking.  Luckily, the EPA has just named Newtown Creek a Superfund cleanup site, and class actions suits have been filed against the companies allegedly responsible for its pollution.  It’s a remarkable story, and I was shocked to find it practically in my own backyard.

In terms of drought, you could call Los Angeles, or Phoenix, or Dallas “the most threatened city,” but I’d wager that Las Vegas is in the most serious trouble.  It’s already the driest city in the nation – it gets only 4 inches of rain a year now, and is in the bull’s-eye for climate change in coming years – and it takes 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, which is in its twelfth year of drought.  The river and the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, are at historical low levels.  Yet Las Vegas continues to grow, and spread into the desert, and it uses significant amounts of water.  The water authority pays people to remove their lawns, and has a controversial plan to pipe water from rural ranches 300 miles north, near the Utah border, but that idea has faced legal challenges and its future is uncertain.  So Las Vegas is spending nearly a billion dollars to bore out a new water tunnel that goes deeper into Lake Mead than the existing two. They are very concerned about drought.

In terms of flood, Sacramento, California, is the most vulnerable – even more so than New Orleans.  Sacramento is sited at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, and adjacent to the San Francisco Bay Delta, which is ringed by old, leaky  levees.  Californians have been fighting over what to do about the Delta since the 1980s, and the result is gridlock.  In the meantime, scientists predict a major earthquake or Pacific storm will hit the region, which could liquidate the earthen levees, unleash massive flooding, contaminate the freshwater supply to 25 million Californians and some of the richest farmland in the country.  If this were to happen, it would seriously impact California – now the eighth largest economy in the world – hobble the nation, and send shockwaves through global markets.  It would be a catastrophe that would dwarf Hurricane Katrina.

I was shocked to learn the poor state of American water in the 21st century.  Our waters are becoming more, not less, polluted; and although an increase in droughts and floods has been predicted with a great deal of certainty, we are dithering and not making serious changes to how we manage water.

Having said that, I was also inspired by the many improvements we’ve made, often out of the public eye – for example, the US is using water more efficiently than ever now (though we can do a lot better), which gives me hope that we can make significant strides if we put our minds to it.

So, this mix of concern and inspiration made me think that this was a good time to take the pulse, as it were, of American water.

First, while there are many books on water out there, most of them are about a single topic – drought, say, or bottled water.  I set out to write a book for the general public that covers most of the major water stories of our time without being encyclopedic.  If people are curious about water – the resource that will define this century — then I’ve tried to provide a single source of information for them to turn to.

Second, most water books are written by scientists or academics, or someone with an agenda, and while those books are invariably filled with interesting facts, not many of them are told in a narrative, journalistic way.  People like stories, regardless of the subject matter, and they care about other people.  I am not a hydrologist, but I am a story teller. I set out to write a topical, entertaining book about the key issues around water, and to tell it in a way that would appeal to a broad audience.  I hope it educates, entertains, and provokes people.

Today, 1 billion people don’t have access to clean water, and more than twice that number don’t have adequate sanitation.  The population is growing exponentially.  If we don’t figure out how to use water more efficiently and sustainably, the UN worries we could tip into a global water crisis – not enough to drink, not enough to eat, disease and death, mass exoduses, perhaps even wars over water.

In the US, we need to value water more highly, learn to respect its destructive power, and use it more sustainably.  We need to be willing to invest in our dams, aqueducts, levees, and sewage treatment plants, because if we don’t we will face a general collapse.  We need to enforce the regulations we have, and write new laws to adapt to new conditions.   We need to rationalize the Byzantine system of water governance – Eastern and Western water laws are completely different, and about 20 federal agencies have jurisdiction over water, which causes all sorts of problems.  We should develop a comprehensive water plan for the nation, perhaps even appoint a “water czar” or water board to oversee the nation’s supply in a holistic way – as Singapore has done.

Bottled water isn’t evil, but it is a luxury good that can cost 2,900 times more than tap water.  In the US we have some of the best tap water in the world, and we get it practically for free – at any temperature, volume, or time of day we want. In fact, 40 % of bottled water is simply tap water in a plastic bottle.

I think we should devote more money to our municipal water systems and spend less on plastic bottles of water transported here from Fiji or the Alps.

More specifically:

–       Bottled water labels are misleading and incomplete, when they should be accurate and helpful

–       The EPA does a good job of monitoring quality of municipal water systems, but the FDA doesn’t monitor bottled water quality as carefully. This should change.

–       Bottled water has a large environmental “footprint.” Water is heavy: it weighs about 8.33 pounds per gallon, so moving it great distances is energy and labor intensive.  The plastic bottles used are environmentally unsound, and are not recycled at anywhere near the rate they should be. Companies should do more to reduce the amount of oil and energy used to produce, bottle, and move bottled water, and the government should institute a much more aggressive plastic recycling program.

Writing this book has changed my water use in many ways, large and small. It comes down to being aware of water and how our use impacts it, and therefore using it more mindfully.

I am extremely careful about what I pour down the drain or spray on my lawn – even antibacterial soap can harm fish and other aquatic life.  I drink much more tap than bottled water.  I don’t flush the toilet as often as I used to.  I turn off lights (power requires lots of water), and never leave the tap running when I brush my teeth.  I love a long hot shower, but try to limit that indulgence.  And I have come to really appreciate a tall glass of clean, clear, cold water on a hot day.

The book’s title comes from my observation that every time we use water – even for something as mundane as washing our hands, spraying the lawn, or generating power for light – it sets off deep and wide ripple effects, with consequences that most of us are unaware of.  But today we don’t have the luxury of ignorance: we must understand how our actions impact the earth’s limited supply of fresh water, and value water more highly.  In fact, we should treat water for what it really is: the most essential resource on earth.