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An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party’s Alder Creek Camp University of Oklahoma Press Kelly J. Dixon


31st August 2011 History Books 12 Comments

The Donner Party is almost inextricably linked with cannibalism. In truth, we know remarkably little about what actually happened to the starving travelers stranded in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846–47. Combining the approaches of history, ethnohistory, archaeology, bioarchaeology, and social anthropology, this innovative look at the Donner Party’s experience at the Alder Creek Camp offers insights into many long-unsolved mysteries.

Kelly J. Dixon is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Montana and author of Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City.

Julie M. Schablitsky is Senior Research Archaeologist at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, University of Oregon, and the editor of Box Office Archaeology: Refining Hollywood’s Portrayals of the Past.

Shannon A. Novak is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, and author of House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party’s Alder Creek Camp










  • 12 responses to "An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party’s Alder Creek Camp University of Oklahoma Press Kelly J. Dixon"

  • Craig Boyce
    12:37 on August 30th, 2011
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    Cynthia Barnett has written a compelling and engaging book. When Barnett called me last fall, I was impressed with her call for a new water ethic grounded in the work of Aldo Leopold. Now that I’ve read her new book, I can see why she’s won awards as a Florida-based investigative reporter. One in-depth case study after another — the Everglades, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Netherlands, Australia, and even the new water cluster in Milwaukee — offer a solid political-economy diagnosis of how we’ve created a water crisis through big engineering projects and profligate use. Her prescriptions are resonant with our Baltimore Charter for Sustainable Water Systems (www.water-alliance.org) — a strong water ethic, efficient use and recycling, local management and natural systems, and multi-stakeholder and public collaboration. Perhaps the most eye-opening chapter for me was called “The Water-Industrial Complex,” where Barnett describes how water and wastewater engineering has increasingly been consolidated by global conglomerates, and she tracks how these firms influence government policy and spending to maximize their profits just like other big business in America, through campaign contributions. The problem is they think they will make the most money for large, disruptive water supply and wastewater systems. Perhaps we should take more time in “following the money trail.” This book is a must read!

  • HPBlue
    22:24 on August 30th, 2011
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    Note: This review is based on a Beacon Press Uncorrected Proof, and is subject to change.

    I’m a big fan of Frank Herbert’s seminal novel *Dune*. A book reveling in central ironies–a desert planet that is the source of the greatest riches in the known universe, yet utterly poor in water. Such is the detail of the story that housekeepers sell droppings to beggars from wrung rags, while local water merchants have great power over the spice barons who ostensibly grow fat from the rest of the universe. The parallel, of course, is to the oil-rich and water-poor Middle East.

    Here in the West, journalist Cynthia Barnett perceives that we don’t have a water ethic to go with our energy ethic. Much ink has been spilled and tax dollars spent over alternatives and enhancements to hydrocarbons. Yet hydrology is getting a short shrift, even as we try to power our yard fountains and swimming pools through deep summer droughts. While Frank Herbert planted a seed of an ethic, it lay dormant until I took a chance on another book.

    Barnett’s *Blue Revolution* is an accessible, jam-packed and somewhat disorganized look at an underrated companion to Green thinking. It isn’t a hard science book of water engineering, but an investigative journalism of dozens of problems around the world. It emphasizes a change in American attitudes as the gateway to the solutions in our own country.

    At the industrial heart of the book, water and energy problems are linked. Electricity requires water circulation requires electricity–all of it in large doses. Energy of any kind must also compete with agriculture for the biggest pieces of the aqua pie. Power plants return much of their water at elevated temperatures. Agriculture hardly returns water at all.

    The news for water reform isn’t all good either. Barnett presents examples from around the globe of seeming victories with failures lurking beneath. The Netherlands system of dikes, prior to the 1950s, actually left them more vulnerable to certain types of flooding and economic chaos; manifested most in the lethal North Sea flood of 1953. Afterward, new systems attempted to integrate more with nature while building some of the most elaborate works yet… and yet they still have surprising problems pop up. Singapore had another problem, being a small island with little fresh water. They ultimately “closed the loop” with a highly advanced waterworks, demonstrating both the power and the extreme of the Blue Ethic. However, Barnett also compares Singapore to a songbird in a lacquered cage–illustrating that the United States can have an ethic without being oppressive.

