Water: A Natural History

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Nominated for the Winship/PEN New England Award

In Water: A Natural History,  Alice Outwater takes us on a journey that begins 500 years ago, back to the wardrobe records of the kings of France and the diaries of the first Western explorers, to recover a lost knowledge ? how the land cleans its water. Water  moves from the reservoir to the toilet, from the grasslands of the Midwest to the Everglades of Florida, through the guts of a wastewater treatment plant and out ...

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Overview

Nominated for the Winship/PEN New England Award

In Water: A Natural History,  Alice Outwater takes us on a journey that begins 500 years ago, back to the wardrobe records of the kings of France and the diaries of the first Western explorers, to recover a lost knowledge — how the land cleans its water. Water  moves from the reservoir to the toilet, from the grasslands of the Midwest to the Everglades of Florida, through the guts of a wastewater treatment plant and out to the waterways again. Step by step, we come to learn what should have been done from the beginning: A complex ecological system long kept American water remarkably clean but as we have randomly removed necessary components from it, we have simplified the system to the point where it can no longer do its job. While engineering can depollute water, only these ecologically interacting systems can create healthy waterways. Water  is the unforgettable story of the symbiosis that existed between the country's water, the land from which it springs and the life the two support together. It is a story that none of us who hope to live on this planet can afford to miss.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A generation after the Clean Water Act was passed, one third of our waters are still polluted, according to the author, and only 6% of contamination is caused by industry. Environmental engineer Outwater, who managed scum and sludge removal in the Boston Harbor cleanup, reaches back into our history to chart the changes in our waters. Once, a tenth of the total land area was beaver-built wetland; the beaver's decline caused the first major shift in the nation's water cycle. The depressions buffalo made on the ground and the holes dug by prairie dogs collected rain and runoff that seeped down to the water table; our waterways have been transformed by the loss of these keystone species. Outwater looks at grasslands and forests, artificial waterways, agriculture, aqueducts and toilet bowls, sewers and sludge (she gives a guided tour of a waste-treatment plant). She makes a strong case for restoring natural systems to public landsrepopulating beaver, bison and prairie dogs. This book is a valuable addition to environmental literature and to our understanding of water. (Oct.)
Library Journal
If the United States is to have clean water again, we need to bring back the beaver and the buffalo. This theory may seem far-fetched, but after reading this book, readers will see that it makes wonderful sense. The author is an environmental engineer, with experience in sludge management through her work on the late 1980s Boston Harbor cleanup project and consulting business. Her main premise is that legislative control of industrial waste is not sufficient to clean up our polluted waterways. Natural cleansing as water travels through its cycle is needed as well, but the systems that provide it have been severely interrupted. Outwater's explanations of how beaver and buffalo (and other keystone species, such as prairie dogs, alligators, and freshwater mussels, to name a few) alter the environment, and in the process create cleansing paths for water, are well constructed and informative. The chapter on sewage systems, though not dinner conversation, is nonetheless fascinating. This thought-provoking book belongs in all environmental collections, academic and public.Nancy J. Moeckel, Miami Univ. Lib., Oxford, Ohio
School Library Journal
YAThis fascinating history of America's water systems concentrates on what the author describes as keystone species: beaver, prairie dogs, buffalo, freshwater mollusks, and alligators. The effect of European settlers on grasslands, forests, and waterways, and modern society's efforts to reshape the land and its waters are also covered, but the focus is on the beautiful, effective system of cleansing water that nature provided, and that we now must attempt to restore. Outwater worked on the Boston Harbor cleanup and found that the efforts to reduce industrial and municipal contaminants, while substantial, have had little effect on water quality in the last decade. She argues that those keystone species, "natures' engineers," must be allowed to flourish, at least on public lands, before our waterways can be restored to something close to their former state. YAs with an interest in the environment can browse through this highly readable resource and discover amazing facts, such as how the demand for beaver hats in 17th-century Europe caused widespread destruction of the wetlands in this country, and how the elimination of buffalo and prairie dogs degraded the streams and rivers of the plains and helped drain their aquifers.Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA
School Library Journal
A plea for ecologial conservation that focuses on "keystone species" such as beavers, prairie dogs, and mollusks, describing how "nature's engineers" must be allowed to revive our decimated waterways. Apr.
Booknews
An innovative history of American water-ways describing the symbiosis between water, land, and the natural processes which keep water clean and have been impeded by contemporary engineering. Outwater, an environmental engineer, describes her experiences with the Boston Harbor Clean-up project where she learned that industrial polluters are no longer the culprit in dirty water and where she began an investigation into the natural processes by which waterways cleaned themselves and how those processes can be restored in a new paradigm for water quality. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
The parts are considerably better than the whole in this disjointed work on water ("the blood of land") in North America.

Trained as an environmental engineer, Outwater is at home with the technical minutiae of such matters as water treatment and sewage handling, about which she writes with surprising vigor. As a collection of oddments on the human manipulation of water, her book has many virtues: You will learn, for instance, that Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was the first American town to develop a filtered water supply; you will also learn in great detail how "raw sludge brew" is separated, how methane from sewage is converted to a source of power, and how aqueducts work. Outwater is also good at describing some of the basic matters of river ecology, noting the importance to the food chain of free-flowing rivers that support high levels of nutrients, and she makes a good case for restoring beavers and prairie dogs to public lands as agents to increase the production of wetlands, a crucial element of the ecosystem largely reclaimed over the past two centuries for agricultural and municipal uses. But Outwater is less successful at weaving the complexities of human affairs into larger questions of nature and the environment. She relies too often on undigested facts rather than carefully interpreted information. What is missing from this book is an appreciation for water both as a natural element—there is precious little in these pages about the chemistry of water or on how rain happens to form and fall—and as a defining force in human history.

The focus is much narrower than the broad title and subtitle suggest, and readers will have to look elsewhere for a thorough natural history of water.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465037797
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 9/19/1996
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.43 (w) x 9.51 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author


Alice Outwater is an environmental engineer, a consultant in sludge management, and the coauthor, with Larry Gonick, of The Cartoon Guide to Environmental Science.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
1 The Fur Trade 3
2 Nature's Hydrologists 19
3 The Woods 35
4 The Voyage of Rainfall 55
5 A Sea of Grass 67
6 Plowing the Plains 85
7 The Water Over the Dam 101
8 Mussels, Gators, and the Corps 117
9 Aqueducts and Toilet Bowls 133
10 Down the Drain, Up the Stack 149
11 What Sludge Tells You 165
Notes 187
Index 203
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