Book review: ‘Blue Revolution’

Summit Daily News/March 2013

Ask any knowledgeable Westerner about the most complex issue facing our region and chances are water will emerge as the clear winner. Sure, fracking, beetle kill, marijuana laws and a variety of other topics can be mired in bellicosity and intransigence, but for sheer head-banging frustration and Byzantine complexity, it’s tough to beat water.

In the West, the reason is typically that there’s just not enough of it. This winter, we’re fretting again about the snowpack and how its relatively low levels will impact the reservoirs. Even in areas where there’s plenty — maybe even to the point of flooding — it’s not always easy to get water where it’s most needed. Grand schemes to move water from wet areas to dry ones ultimate result in hard feelings, protracted legal battles and tremendous expenditures of money.

As populations climb, the climate changes and water-intensive activities such as lawn watering and industrial use continue to grow, those who study water foresee dire times ahead around the U.S. As such, Cynthia Barnett’s engaging book, “Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis” is a timely study as well as a logical next selection for the Summit Reads project — following last year’s exploration of wildfire through Timothy Egan’s “The Big Burn.”

Barnett’s book provides an excellent top-level view of the many moving parts that have created the looming water crisis in the U.S. From the damming of rivers to early water grabs by corporations and individuals, the author paints a disturbing picture of how this most precious resource is hoarded, controlled, diverted, exploited and wasted around the country. Whether it’s farmers quickly draining aquifers that took thousands of years to fill or desert homeowners squandering the little they have watering the sidewalk, there’s plenty of finger-pointing to go around.

That’s the bad news. The good news — and what makes Barnett’s book so much more readable than a simple screed against water waste — comes from the case studies she examines from different locations around the U.S. and the world and how they might be applied to create a more workable water ethic for all of the U.S. In Singapore, she describes the water evolution of an island nation that relies solely on rainwater, yet treated what it had so shabbily that a major government-led initiative had to be led to preserve it.

In Australia, residents of Perth were almost comically hooked on the lush landscaping practices left over from the British colonial period, and it took a major crisis to convince them to change.

In America, we can see the problem coming (it is, in fact, already here) and possess the knowledge to make real changes. Some of that is already in place in pockets around the country, such as San Antonio, Texas. (Although not mentioned in the book, Summit County residents can take some solace in the fact that Denver Water has done a fair amount of work to conserve and stretch the water it brings from the High Country.)

Still,  no over-arching national water ethic is in place that promotes best practices and public-private partnerships to manage and conserve. Also missing in many places, Barnett writes, is the connection between the water and the people. After all, how can you get someone to care about their local water source when it’s polluted, or inaccessible — and when water simply emerges anonymously from the tap?

As a call to action, “Blue Revolution” makes a compelling and practical case for stronger efforts behind how we manage and conserve our water. For residents of a headwater county, it makes sense for us to do what we can to push that message to those benefiting from all those precious drops that flow downhill.

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