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The Ripple Effect

The Ripple Effect, a new book by Alex Prud’homme, could not be more timely.  This book is an essential read for anyone who wishes to become educated about the myriad challenges to global freshwater supplies – depletion of aquifers, threats posed by hydrofracking, how rivers and oceans are affected by stormwater runoff, how wastewater is processed, the increasing commodification of water by corporations, and demands placed on water by manufacturing and mining.  It also provides a clear and somewhat disheartening history of the politics of water by delving into the history of the diversion of rivers such as the Colorado and Rio Grande to provide water for Las Vegas and the arid desert southwest.

The book is divided into four main sections, which discuss water quality, the causes and impacts of droughts, floods, and “Water in the 21st Century – Conflict and Innovation”.  The last section is perhaps the most interesting and challenging to read.  T. Boone Pickens makes an appearance as a landowner who controls “more permitted groundwater than any other individual in the United States.”  He believes that water is a commodity, just like oil.  But is water a commodity, or a basic human right”  Who will benefit when water is treated as a commodity, and the supply of water is privatized?  If someone, whether an individual or a country cannot pay for water, what then?

Water is used in the production of oil, natural gas, coal, ethanol, solar, wind, hydroelectric power and to cool power plants.  The demand for power is surging, and climate change is affecting power supplies.  Hydrofracking is a controversial means of extracting natural gas which uses huge amounts of water and poses threats to the water supply from pollution.  It is an argument which is being played out right now in New York State at hearings being conducted by the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Many of the chapters hit close to home, with discussions of the environmental degradation of Newtown Creek in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (where more oil has been spilled than that that spilled by the Exxon Valdez) the Housatonic River, Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River.  These waterbodies may be impacted by different forms of water pollution, but are the same sad stories in that they all reflect  the  indifference, neglect and greed which caused the pollution in the first place.

Some of the most scathing comments in the book are reserved for the bottled water industry.  Water is readily available from home taps.  If taken from a New York City tap, drinking eight glasses of water a day per year cost 49 cents, whereas if from bottled water, would cost $1400.  Manufacturing bottled water consumes water and energy, as does pumping water from underground, filling the plastic bottles with water, and transporting them.  My “favorite” is Fiji water – shipped all the way from the island of Fiji.  I cannot imagine the cost of transporting it.  Even dogs can have their own brand of bottled water.   Two of the most popular brands, Aquafina and Dasani, are actually only filtered tap water.

There are no clear answers to the many challenges and questions posed in this book.  In the United States, acts like the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Endangered Species Act need strengthening and updating.  Agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency should be given the backing to enforce current laws.   Individuals can take action by reducing the use of fertilizers or antimicrobial soaps, which act as immunosuppresants and endocrine disruptors.  Water infrastructure, such as sewage treatment plants and dilapidated sewer lines, should be repaired or replaced (which in addition to the obvious environmental benefit, would create construction jobs).

The Ripple Effect is a thought provoking and informative book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to become more informed about water quality and quantity issues.