    Nor does Barnett come across as some stereotypical socialist hippie, or any of the other unflattering mash-ups used to dismiss conservation and to promote consumerism . Mindful of multiple sides to the story, her writing targets the water price of alternative energies such as concentrated solar power and corn-based ethanol. In other places, the problem is too much water flooding over instead of not enough reaching the pumps and sluices. Rather than condemn farmers and engineers, she recognizes the economic realities behind the abuse of our rivers. Another reality is the lack of a one-size-fits all solution. Many of the case studies are different: divided by distance, environment and finance.

    Because the case studies are isolated from each other, because there are so many of them, and because the author applied the same formula to most chapters, the book kept starting over instead of streaming through middle to end. There is little chronological, geographical, or categorical order. Barnett does attempt to link chapters together with transitional paragraphs. This is bumpy surf when it should be a smooth slide: these transitions are too obvious, the chapters do not have topical connections in the first place, and most begin with a flurry of names and numbers. Coming from a journalist, it all reads like a collection of articles. Ironic for a water ethic to not have stronger flow.

    Reorganization and expansion is the solution. For example, the first chapter is a collection of about a dozen different vignettes to establish the basic premise that water abundance is an illusion. Each example could take up an entire chapter to tell their story. Yet many are not revisited in the rest of the book. The cases you use to introduce the premise should be summarized in that intro, then examined in depth as the book goes on–the narrative builds itself. This could increase the page count of the book to its benefit, being a natural unfolding of the idea.

    Also, the author can take some of the potential devices, seeded throughout the book, and bring them to full bloom. Chapter Two compare and contrasts the problems of a California delta with the Florida Everglades. There’s almost a whole book just in this idea. Bound by a third thread regarding Aldo and Luna Leopold, two generations of scientists who worked the delta and the Glades. Instead of cramming this into one chapter, bookend with the Delta in the first chapter and the Glades in the last. The Leopolds could be part of the central cast of historical characters running through the middle, giving a personality drive to the whole book. Going from west coast to east coast–left to right–from father to son, and from the past to the present, all create an attractive order.

    Blue Revolution does what investigative journalism is supposed to do–raise awareness through an introductory tome. To that end its author packs the pages with information while attempting to find different angles of the same basic problem. Blue Revolution’s own flaw is a central theme unattached to a central narrative. Correctable by streamlining the number of case studies while simultaneously looking into the remainder more deeply and smoothly.

  • Karla Shelton
    3:46 on August 31st, 2011
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    When we Floridians read Cynthia Barnett’s first book, “Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.” we were horrified to understand just how one of the water richest places on the planet could quickly come to face such water shortages.
    The four things I took away from the award winning, “Mirage” were: 1. Water does best when its allowed to remain in its own natural systems, ie; nature knows best, 2. For every big, shiny, new water infrastructure project, there are big, costly unforeseen consequences, ie; we’re just digging ourselves in deeper, 3. We can all use a lot less water and actually live better in community for the conscious effort, and 4. There are fabulous opportunities to re frame how we live with water and prosper economically as a result, ie; conservation isn’t about giving up anything- rather its about inventing and creating new, exciting ways to use less water and energy.

    Ever since I heard Cynthia Barnett was writing another water book- I truly hoped it would offer real guidance to accomplish the four lessons I learned from “Mirage.”
    I have just finished reading “Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis” not once but two times. It surpassed my hopes and I enjoyed it even more the second time…with highlighter in hand.

    First, I am so thankful this book is an easy, enjoyable read! Personally, I’m also relieved that its a no nonsense yet positive book, for we need hope.
    I truly believe this book can be circulated among private book clubs, colleges, high schools, civic groups, home owners associations, churches and even whole communities.
    “Blue Revolution” is a combination of incredible research, insightful ability to organize and relay a lot of information, and Cynthia Barnett’s ability to offer her personal experiences as one human navigating this planet…as we are each trying to do.

