Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Robert Glennon: Unquenchable

I've been going on and on about "Unquenchable" without even having finished the book. Robert Glennon's "Unquenchable" is just that good. Or, more accurately, water is just That Big of a Deal, that Americans and Californians especially, are just that good at ignoring. I imagine that most of my readers, who are probably drawn from my select (elect?) group of friends, are aware of the impending climate crisis, and are doing whatever little things that they can to mitigate their impact on environmental devastation. But we're human, and first world humans, so our lives, for the most part, are part of the problem. Awareness, and action, is definitely part of the step towards solution. And awareness of the importance of water and water usage is a big part of it.

When I was younger- maybe early to mid-teens, I remember I used to say "Water is the root of all problems." I don't know where I got that, or why I was so sure, but it sure is at the root of a lot of problems. I know that I was deeply influenced by a family trip to Israel (although I believe that my stance on water came first), where I came to the (simplistic, but partially true) conclusion that there was enough land to go around- the land in question is the irrigated land. There's a whole bunch of vacant desert sitting around unclaimed. In the meantime, people are have been killing each other for centuries over reclaimed desert. This discord has stuck with me for almost 15 years. I remember an early fascination with the decimation of the rainforest- not just because of the species driven to extinction, but because of the fascinating amount of water that the RAINforest contained. Perhaps this is all due to the fact that I grew up in a drought- a fact I proudly spit to anyone who will listen. I blame my disinterest in lingering in the shower on the drought- two minutes and out for this girl. I remember bricks in the toilet and still live by "if it's mellow, let it yellow." I bolster my Northern California Snobbery by looking down my nose at the vast amounts of water that Southern California "steals" from us for "petty" things, after building vast cities in the desert. Have you seen Chinatown? Seen those swimming pools? Sheesh. Because of course the Bay Area is innocent... I have been stricken by the children in "developing" or "third world" countries who lack access to fresh, clean water. I've drunk the same water- water with visible bugs floating in it. I've contracted salmonella (probably) from the water, and survived. I've met families who have lost children to the same water.

Robert Glennon lays it out. Water is a valuable natural resource, maybe the most valuable resource, and Americans go through it like it's infinite, and just there for the taking. We don't monitor how much we use, we waste it, we dump shit into it (literally), we dump it into other water, we pity the fools who live downstream, and we don't have any kind of plan for when we run out. And we are going to run out, soon. Glennon makes a lot of good suggestions, some of which are even taking place on local levels- San Antonio gives away low-flow toilets to home owners with older houses. Other organizations have figured out how to work deals with farmers and cities to "transfer" water rights so that water can be conserved on farms and then transferred back into streams or rivers that need it. But these are small successes. In the meantime, most places allow unlimited access to local wells, unlimited drilling of wells, and unsupervised pumping from the aquifers. The water is going to run out.

Our shit stinks. It's mixed into the same pipes that run-off goes into, and even though the pipes are cracking and need replacing, I didn't get the feeling that any one is seriously talking about building a better system that separates sewage from run-off. Meanwhile, we're wasting a shitton (my favorite word) flushing toilets in the United States. It was great that we figured out a way to stop dumping chamber pots out of windows (hundreds of years ago), and to stop dumping sewage straight into the ocean (early 1970s due to the Clean Water Act), but flushing has got to stop, too. I felt all righteous with my early-years brick in the toilet, and my current low-flow toilet, and my mellowing, but I feel pretty bad now. A normal household uses 32% of their water in flushing the toilet, and the majority in outdoor stuff (gardening, I guess). We don't do yardwork, the dogs do, so I'm guessing close to 65% is flushing. What's a girl to do? Well, says Glennon, we're supposed to compost. And if even I'm not going to compost, who is going to compost? I might compost, actually, if this were my house. But I rent, and my landlord is not going to install a composting toilet, and my neighbors are not going to stand for a composting toilet, not in this part of Oakland. Cultural norms are all about flushing. And flushing, from the plumbing industry (yes, unions are against compost), to the crappy sewage/drainage plumbing systems, to our cultural norms of poop, say that conventional toilets are here, for the time being. Which is too bad, because we're wasting a lot of water.

"Unquenchable" is a pretty good read, and very provocative. Water waste is everywhere- from companies like Google (and any internet company) who provide our internet time, to obvious sources like alfalfa farms. There are new resistors to change like environmental supporters of the Salton Sea, and old, traditional ones, like the farming lobby in Southern California. Glennon surprised me right in the introduction- some of the hotels in Vegas are doing a great job of water conservation, considering their obscene attempts to seem like they're wasting water in their indoor Venetian canals and giant fountains. Meanwhile, it's business as usual in the ever-green lawns all over the country. Alternative fuels, like ethanol, are some of the most water intensive/wasteful new technologies out there. We (as individuals AND as a country) need to read Glennon's book, and adjust our water consumption, to start treating water as gold, not sand.


Anonymous said...

A couple of comments:
Rabbi Chester is where you heard "it's all about water" and, yes, it was about Israel.

I've heard there's an "easy" solution on waste water...you have two sets of pipes in every building..one takes gray water (sink, bath) and uses that for toilets. Clean water is only for drinking. And, in Japan, there are teeny sinks on top of the toilets and as you wash your hands, the toilet bowl fills. Easy, available ways, but requires some investments...ah, Americans....

themacinator said...

glennon does talk about grey water- he doesn't get as sophisticated as the japan concept, but that does sound enlightened! the two sets of pipes water also works for then how the water goes into pipes outside. obviously personal use water is not the main use of water for the country as a whole, but it would make a substantial impact. just thinking about things like this would make a substatnial impact!