The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water

Notes from The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman:

* One of every six gallons of water pumped into water mains by U.S. utilities simply leaks away, back into the ground. Sixteen percent of the water disappears from the pipes before it makes it to a home or business or factory. Every six days, U.S. water utilities lose an entire day’s water.

* Ten gallons of tap water, at home, costs on average 3 pennies. That’s the equivalent of getting seventy-four of those $1.29 half-liter bottles of water we love so much for less than a nickel. We happily pay three thousand times that price at the convenience store—one bottle for $1.29. But when the water bill goes from $30 to $34 a month, customers react as if they’ll have to choose between their prescription drugs and their water service.

* We only have that one allotment of water—it was delivered here 4.4 billion years ago. No water is being created or destroyed on Earth. So every drop of water that’s here has seen the inside of a cloud, and the inside of a volcano, the inside of a maple leaf, and the inside of a dinosaur kidney, probably many times.

* Water itself isn’t becoming more scarce, it’s simply disappearing from places where people have become accustomed to finding it—where they have built communities assuming a certain availability of water—and reappearing somewhere else.

* The total water on the surface of Earth (the oceans, the ice caps, the atmospheric water) makes up 0.025 percent of the mass of the planet—25/100,000ths of the stuff of Earth. If Earth were the size of a Honda Odyssey minivan, the amount of water on the planet would be in a single, half-liter bottle of Poland Spring in one of the van’s thirteen cup holders.

* A molecule of water that evaporates into the air—from a fountain, from a puddle, from your skin—spends about nine days floating in the sky before returning to Earth as rain or snow.

* Americans spent $21 billion on bottled water in 2009. It doesn’t seem like an astonishing sum of money – about $65 per person, $1.25 a week. But in the context of water, $21 billion is huge. Consider, for instance, what Americans spend for all the water delivered to their homes – 350 gallons per family per day, 365 days a year. The water bill comes to about $412 a year. Which means we spend $46 billion a year on all the household water we use all year long — to run the morning shower, to boil the pasta, to water the lawn. As a nation, we spend $46 billion for a year’s water, always on, whenever we need it. And we spend another $21 billion – almost half as much – for bottled water, for an amount of water that wouldn’t get us through eight hours of water use at home on any given day.

* We’re moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That’s a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 8.33 pounds a gallon. It’s so heavy you can’t fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water—you have to leave empty space.)

* Water utilities use 3 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, equal to the output of 162 power plants, making water utilities the largest single industrial users of electricity in the country. In California, 20 percent of the electricity in the state is used to move or treat water.

* There is no global water crisis, because all water problems are local, or regional, and their solutions must be local and regional. There is no global water crisis, there are a thousand water crises, each distinct.


March 23, 2016
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