    I actually found it helpful to begin with the last chapter and then go back and read the book from the beginning.
    The last and the first chapters set the context of the book and for me, grasping the ‘can do’ outcome and seeking the book’s guidance for crafting
    both local and a national water ethic made the information in other chapters more usable as valued examples of what to do and what not to do!

    As I’m digesting all of this new information; I’m aware that the book succeeds in offering clear, true guidance for accomplishing local initiatives as well as America’s Water Ethic.
    This book reminds us that we already have great model templates: the whole sustainable energy, green building movement as well as a vibrant, “grow and buy local” initiative and both are now solidly in the popular mainstream.
    Simply joining water conservation initiatives like collecting rainwater, recycling gray water and popularizing native landscapes with these established green energy and food movements is an easy, logical place for communities to begin.

    I highly recommend “Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis” and am inspired by this book’s message to me; that perhaps we humans can learn from hindsight and become motivated to act before we experience a crippling crisis. That maybe, along with Cynthia Barnett; we will joyfully rediscover our connection to water and share with others, especially our children; the inspiration of Aldo Leopold’s model for valuing land conservation and together, craft a new water ethic.
    After reading this book, I’m inspired to try.

    Annie W. Pais
    Executive Director
    Florida’s Eden

  • Dagmar Naguin
    14:05 on August 31st, 2011
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    Ms. Barnett’s new treatise on the emerging “Blue Revolution” is a welcome and appropriate summary of the challenges ahead of us, as both scientists and consumers amid the American landscape. We have much to remind us of how we got here; I have reviewed on this blog several books on the history of water use and misuse, allocation and subsidy, modification of whole river basins for our own purposes, and times when nature had its way with our species. To be sure, Ms. Barnett covers some of this material quite succinctly, but her focus remains on the present, on who is doing things right or, at least, is trying to do right by nature. An appropriate sample of imaginative solutions and cautionary tales are present, but the narrative approach is noticeably different here. It is not Ms. Barnett’s aim (as I perceive it) to dwell on the history in which we find so few salient, successful efforts and so many other works-in-progress, results TBD. She aims higher than a recapitulation of the usual stories from our past. As her subtitle suggests, it’s the past in which this crisis was made, and the same thinking won’t un-make the institutions and practices with which we’ve become accustomed over time.

    There are few books and fewer authors, especially in non-fiction, that still elicit a visceral reaction upon reading… There were moments, indeed whole chapters in “Blue Revolution” on the “Taproot of the Crisis” (regarding agricultural water-use practices) and the “Water – Industrial Complex” (regarding industrial and commercial practices), during which the tone of her narrative reached such depressing and discouraging depths, and that any positive outcome seemed in doubt. Such is the strength of her journalist’s near-surgical skill at reaching bare-handed in to the issues to pull them apart and expose the real guts of the problem, and then to suggest how we might address it at its root. Such also is the strength of her craft and encouragement that I kept reading, all the way to the positive and intensely thought-provoking payoff. But don’t get this book just to read the last couple chapters and think that you know what to do next; you would be deluding yourself, and cheating the world around you, if you did that…

    Read my complete review of Ms. Barnett’s “Blue Revolution” at [...]

  • webdiva
    23:36 on August 31st, 2011
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    While their numbers are as yet small, the message of people describing the looming American and global water crisis is resounding and necessary. Most of the attention is being placed on the obviously inevitable extermination of reserves of fossil fuels as well as the consequences for the global climate. So far, little attention had been paid to the fact that the limits on the use of fresh water are also close to being reached.
    Some of this mindset is natural, for unlike fossil fuels, water is recycled by nature and there is plenty of it in rivers, lakes and oceans. In other words it is seen to be abundant. However, in some places in the United States, most significantly the desert southwest, water is scarce. Furthermore, creating and maintaining a sufficient water supply for some urban areas in other locations has proven to be a challenge during periods of drought.
    These examples are cited by Barnett as she makes the case for a new paradigm in the social consciousness of America in regards to water usage. The standard tactic when there has been a projected shortage of water has been to build yet another dam, pipes or canals to transport the water, in other words large public works projects. However, even these imaginative engineering marvels have their limits as most of the water reserves in the United States have already been allocated.
    Barnett cites examples from around the world where the general public was forced by a shortage to modify their behavior in order to conserve water. Sometimes it has been a battle between entrenched commercial interests and the long-term collective good, but more and more the end results have been more favorable to the long-term benefits of the many over the short-term gain of the few.
    Simple, local solutions such as water conservation, capturing rainwater, allowing rainwater to soak in parking lots rather than run off and regenerating wetlands can and have done a great deal to improve the availability of water for consumption.
    Like the control of litter, smoking indoors, drinking and driving and cleaning up after your dog, solving the water problem requires a new mindset and lack of acceptance among the general public. In this book Barnett demonstrates the positive consequences and necessity of such actions. It can and must be done as the availability of water is now a minor crisis that will become a major one.

