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Charles Fishman on the revenge of water


Charles Fishman
  • Charles Fishman

Author Charles Fishman's timing is impeccable. Indianapolis is fresh from a series of consciousness-raising events regarding water, and so the author of the 2011 book, The Big Thirst, can expect a rowdy, knowledgeable audience in attendance.

There is of course Indy's ongoing imbroglio of our Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system, an antiquated contraption in constant evolution. Blending sewage and storm water runoff and sending it to water treatment plants, the CSO system works okay unless it rains; then the overflow spills human crap directly into our beleaguered White River.

E. coli levels go up as a result. Indianapolis Island resident Katherine Ball developed a myco-remediation plan for the E. coli, constructing mycobooms to leach — via mushroom mycelium spawn — the E. coli from the water. The jury's out on whether it worked; water levels were low enough over the summer that Lake Indianapolis, the location of Indianapolis Island, wasn't receiving any runoff from the adjacent White River.

Then there was FLOW. The Indianapolis Museum of Art partnered with various local organizations in raising awareness for all-things-water in the Indianapolis area, including inviting internationally renowned artist Mary Miss to lord over the ten-day festival.

The pump is primed, so to speak. Don't miss this opportunity to increase your water knowledge: Catch Fishman, best-selling author of The Wal-Mart Effect, as he comes to the JCC, as part of the Ann Katz Festival of Books and Arts.

Given all the local awareness about water, I asked Fishman in a recent phone call about the general level of everyday knowledge he encounters in his travels.

FISHMAN: I would say America, as a whole, on a scale of one to 10, is a two. Americans don't think about water or water issues unless they absolutely have to. There are places where the water consciousness is much higher, of course. Maybe, given what you've described with Indianapolis, maybe there are people in Indianapolis that are about at a six or an eight. Certainly in California and Arizona, there are communities that have no choice but to pay attention to water and water usage.

In general, water consciousness is very low and I think that's a sign of the luxurious situation that Americans have found themselves in for 400 years. We have a great water system. We have an abundance of water in general as a country. We have abundant water resources. We haven't had to worry about it, so why worry about something you don't have to worry about?

NUVO: In The Big Thirst you call this ignorance about water an "invisibility problem."

FISHMAN: Yes. It is an invisibility problem. Water is invisible. The system is invisible. The pipes are hidden underground. Very few people ever see them; very rarely do people think about them. Most people don't have any clue where their water comes from to get in the pipes to get to their house. The water treatment plants these days are often literally camouflaged so that they don't stand out — at both ends, the water treatment and the wastewater treatment end.

NUVO: Is there a conscious purpose to that?

FISHMAN: Oh absolutely. Water utility people used to call themselves, and some still do, the 'silent service.' Literally. That is a phrase that you would hear. They were very proud of that. They wanted to be invisible and took pride in the fact that water service was so reliable and is so reliable that you don't have to think about it.Think about the last time you had a power failure. I know we had a power failure here [Philadelphia] over the weekend on Friday or Saturday. I can't remember ever in my entire life a time where I've had a water failure. I've never turned on the tap and not found the water. I've turned on the light switch and not found the power. The typical American family will have six power outages a year of some kind. Water never goes off. The water people took great pride — and take great pride — in the fact that they've been able to do it with such reliability and quality while never drawing attention to themselves.

NUVO: You titled one of your chapters "The Revenge of Water." How will water wreak its revenge?

FISHMAN: Water always takes priority because it is the one thing for which there is no substitute. The revenge of water is that water cannot be ignored. You cannot wish the problems away, because if there are problems, you have to deal with them. There's no choice. If you do not respect the need for water and water resources, water is going to end up biting you in the butt because there no way around it. You can find substitutes for fossil fuel. You can find substitutes for power plants. You can find substitutes for nuclear power. You can find substitutes for natural gases. You can find substitutes for gasoline for your car. But in almost every function that you use water for, there is no substitution for water.

NUVO: What are the ways in which we waste water?

FISHMAN: We waste water in all kinds of routine and dramatic ways because water is so cheap. Water is essentially priced free, both at home and in the industrial commercial uses. You do get a water bill, but the average water bill in America — the water bill, not sewage treatment — the average water bill is a dollar a day. A son or daughter may take a 20-minute shower, and that might irritate you, but it doesn't irritate you because, unlike the texting bill, the water bill isn't going to go from $40 to $200.

That same phenomenon is true of watering your lawn and flushing the toilet. But it's not even watering the lawn and flushing the toilet; it's watering the lawn and flushing the toilet with purified drinking water, which is completely absurd. You don't need to flush your toilet with water that's clean enough to drink.

In Orange County, Florida, they passed laws requiring all outdoor irrigation — lawn water up to farming and so forth: every soccer field, every office park, every school — has to use recycled, purified wastewater. They created a plan to create that wastewater and they created a plumbing system for that water. Every new subdivision in Orlando, every school, every office park, has this purified water system. Today, Orange County pumps as much recycled wastewater for irrigation purposes as they do potable drinking water. They have doubled the size of the [population] without having to add any potable water capacity. They have really changed the game. People in Orange County think it's insane to water their lawn with purified drinking water because they just don't do it.

You can change the game.

Hong Kong flushes almost all its toilets with seawater. They put that system in place 50 years ago. Today, the toilet flushing in Hong Kong requires 2 million gallons of water a day — enough water for a city of 2 million people. It's all seawater. They purify their seawater. They run it through filters just like the drinking water. They put chlorine into it. It's not like there's an octopus in it.

Imagine what Hong Kong would be like if they were scrambling to find 2 million extra gallons of water every day to flush their toilets with drinking water.


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