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A new era of water management

5 Questions with Charles Fishman, Author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water


Why do you say Americans are water illiterate?
We Americans are water illiterate or ignorant because of the brilliance of the water system. Everything about the water system works invisibly – you turn on the tap and water comes out. To me, water illiteracy is the most important water problem around the world. You can’t begin to solve water scarcity if people never think about water at all.

Which industries use the most water in the US?
In the US, and pretty much around the world, they are electric power generation and agriculture. In the US, 49 percent of all water use is for power plants, not hydroelectric but for cooling and to make steam. The typical American uses 100 gallons (378.5 liters) of water per day at home, but 250 gallons (946.3 liters) of water are needed for the electricity they use. 

What can we learn from how Las Vegas uses water?
Because Las Vegas has an absolute limit on the water they are allowed to take from Lake Mead, they have had to manage their water very, very carefully. Although Las Vegas is an ostentatious place, 94 percent of the water that hits the drains there is recycled. They have also changed attitudes towards water, such as by making it illegal for new homes to have front lawns and by paying residents with lawns to remove them. 

Is part of the solution charging more for water?
Absolutely. In the developed world, people pay less for a full day of water in the home than they pay for a bottle of water. Factories often pay nothing. If you start charging more for water, people have an incentive to use it smarter and more carefully since it is not an unlimited natural or economic resource. 

What kind of new technology is needed? 
What we need most is a different approach. Right now we have the tools and examples we need to go from an era of unthinking abundance to an era of thoughtful, smart water management. That’s why I am optimistic. Thinking about water use is just like counting calories – if you are counting calories, you can’t help but eat smarter. To make big progress, we need to start asking how we use water and what we use it for. 

by Chad Henderson