  • pop frame
    2:27 on September 1st, 2011
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    “Blue Revolution” by Cynthia Barnett is an excellent piece of investigative journalism about America’s water crisis. Ms. Barnett, who has reported on water issues in her home state of Florida for many years, expanded her inquiry in this book to learn how people around the globe have been responding to water scarcity, with implications for how we might ourselves find better ways to live sustainably. Well-researched yet accessibly written, this book should appeal to a wide audience.

    Ms. Barnett believes that America’s remarkably successful waterworks projects of the 20th century have created an illusion of abundance. Documenting how we have largely squandered our water resources on lawns, golf courses and swimming pools, Ms. Barnett believes that Americans must develop a `water ethic’ that values, conserves and uses water more appropriately. Ms. Barnett believes such an ethic will take hold as more and more places like San Antonio, Texas adjust to a more water-constrained lifestyle.

    Ms. Barnett takes us to Australia, Singapore and The Netherlands to examine how other societies have been defined by water scarcity and abundance. Ms. Barnett believes The Netherlands’ ongoing environmental struggle should caution us about how big engineering projects to control water can have unintended consequences. Australia and Singapore provide case studies on how people have come to respect their limited water supplies living in two very different cultural and environmental settings.
    Ms. Barnett also looks at the `water-industrial complex’ to help us understand what might delay us from taking more urgent action to preserve more of our water supplies here in the U.S. The proud memory of America’s great engineering projects such as Lake Mead and Hoover Dam should not preclude us from thinking anew, Ms. Barnett argues; instead of piping water across vast distances we must learn to live sustainably with the resources provided within our local water environments. As a practical matter, this means a rightsizing in the balance of power from centralized water authorities to local communities who must learn how to use and reuse water more wisely.

    I highly recommend this well-written, timely and important book to everyone.

  • youandmeoutside
    17:14 on September 1st, 2011
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    Water is a precious resource that needs to be carefully managed. It’s something that has been largely overlooked as is stated in the book. I myself am a bit of a conservationist and yet sometimes I don’t the careful usage of water.

    To make the case for water conservation, Australia and Singapore are examples that are used for evidence. While Singapore isn’t well known for having water issues. It’s still an example of careful water management and future issues. Australia on the other hand is the country that we’ve all read about. For several years Australia has had to ration water usage.

    Places that have never had a problem with adequate water supplies now have to ration. There is a time coming that a green lawn may be a thing of the past. This book made me realize this. We really need to learn to live within our means when it comes to water.

  • oldschool
    1:27 on September 2nd, 2011
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    This book is thoroughly researched, extremely well written, and a real page turner. I’ve gained so much insight from this book for the field I work in which is to promote energy efficiency. I would give it a ten stars if I could.

  • eliteuser
    7:27 on September 2nd, 2011
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    “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone…” So go the lines of the popular Joni Mitchell protest song of the early 1970′s. Author Cynthia Barnett has taken this kind of spirit to heart as she chronicles the thoughtless waste of clean water in contemporary America.

    When I first heard about this book, I thought it might be a popularized account like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Upon further review, however, I was pleased to encounter a dissertation worthy of a doctorate. There is no political correctness or emotionalism here, just reasoned analysis of a situation that is likely to plague generations of Americans in the near future.

