The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century

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Overview

AS ALEX PRUD’HOMME and his great-aunt Julia Child were completing their collaboration on her memoir, My Life in France, they began to talk about the French obsession with bottled water, which had finally spread to America. From this spark of interest, Prud’homme began what would become an ambitious quest to understand the evolving story of freshwater. What he found was shocking: as the climate warms and world population grows, demand for water has surged, but supplies of freshwater are static or dropping, and new...

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The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century

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Overview

AS ALEX PRUD’HOMME and his great-aunt Julia Child were completing their collaboration on her memoir, My Life in France, they began to talk about the French obsession with bottled water, which had finally spread to America. From this spark of interest, Prud’homme began what would become an ambitious quest to understand the evolving story of freshwater. What he found was shocking: as the climate warms and world population grows, demand for water has surged, but supplies of freshwater are static or dropping, and new threats to water quality appear every day. The Ripple Effect is Prud’homme’s vivid and engaging inquiry into the fate of freshwater in the twenty-first century.

The questions he sought to answer were urgent: Will there be enough water to satisfy demand? What are the threats to its quality? What is the state of our water infrastructure—both the pipes that bring us freshwater and the levees that keep it out? How secure is our water supply from natural disasters and terrorist attacks? Can we create new sources for our water supply through scientific innovation? Is water a right like air or a commodity like oil—and who should control the tap? Will the wars of the twenty-first century be fought over water?

Like Daniel Yergin’s classic The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, Prud’homme’s The Ripple Effect is a masterwork of investigation and dramatic narrative. With striking instincts for a revelatory story, Prud’homme introduces readers to an array of colorful, obsessive, brilliant—and sometimes shadowy—characters through whom these issues come alive. Prud’homme traversed the country, and he takes readers into the heart of the daily dramas that will determine the future of this essential resource—from the alleged murder of a water scientist in a New Jersey purification plant, to the epic confrontation between salmon fishermen and copper miners in Alaska, to the poisoning of Wisconsin wells, to the epidemic of intersex fish in the Chesapeake Bay, to the wars over fracking for natural gas. Michael Pollan has changed the way we think about the food we eat; Alex Prud’homme will change the way we think about the water we drink. Informative and provocative, The Ripple Effect is a major achievement.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

"We never know the worth of water till the well is dry." Thomas Fuller wrote those words in 1732, but in 2011, we are only now approaching the threshold of learning the full meaning of that adage. According to recent reports, there is no great infrastructure challenge facing North America today than water. Indeed, freshwater may be defining commodity of the twenty-first century. Alex Prud'homme's The Ripple Effect explores this gathering crisis by finding how Americans use and abuse water. Along the way, he poses and answers three critical questions: What's in our water? Are we running out of it? And what are our most pressing hydrological challenges and how are we addressing them? A refreshing spigot of ideas.

From the Publisher
"Both drought and flood are on the rise, and Alex Prud'homme, in this fine new account, helps you understand why. We've taken the planet's hydrology for granted for the 10,000 years of human civilization; that's a luxury we can no longer afford." —Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

"By illuminating the central issues—water quality, water quantity, ownership, waste, infrastructure—through the tales of individuals who wrestle with them, Alex Prud'homme makes a vast and desperately serious topic flow beautifully through the rocks and hard places that our planet is caught between."—John Seabrook, New Yorker staff writer and author of Flash of Genius

“The problem of water quantity, quality and use are upon us. Alex Prud’homme’s book identifies some of the culprits, including us inattentative citizens and the combination of regulations and markets needed to make clean water usable and available in the twenty-first century. This book should wake you up.”—William D. Ruckelshaus, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

“An essential work about a topic too-often ignored.”—Kirkus (starred review)

Library Journal
What does water mean to individuals, to daily life, to a society? We frequently take its availability for granted. This complacency is what provoked Prud'homme (The Cell Game) to write this book. With his acute journalist's instincts, he investigates numerous issues surrounding water, including its quality, availability, ownership, and infrastructure in both the United States and the rest of the world. In this high-stakes story, bolstered by extensive research and in-depth interviews with experts, Prud'homme guides readers on an "intellectual adventure" to better understand why water is "the most valuable resource on earth," and, more important, he demonstrates why water is "the resource that will define this century." VERDICT Highly recommended for readers of nature and political science books.—Norah Xiao, Univ. of Southern California, Los Angeles
Kirkus Reviews

Freelance journalist Prud'homme (The Cell Game: Sam Waksal's Fast Money and False Promises—and the Fate of ImClone's Cancer Drug, 2004, etc.) offers acomprehensive, even encyclopedic, survey ofthe dangers, debates, frustrations, failures, technology, greed, apathy and rage that whirlpool around the phenomenally complex issue of freshwater.

