Robert Glennon. Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do about It. Washington DC: Island Press, 2009. xii + 414 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59726-436-5.
Reviewed by Christopher J. Manganiello (University of Georgia)
Published on H-Water (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Justin M. Scott-Coe
Desiccated Nation: Water Crisis, Resuscitation, and Survival in the United States
If you need help understanding the “energy-water nexus,” or wonder who can fix “America’s water crisis,” and how we can better manage the nation’s water supply, you will find Robert Glennon’s Unquenchable very valuable. In three parts, Glennon explains the recent history of the water crisis, discusses the possible technical solutions, and offers new policy recommendations, before concluding with a concise “Blueprint for Reform.”
There are two important topics to follow throughout this book. First, Glennon provides advice for individuals at multiple levels who wield influence over water and energy policy. Following Island Press’s tradition, Glennon has targeted a wide audience. Anybody can read this book and everybody should because water literacy will increasingly become a part of local, state, and national election cycles. The book provides simple explanations and lessons for Americans interested in conserving water inside and outside of their homes. Moderately informed citizens will find the basic information they need to ask pointed questions of their community’s elected leadership and unelected city staff. And even water experts from particular regions will discover enlightening and comparative examples about other regions’ water woes.
Second, Glennon illustrates time and time again how sustainable water policy is wedded to sustainable energy and economic policy. The energy-water nexus is the most hidden actor in the water crisis. Water, Glennon argues, is more important than oil in our society since nearly every economic activity and production cycle requires water. Energy companies cannot produce electricity without water. The energy industry depends on water to process and transport petroleum, coal, natural gas, and other fuels like ethanol. Hydroelectric, fossil fuel, and nuclear power plants all require water--in liquid form or as steam--to turn turbines and generate electricity. Municipalities need this energy to pump water through distribution systems, treat drinking water, and manage storm water. As such, Glennon argues that sustainable water, energy, and economic policy should not be separated but are currently negotiated independently.
Glennon begins Unquenchable with a case study of Las Vegas to illustrate how this desert city has coped with a magnetic tourist economy and a relatively recent residential population explosion. Urban drought struck Las Vegas and led to real water conservation measures. But demand continues to outstrip supply, leading the city to contemplate capturing the Mississippi River among other sources. Glennon observes that what might seem like an extreme case is not and Americans have not yet recognized that what has happened “in Vegas is not staying in Vegas” (p. 16). Glennon argues that the nation’s fresh water supply is an exhaustible resource, is not easily renewable, and is threatened in more than thirty states currently embroiled in water wars with their neighbors. Glennon hammers these points home in part 1, “The Crisis,” where he illustrates the roots and consequences of our contemporary water supply crisis. Five chapters highlight pervasive water supply conflicts in the South, New England, and the Great Lakes region. Most Americans would probably not associate these humid or water-blessed areas with a lack of water, but Glennon’s numerous examples illustrate how drought combined with population growth, increased energy demands, water pollution, poor planning, and nonessential water consumption contributed to these crises. These themes emerge throughout the book and are increasingly interspersed with technological solutions and policy recommendations.
Part 2, “Real and Surreal Solutions,” addresses old and new technological solutions for solving America’s water crisis in seven chapters. Glennon dismisses the “business as usual” solutions, such as more dams, additional diversions, more groundwater pumps, and cloud seeding. He offers economic, environmental, and cultural reasons for why each of these techniques is outdated. Glennon also carefully evaluates desalination, but concludes that this costly technology only works in specific environmental conditions. Furthermore, desalination requires substantial energy, usually derived from burning fossil fuels that contribute to global climate change, to turn salt water into fresh water. Glennon offers plenty of practical technological techniques and incentives to increase water supply. Municipalities in California, Arizona, and Texas have successfully replaced toilets with low-flow models, offered rebates for water efficient appliances, reclaimed “purple” water for outdoor watering use, and established “grey” water regulations for homeowners.
Part 3 offers readers such examples as rate structures, municipal policies, and legal tools that collectively represent “A New Approach” to coping with water scarcity. For example, Glennon would like to see more municipalities adopt block-rate structures that charge consumers higher fees for increased water consumption, and seasonally adjusted rate structures that target nonessential uses, such as filling swimming pools or gardening. Multiple municipalities, in New Mexico and Utah for example, have enjoyed some success with “wet growth regulations” that require developers to acquire and submit documented water rights with new building applications. Conservation-minded water trusts, modeled after the land trust concept, work with farmers to reallocate water rights to increase in-stream flows for the benefit of ecosystem services and farmers’ bottom lines. These examples, like those throughout the book, demonstrate countless methods to increase the nation’s water supply.
Glennon’s numerous examples, however, also demonstrate the problem with solving the water problem. While the nation faces a water crisis, the causes and solutions will vary by environmental, cultural, political, and geographical location. Glennon acknowledges that the crisis is not “uniform” by any measure, but curiously, he still offers one sweeping solution (p. 80). Glennon briefly explains the inherent differences in regulated riparian and prior appropriation laws for the lay reader, and why both legal traditions fail to adequately protect fresh water supplies. The solution, he asserts, is a regulated market in water rights that will facilitate the transfer of established water rights between farmers, developers, and landowners. Glennon is optimistic, perhaps overly optimistic, that assigning monetary value to water rights will improve landowners’ stewardship of water. Irrigation farmers, groundwater pumpers, and other water diverters would thus have an incentive to conserve water and sell the rights of excess water for conservation projects. A regulated water market could reduce demand for additional dams, diversions, and groundwater pumps, but could also produce a speculative bubble in water rights. While this water market seems easily applicable within a prior appropriation system, Glennon does not explicate how the regulated market would be set up in places beholden to the riparian tradition. Regardless, the alternative to the regulated market remains business as usual and a continued cycle of water scarcity and economic disruption regardless of the legal status of water rights.
The concluding chapter, “A Blue Print for Reform,” demonstrates additional challenges to a regulated market in water rights. Nobody knows how much water there is in the nation’s rivers or underground. Congressional action, according to Glennon, is inevitable given the gravity of the nation’s water crisis and the failure of interagency cooperation. A second alternative to the regulated market, and something Glennon does not want to see, is a bureaucratic reallocation of water. To avoid this, Glennon begs Congress to authorize a national, comprehensive water supply survey. Neither the federal government nor state agencies have any sense of how much water is pumped from the ground since most states do not require metering or oversight. State agencies must also conduct water supply surveys, and they must identify and quantify existing individual water rights and determine if rights are transferrable.
Glennon’s Unquenchable succeeds in nationalizing the United States’ water supply crisis. By way of existing examples, many of his technological solutions and policy recommendations are workable and successful. What remains to be determined is if a regulated water market is possible given Americans’ conservative proclivities, rejection of government mandates, attachment to private property rights, and demonstrated self-interest. Nor is it clear if a regulated water market would work in a nation with widely divergent environmental, cultural, and political histories. The alternative to a regulated market or a federal reallocation of water rights, however, is business as usual. That, we know, has not served us or the environment very well.
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Christopher J. Manganiello. Review of Glennon, Robert, Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do about It.
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