    For several years, I was awakened daily in the warm months to the sound of our neighbor’s sprinkler system. Highly purified drinking water would run down the street into the storm sewer system, where it was no longer available for household use. I am happy to report that my neighbors no longer use this system, and that they now accept the normal cycle of drought and rain for the care of their lawn.

    Barnett’s book should be a wake-up call for complacent people who think that pure water will always exist in abundant supply. Concerns by the Great Lakes states over the future of their own water supplies are clearly warranted. Not only drinking water, but water to create the food supplies of the World are both dependent on maintaining the “precious bodily fluids,” to quote Dr. Strangelove.

    Policymakers at the local, state and federal level would be well served to read this book. Where common sense fails, perhaps the clear logic of scientific analysis will succeed. Let’s hope this occurs sooner rather than when it could well be too late to act.

  • former Y
    4:53 on September 3rd, 2011
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    Water. As Americans we waste a lot of it. Its easy to waste, its so abundant. At least it is where I live in New Jersey, why in just the last 40 days we received over 24 inches of rain. The water is abundant everywhere, just ask my neighbors who now have swimming pools in their basements. But that is New Jersey, my friends in Texas had over 200 days without rain. Over 100 days where the temperature went over 100 degrees. They are not feeling the love of overabundant water. They are in another horrible drought while we get flooding.

    How important is water? Without clean water humans die in a few days. It is more important than food. And yet we waste it on a daily basis. We assume that just because we have a lot of it today, we will have a lot of it tomorrow. Maybe, maybe not.

    I like this book because I thought I knew a lot about water, and more importantly about not wasting or polluting water. Turns out this book showed me I still had a lot to learn. There is a lot many of us can learn from this book. Our population is expanding, which means we will use more water. Many people say we are experiencing global warming, I do not have an argument for that at this time, but things seem to be getting warmer, just ask Texans. Maybe reading this book and slanting your decisions towards water conservation and water protection is a good idea?

    I have been an advocate of not wasting water for a couple of decades. It stemmed from some time I spent living on a nuclear submarine for a number of years. We had to make our own water from seawater. Making water can be noisy, in the submarine world making noise is bad. Don’t want those pesky Russians to hear us. So we learned to conserve our water. Wasting water on a submarine is almost as bad as stealing from a shipmate, and let me tell you, stealing on a sub gets you locked up, not for the crime, but to keep your shipmates from exacting punishment until we could pull into port and get that person off the boat. You don’t steal, and you don’t waste water.

    I do not water my lawn. If God wants it green, he sends rain. If it turns brown, it just means I do not have to mow that week. I don’t even use chemicals to kill crabgrass, its green, so I consider it lawn. I do water my plants occasionally. I do not have a rainwater collection barrel, but I think I am going to install one, and use the water from our air conditioning unit. I read about that in this book. I never gave a single thought to all the water that is wasted from my air conditioning unit. Thats water for my hanging baskets! Sure it won’t save the planet, but come on people, little changes multiply when we all do it.

    If you use water, you should read this book.

  • Markita Heras
    23:26 on September 3rd, 2011
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    In summary, this book is well researched and informative. However, Cynthia Barnett excludes from her investigation the national positive trend in water conservation. And, her recommendations are too vague. It is also boring, especially in comparison with Marc Reisner Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition that is twice as long.

    Cynthia Barnett indicates that the largest user of water is electric utilities. Within our information world, technology = rising electricity consumption = water constraints. Thus, our civilization relying on information bits ultimately runs on water.

    Barnett, just like Reisner did 25 years ago, confirms agriculture is the most wasteful sector with the greatest potential for water conservation. American irrigation benefits from wasteful $4.4 billion subsidies. A good deal of those are applied to rice; half of which is exported. Wasting water on exporting rice is incoherent. California is the largest agricultural state. Yet, agriculture accounts for only 4% of the State GDP and even far less of its employment.

