A Western water parable

  • Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America's Fresh Waters, Robert Jerome Glennon, Island Press, 2002. 304 Pages. Hardcover: $25.00

  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 hell.

"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.
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