Three Authors See Water, Water Everywhere, for Better and Worse

NY Times
March 30, 2018

Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World
By Jeff Goodell
340 pp. Little, Brown. $28.

The most pernicious consequence of global warming is the rise of sea levels, which threatens cities around the world and has already triggered what may become the largest mass migration in human history. According to the International Organization for Migration, by 2050 as many as 200 million climate refugees will seek dry land to call home. Other writers have told the story of sea-level rise, but perhaps none as compellingly as Goodell.

His riveting stories, from traveling to a Native American village on the Alaskan coast with President Obama, to the dilemma facing the Pentagon concerning the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk, clarify the implications of sea-level rise and the choices communities face. There are no simple solutions.

Building sea walls buys time, but eventually the water will come, and with it corroded infrastructure, unusable farmland, public health disasters, destroyed homes and businesses. Relocating is one solution, but it can be, as Goodell calls it, a game of real estate roulette.

The wealthy and politically connected will dictate how, when and whether cities and towns devote resources to elevating roads and buildings. These decisions are unlikely to favor poor neighborhoods or poor nations. Even wealthy cities, like New York and Miami, lack the resources to protect everyone affected. The costs of even partial mitigation are staggering. In 2018, New York City will commence construction of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, known as the Big U, a 10-foot steel and concrete berm around Lower Manhattan, at a cost of more than $3 billion.

The best long-term solutions, Goodell argues, involve working with nature rather than fighting to control it. One thing is certain: Rising sea levels will make it harder for governments to perform their essential function of keeping people safe.

The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity
By Sandra Postel
323 pp. Island Press. $29.

In the 20th century, societies dammed many rivers, depleted others and relentlessly pumped groundwater. The loss of habitats, especially wetlands, devastated fisheries and wildlife. Yet many water managers are embracing a new mind-set of working with nature rather than trying to conquer it.

Postel tells a remarkable story of rejuvenation involving the Colorado Delta in Mexico. Upstream diversions dried up the delta decades ago. Yet in 2014, collaboration between the United States and Mexico, a binational team of scientists and conservationists, and several NGOs resulted in an agreement to turn the water back on.

Watersheds, which Postel calls “nature’s water factories,” are receiving special attention as cities try to make their water supplies more resilient. In 2010 the city of Denver joined the United States Forest Service to establish the Forest to Faucet Partnership, which underwrote a tree-thinning program to make forests more fire-resistant while enhancing water flow.

New York City has a remarkable water supply in the Catskills, but the city faced a dilemma in the 1990s. Unless it took steps to protect the watershed surrounding its reservoirs, the city would need to build a water treatment plant. Rather than spend upward of $10 billion on the plant, it spent less than $4 billion protecting and restoring the watershed.

These and other stories — of cities conserving and reusing water, farmers engaging in “conservation agriculture,” and a dam-removal movement that is restoring thousands of miles of free-flowing rivers — give substance to the idea of replenishing.

How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers
By Martin Doyle
349 pp. Norton. $26.95.

Doyle’s book tells the story of how rivers have shaped the United States from its founding, when cities were located astride rivers that served as transportation arteries for goods to move up- and downstream. As the new nation added lands, the federal government began to play an essential role in regulating rivers that crossed state boundaries, building dams for flood control and water supply, and overseeing the hydroelectric power they provided.

In the latter half of the 20th century, environmental concerns prompted all levels of government to change course. Most notably, the Army Corps of Engineers, which has done more to straighten and confine rivers than any agency in the history of the world, remade itself into a force for restoring meanders in rivers, guarding endangered species and protecting wetlands.

Doyle grafts his original ideas and research onto a big argument that doesn’t quite hold up. To be sure, rivers shaped American society. But the federal government’s authority, under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution and the 16th Amendment’s power to generate revenue for federal projects, affected far more than rivers. It’s a stretch to claim that the “whole economic history of the United States” is the story of determining which level of government would provide water. Other economic historians place substantially more emphasis on railroads and the Interstate Highway System, for instance.

Still, Doyle’s historical perspective offers a poignant account of how financing the country’s water and wastewater systems began at the local level, moved to the federal level, then, following the Reagan Revolution and the pulling back of federal funds, brought us to our current situation. Today, Washington provides almost no help to cash-strapped states and cities to rehabilitate their water systems.

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