By way of introduction, writer Robert Glennon recounts the tale of Ubar, "the fabled city of ancient Arabia known as 'the Atlantis of the Sands.' " Sometime between 300 and 500 A.D., Ubar's inhabitants drank dry the aquifer over which their city was built, and the town promptly collapsed into the emptied cavern below.
That parable sets the stage
for Glennon's absorbing exploration of how we use - or rather,
misuse - groundwater in the United States, where it provides
drinking water for more than half the population. Over the past
century and a half, we've gained a better understanding of how
groundwater works, and its inseparable connection with rivers and
streams. But that new knowledge has not moved water law far beyond
the Connecticut Supreme Court's 1850 declaration that groundwater
is governed "by influences beyond our apprehension."
Such indifference has not immunized us against
the effects of overpumping. In Texas, for example, where "the rule
of the biggest pump" reigns supreme, landowners have pumped so much
groundwater that they've sucked the San Antonio River dry. Glennon
offers a dozen examples from around the country, each chapter a gem
that moves the story beyond the arcane world of water law, politics
and the physics of centrifugal pumps - and frequently takes it
straight to the reader's stomach. He describes how the quest for
the perfectly shaped (and unblemished) french fry spawned a massive
increase in groundwater pumping in Minnesota; how the cultivation
of "boutique" crops like wild blueberries impacts Maine salmon; and
how, in Georgia, banks' reluctance to make loans to dryland farmers
created a perverse incentive to pump like
"In lieu of legal reform," writes Glennon,
"Americans have shown limitless ingenuity in devising technological
fixes for water supply problems ... to sustain existing usage." But
the book is just as much about the search for solutions, and
Glennon rounds it out with a battery of thought-provoking
suggestions about what we might do differently in the future -
instead of just turning to a bigger pump.
A Western water parable
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