There’s No ‘Big Fix’ For Water Crises

By Jesselyn Cook

SAN FRANCISCO – January 27 was the 100th anniversary of Hatfield’s flood. You may have missed the occasion unless you were with Cynthia Barnett. Barnett, an environmental journalist, has written three books about water and last week she was in Corte Madera, California discussing her most recent book, “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History,” which was nominated for the National Book award.

In “Rain,” Barnett writes about Californian Charles Hatfield. Hatfield was a “rainmaker” – someone who persuaded the public that he could conjure precipitation with a mix of special chemicals. In 1915 Hatfield convinced the San Diego City Council to pay him $10,000 if he could bring enough water to San Diego by year’s end to fill Morena Reservoir. “He built his derrick, he climbed it, he was cooking up all these chemicals in a pan and right away it began to rain and rain and rain and flood,” said Barnett. “This is in January 1916. The reservoir filled, it overtopped and then the dam broke.” The flood wiped out houses, the city’s bridges and killed more than 20 people. Hatfield fled town chased by armed vigilantes.

Hatfield, of course, didn’t know how to make rain, and meteorologists know now it was back-to-back atmospheric rivers that caused that flood, explained Barnett. But the story still resonates for an important reason. People were inclined to believe that huge problems like drought can be easily solved. We still are.

“Every time we’re in a drought, and that goes for then and now, we seem to have this great wish for the Big Fix,” said Barnett, who is also a Water Deeply advisor. “There is always someone who is going to pop up and say they have this great idea and they’re going to solve our water issues.”

But as Barnett’s work has shown, water issues are much more nuanced than that. While there is no Big Fix, there are lots of other things we can do, starting with developing a water ethic. She recently sat down with Water Deeply to talk about what she has learned researching the history of rain, traveling the world in search of a water ethic and how bad weather has led to witch hunts.

Water Deeply: Last week you visited California to speak at the California Irrigation Institute‘s annual conference. Your talk was about our need for a water ethic, an idea you explored in depth in your second book “Blue Revolution.” Can you explain what a water ethic means?

Cynthia Barnett: It means that we live today in a way that doesn’t jeopardize things for future generations. But specifically, it means using less water and polluting less, which we actually know how to do. It’s not terribly hard and we could do it in every sector of the economy.

Water Deeply: Where does the idea come from?

Barnett: The real tangible work of it goes back to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. In the “Sand County Almanac,” he articulated a land ethic in the wake of the Dust Bowl that really changed the way we lived with the land and the soil – things like crop rotation, not ripping out all the prairie grass, soil management – so that in future droughts we would not have the huge black dust clouds and the other devastating impacts of the Dust Bowl.

Water Deeply: And the same goes for water?

Barnett: The same is true for water. In every sector, in agriculture, in utilities, with the rest of us who use water, there are really tangible ways to use less water and pollute less. But too often we don’t do it because it’s economically beneficial to keep doing what we’re doing now.

I write about Luna Leopold, Aldo Leopold’s son, who first articulated the water ethic. He took his father’s idea about the land ethic and he put it into terms for water. He said technology wouldn’t solve the problem. We needed a “reverence for rivers” and that we would all have to come to value water and to value it in its natural form.

Water Deeply: Where have you seen this water ethic in practice?

Barnett: I traveled to Singapore and Australia where there has been a widespread public ethic for water and they really changed their water fortunes. So it’s not like a touchy-feely idea. It really is a new way of living with water but it only happens when the whole community is together and insists on it.

The United States hasn’t been there since the early 1970s. That was the last time we all paid a lot of attention to water. There was visible pollution in the industrial rivers of the northeast and that’s when here in the west there was drought and there was a proposal to dam the Grand Canyon. That was a time when a lot of people became upset with what was happening with water and we changed things. We stopped building the huge dams. We created EPA and the Clean Water Act.

That’s what I think we’re getting near to now and that’s what’s needed because the largest users aren’t going to change on their own. It takes that public pressure to change the culture and it needs to be the whole culture.

Water Deeply: What made you decide to write your most recent book “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History”?

Barnett: One reason is that I absolutely love rain, I have always loved it since my childhood. I feel oppressed by too sunny a day. I like to have a little drama in the weather.

The other reason is that when I would go around the country talking about “Blue Revolution_”_ I found that even people who didn’t want to talk about climate change or refused to, they loved to talk about the weather. They want to talk about the drought, they want to talk about hurricanes and extreme rains.

I began to see rain as a journalistic entree to climate change, which I think it has been.

Water Deeply: From the …read more

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