    Barnett indicates the Green Revolution is not Blue. Many alternative energies are huge water guzzlers. It takes 10 times as much water to generate power for a plug-in electric vehicle as to produce gasoline for a regular car. Ethanol consumes 20 times as much water for every mile traveled than regular gasoline. Large scale concentrating solar power (CSP) plants are very water intensive. If you want to study this issue further I recommend Robert Bryce books: Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence” and Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future that demonstrate the wasteful water and land resource footprint associated with alternative energy.

    Barnett uncovers that within the US, it is in the driest cities most stressed for water that residents use the most. In Las Vegas they use 227 gallons per person per day or over 50% more than the national average of 147 gallons. This is because in Las Vegas given the hotter temperatures residents use more water to maintain lawns. Lawn is the number one crop in America. We irrigate our lawns twice as much as needed. Barnett advances that consuming so much fresh water to maintain lawn does not make sense. Similarly, the growing trend of water parks and golf courses everywhere makes little sense from a water resource standpoint. Throughout the dry Southwest and even the Great Plains we are depleting our water aquifers. This could have dire consequences for our agriculture.

    Barnett travels the world to study water issues starting with the Netherlands that developed a world class dike and dams to protect the country from sea generated flooding. By comparison the U.S. is more than half a century behind. The Netherlands infrastructure would have fully prevented Katrina’s destruction. She also travels to Singapore that is probably the most water efficient society. They consume 40 gallons of water per person per day or 73% less than the U.S. They treat enough wastewater to meet 30% of their freshwater need. Two thirds of the area was turned into water-storage making for a giant water cistern. Later, she goes to Perth, Australia. Perth was the equivalent of Las Vegas, as another water wasteful city with a dry climate. But, due to necessity within a decade they moved from being Las Vegas-like to becoming Singapore- like.

    Barnett indicates that even some American cities and counties have followed in the water conserving footsteps of Perth and Singapore. San Antonio, TX, is another city in a dry climate that originally was very wasteful. But, due to pressing water constraints it managed to reduce its water consumption by half from 225 gallons per person per day (gpd) in the 1980s to around 115 gpd currently. Over the same period Boston has reduced its water consumption per person per day by 43%. Sarasota in Florida pretty much did the same. Monterey in California became one of the champions of water conservation with one of the lowest US consumption per capita (70 gpd). The local private water utility did it through innovative means including tiered water rates that rendered lawn very expensive. Another growing trend is the promotion of rainwater-harvesting systems in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, North Carolina.

    Barnett speaks of the water-industrial complex just as Eisenhower mentioned the military-industrial complex over 50 years ago. Barnett indicates that regarding water policies it is the most expensive solution (water dams, reservoirs, pipelines) that wins. Water efficiency costs between $450 to $1,600 for every million gallons it saves. That is far less than any other alternative. For instance, desalination costs $15,000 per million gallons of water. Yet, during the most recent $790 billion stimulus package $billions went to expensive water management projects. Virtually no money was disbursed for water efficiency.

    However, the book has mentioned weaknesses. Barnett does not flesh out the national contemporary improvement in water conservation. Between 1975 and 2005, US population has increased by 36% to 300 million. Yet according to the USGS, US water consumption has remained flat thanks to an overall 27% water conservation rate. During the same period, U.S. electricity generation has doubled. This entails a 50% water conservation rate in water per KWH generated. Agriculture has also become more water efficient. Barnett briefly recognizes that rice (the main water wasting culprit in “Cadillac Desert”) is now grown with 40% less water than in the 60s. But, she does not adequately cover all the mentioned positive national water conservation trends that jump at you when studying the USGS data.

    Barnett cassandra tone is still warranted. Mounting pressure on water scarcity will be tremendous. The U.S. population is expected to rise by 45% to 450 million by 2050. To keep water consumption flat this entails another 31% reduction in water consumption per capita on top of the 27% reduction we achieved between 1975 and 2005.

    Barnett also remains vague on her Blue Revolution recommendations. Her main ones are to stop depleting the aquifers and stop large water projects. Based on her research, she could have been far more incisive and should have recommended: 1) eliminating agricultural water subsidies; 2) curbing rice exports; 3) abandoning ethanol; 4) discouraging electric cars; and 5) mandating higher water rates to irrigate lawns. Those suggestions entail that water be repriced upward for all sectors so to take water out of the tragedy of the commons.