The author conducted interviews with principals on all sides of the issue—consumers, entrepreneurs, politicians, business executives, bureaucrats, the rich and the thirsty—and visited key sites, and he provides a generally balanced view of the looming freshwater crisis. He educates us about the depletion of aquifers, the role of big business in the race for water (billions of dollars at stake), the demands that power generation (coal, nuclear) place on water resources, the effects of agricultural runoff on rivers, oceans and marine life, the process of wastewater treatment, global warming, the difference between "gray water" and "black water," the fragility of cities (due to water demand) as geographically distant as New York City and Los Angeles, the mining industry's passion for some prime Alaska real estate, droughts and floods, dams and salmon, desalination, shrinking reservoirs and our human determination to keep doing what we're doing until it's too late to save ourselves. Prud'homme lauds the Dutch for looking ahead and protecting their land (at enormous expense), and the Singaporeans for their stewardship; praises Intel for recycling much of the water used in computer-chip fabrication; blasts the bottled-water industry, reminding us that about half of the products available are mere tap water—and they generate all those throwaway bottles that most people don't bother to recycle. And what would a story about liquid gold be without a walk-on by T. Boone Pickens? Hopefully, the author's commonsensical solutions will be heeded.

As essential work about a topic too-often ignored.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416535454
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 6/7/2011
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 970,017
  • Product dimensions: 9.08 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.33 (d)

Meet the Author


Alex Prud’homme was born in New York City. A graduate of Middlebury College, he has worked as a fisherman in Australia, an English teacher in Japan, and a janitor in Paris. His other books include Forewarned (with Michael Cherkasky) about terrorism and security, and the New York Times bestseller My Life in France. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.
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Read an Excerpt

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 PARADOX OF WATER

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 environment. 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, according 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 underlying problems—from new kinds of water pollution to aging infrastructure, intensifying disputes over water rights, obsolete regulations, and shifting weather patterns, among many other things.

These problems are expensive to fix, difficult to adapt to, and politically unpopular. Not surprisingly, people have tended to ignore them, pretending 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 staggering 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. During 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 pollutants. More than half of those chemicals—including the gasoline additive MTBE, the rocket-fuel component perchlorate, and industrial plasticizers called phthalates—were unregulated by the EPA and thus not subject 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, bacteria, industrial chemicals, Tylenol, and excessive levels of potential carcinogens. 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 conclusions 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 ability to supply clean water in a sustainable way. By 2008, the world’s consumption 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 mightiest 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 pressure 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.”

© 2011 Alex Prud’homme

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2012

    Moonkit's Review

    "Reall y good. I usually do not like short chapters... but I like your story so far."

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 4, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    The conventional wisdom about freshwater, at least in the afflue

    The conventional wisdom about freshwater, at least in the affluent West, is hopelessly clouded by how easy it is to use all the water you want by simply turning on the tap. Alex Prud’homme, a longtime magazine journalist, says the days of reliable plenty are in jeopardy. He meticulously lays out the unpleasant facts, covering rampant pollution, moneyed interests seizing control of public resources, growing scarcity amid booming populations, and looming megafloods thanks to global warming. The book’s strength lies in the portraits of the real people at the center of these topics, and that personal touch helps keep a tiny flame of optimism alive that these problems are ultimately human in scale and fixable. This facet is also a weakness in that the book reads like a series of earnest, long-form radio reports – dispatches that push a bony finger onto the pessimism button. Yet this important book stands a better chance than most of moving good people and governments into action. getAbstract recommends it to green-minded industrialists, urban planners, big-vision lawmakers, future-focused engineers, technological innovators and anyone who wants to understand why that plastic bottle of water really isn’t the answer.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 5, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Great read for those interested about the future of our water

    I'm only 1/4 the way through the book and already have read so many jaw-dropping details about how water is treated in America. I hope the trends that are highlighted at the end of the book are not perpetuated for any extended period of time. It so, that could spell doom for us Americans. The author eloquently and realistically tells it like it is. This book is a must read for any environmentalist, public health professional, or scientist.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 13, 2011

    Eye opening- informative

    This book not only lays out the problems that we face with our water sources but also looks at different ways that can be used together to lessen the burden on nature. Well researched in alot of areas. Books like this ought to be standard reading for young adults so these practices can be applied in daily use.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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