The Rediscovery of Water

  • March 13, 2019
  • by Charles Fishman

Everywhere we look, on every continent, water is reasserting its power to shape how we live and also, sadly, how we sometimes die. That can make it seem as if, all of a sudden, we don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to water.

Water is reminding us of its power.

We have spent a century domesticating water, or fooling ourselves into imagining that we had.

Let’s look at the United States. Three-quarters of California’s rain falls in the northern half of the state, but three-quarters of the people live in Southern California. So we move the water from one end of that vast state to the other.

We built Hoover Dam to supply water across the American West. We re-engineered the Mississippi River because we didn’t like the way it flooded. We re-engineered the swamps across the southern third of Florida to create land for homes and hotels.

When we got frustrated with our own pollution backing up in Lake Michigan, we decided that the waste could be flushed away if the Chicago River flowed out of Lake Michigan rather than into it. So at the start of the 1900s, we re-engineered the river, and it has spent the past century draining Lake Michigan instead of filling it.

Most important, at the start of the 20th century, we figured out how to make water reliably clean and safe: run it through a sand filter, add a little chlorine. In the space of 10 years, drinking water in cities across the U.S. and Europe went from being an odious font of disease to a source of health, providing a foundation for big cities to flourish.

From 1900 to 1940, life expectancy in the U.S. increased from 47 years to 63 years. Infant mortality was cut in half. Much of that progress owed to a simple revolution: clean water.

That water revolution did something surprising: It gradually made water invisible. Our mastery of water allowed us to mostly ignore it.

But now, every week, there is a disaster that comes from water. Drought-fueled wildfire in California burns down most of two towns. That happens 29 days after hurricane-driven storm surge reduces to splinters an entire community in the Florida Panhandle. The result: three U.S. towns destroyed by water-caused disasters in less than a month.

The slower-moving changes are equally arresting. The water supply for Miami could be permanently contaminated as sea-level rise forces salt water into what has been the city’s pristine drinking water aquifer.

The city of Charleston, South Carolina, now floods more than 50 times a year—twice the rate of a decade ago—and the flooding is changing daily life in the city. A dozen Charleston officials recently spent a week in the Netherlands to see what it looks like for a place to re-engineer, to re-imagine its relationship with water.

Everywhere we look, on every continent, water is reasserting its power to shape how we live and also, sadly, how we sometimes die. That can make it seem as if, all of a sudden, we don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to water.

In fact, it’s the world that’s changing. Except for the danger from extreme heat waves, every element of climate change is about water: too much, too little, melting glaciers, rain instead of snow, rain that falls in one place when we’re accustomed to it falling in a slightly different place.

We have built our civilization—our cities and towns, our roads and reservoirs, our farms—based on our understanding of water, and our relationship with it, our ability to manage it.

Water has become the key utility in our personal lives—we use it to brush our teeth and wash our clothes—as well as in the world’s economy. It is essential to making nearly everything from concrete to microchips. Water is also a source of comfort; we swim in it, sail on it, and baptize our children with it. And we gravitate to it: Just 10 percent of the United States’ counties touch water, but 40 percent of Americans live in those counties.

We have this unspoken intimacy that leads us to think we know what to expect from water. The past 100 years have been a golden age of water, particularly in the developed world: We’ve put it where we wanted it. It has been unlimited, virtually free, and unthinkingly safe.

But that golden age of water is over. The invisibility it created is a luxury we can no longer indulge. If we’re going to succeed in the next hundred years, we’re going to have to pay attention to water in a way that we haven’t had to in a long time.

In the next century, we’re going to have to rethink everything we do with water: how we grow our food; how we build our homes, our parks, our cities; how we get the water we need every day for showers, and what we do with it when we’re done; and also how we live, safely, alongside water.

We often forget that the chief quality of water is its resilience. All the water on the planet has been here forever; we use it over and over again. That’s the key of the next era of water: our own resilience in how we use it.

The starting point should be a fresh respect for water, and a renewed curiosity about it. Our domestication of water has always been an illusion—it’s all on our side of the relationship. Water is a partner in how we live, but it remains a wild and unruly, if sometimes beautiful, natural force.