  • Jolynn Ordona
    3:52 on September 4th, 2011
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    America is a blessed country when it comes to one of life’s critical substances, water. Our supply was abundant with 3.5 million miles of rivers and over 60,000 trillion gallons of ground water, Cynthia Barnett argues in her book, Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis. However, over the years with our endless desire for economic growth, and agricultural production we are on the verge of a major crisis, which many of us seem to be clueless about. Why are we clueless? It’s because the cost of water is virtually free at ~ 0.1 cents/gallon, which leads to average water usage in the US of ~ 150 gallons/person per day (approximately double in the metro regions), which is the highest in the world. Desert regions like Las Vegas use an amazing ~ 227 gallons/person per day with apparently little conception of the water scarce environment. For comparison, folks in Perth Australia (fairly affluent community) use ~ 42gallons/person per day and even the water rich Dutch use ~ 33 gallons/person per day. The US may have had a large supply at one time in the past, but it’s not infinite and at some point, which is getting painfully near, the constraints of nature will begin taking over. When that time comes, the full effects of the “Tragedy of the Commons” will become painfully evident, and the author argues “it will not be fun for the grandkids.”

    The US currently consumes~ 410 billion gallons of water per day with most going to agricultural and industrial needs. Some scientists believe Lake Mead which supplies water to millions in the American Southwest has a 50% chance of going dry by 2021, and by 2017 water levels in the reservoir will drop so low they will not be able to power the turbines that produce hydroelectric power. The Midwest at one time was situated in what was one of the largest aquifers (225,000 square miles) in the world (Ogallah) created during the last great ice age millions of years ago. The great aquifer supplies water to support 1/3 of all irrigation water in the US. Today, scientist believe at current pumping rates, the aquifer could dry up within 100 years! Even in Florida, which once sat on top of the most productive aquifers in the world, can no longer supply the state’s drinking-water needs. The author flat out states, it doesn’t have to be this way with adequate conservation, water management measures, and pricng structure.

    The author argues for measures such as: No wasted water in agriculture; No subsidies for crops that are irreparably harming aquifers; Restoring flood plains; Planting trees and installing green roofs on a grand scale, rather than expanding sewers and costly new wastewater treatment plants; Reusing water and harvesting rain to irrigate our lawns and to cool commercial air-conditioners. I would also argue that implementing more tiered water rates that would impose stiff charges for excess water usage. One of the biggest water wasters are lawns where an estimated 19 trillion gallons of water are used yearly.

    Surprisingly, the biggest actual users of water are the electric utilities such as Duke Energy, the largest In the US. It takes a fair amount of water to run the various variety of power plants, and in particular nuclear reactors. Even though much of the water used is returned to the rivers, it is in the form of steam and biologically degraded forms. Even alternative energy is not immune from water usage with solar concentrator type plants requiring large amounts of water and they are usually located in arid/desert regions where water resources are scarce. Photovoltaic power generation represents one of the most water efficient alternative energy sources. Hydroelectric power generation distorts the flow of water through major rivers.

    One of the major trends for the future is the potential for water intense industries to migrate to areas where both the supply and price of water is low. One example the author provides is Milwaukee, WI, which over the years has seen a major loss of its major industrial manufacturers, but in the future may attract water intense industries away from areas with water gaps such as the desert southwest, and cities like Atlanta. Other area outside the US also face significant water shortages. One such area discussed is Australia and In particular its western portion, including the city of Perth. Australians in the past according to the author were big time “water wasters” in the spirit of the US and the focus on green landscapes. However, recent and persistent droughts are beginning to change the mindset and water usage is significantly being reduced. At present Australia leads the world in the development of desalination plants and a water conservation mindset is beginning to be established.

    In the end, the author argues, if humans are to sustain life on earth a new water ethic is required and it starts with each individual behaving differently and departing from the conventional thinking that water will always be plentiful and cheap. I recommend reading this book for it will open your mind as to the depth of the crisis we face and possible solutions.

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