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
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
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
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
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.
NUVO: What does it take to
have the vision for successful water re-use?
FISHMAN: It takes [having] a
problem that can only be solved by water reuse. That's the example of Las
Vegas. They didn't have any choice. They had no access to any new water source.
They had to start reusing water.
You can't fix a water problem
later. It requires vision and a realistic appraisal of the situation you're in
and a realistic approach to fixing those issues that are causing the crisis.
Even residents of a community can ask for that. Usually that type of leadership
would come from the water people or the civic leadership in the community, but
there's no reason a person can't stand up and say 'I did some quick
calculations based off of some information I found on the web about water use
and our growth and it looks like we're in trouble. Why aren't we doing
something about that?'
You have to come back to
water literacy and water ignorance. You need to be willing to take the time to
explain to your community that it's a good idea to use water in a different
way. It's a resource we need to take care of and there's no reason not to lay
the groundwork for changing water habits. That requires patient explanation,
education, outreach... so people can get excited about the effort and can learn
about why this is important.
NUVO: How can the water bill
itself help in the education process?
FISHMAN: Water bills are
pathetic. Most people can't even figure out how much water they use by reading
their water bills. In the world where people are living on their iPhones and
iPads, they look at their water bills and they provide you measurements of
water usage in cubic feet —
now there's a measurement that I can understand, cubic feet. (laughs) I'm glad
I used 100 cubic feet of water! What the hell does that mean? There are no
graphs, there's no comparison.
It's pretty simple: Tell
people how many gallons of water they used last month, not the past three
months. It's October, no one remembers what they were doing in August. Tell
them what their average water use was in one day. Most people won't do the
division by themselves. Tell them how their water use compares to everyone
living within two blocks of them. The water companies know because they're
sending bills off to people. Tell people how you compare to the rest of the
city and to the rest of the country. Do it in a colorful way.
If we did that, we would
start a conversation of 'Hey, here's how much water you've used. Here's how
much water your neighbors are using.' Once you start that process, there are a
lot of things you can start to do. If you're consistently over the average,
then your bill can include a little card with tips on how to reduce your water
It's so simple and you're
already reaching into the homes of your customers once a month or every two
months and it's just such a basic element. The start of water conversation is
simply telling people how much water they use and how much that costs.
NUVO: By the time you arrive
in Indianapolis, we'll have reached beyond 7 billion people on the planet. Can
you break that down in terms of water?
FISHMAN: There are one
billion people without access to clean, safe water every day and there are
another 1.5 billion who have to walk to get their water every day. Either one
of those circumstances is unforgivable. I would say it's mostly an indictment
of the local governments where these people live. This is a basic human need. Whatever
else the government is doing, it should be making sure these people have water.
It's hard for Americans to
relate to not having good water service, and it's also hard for an ordinary
person in Indianapolis or Orlando or Dallas to do anything about the fact that
people in India don't have water. It's about health and convenience and other
things, but if you dig all the way in, it limits people's ability to be the
best people they can be, and that should be a priority all the way through.
When we've spent one trillion
dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past ten years, we could easily have
[spent that money] giving every one on the planet who doesn't have a water
system, a water system. It's easier to spend money on wars instead of water.
It's weird to think, if we
had spent that one trillion dollars on water systems instead of in Iraq and
Afghanistan, would we be better off politically?
Yes. We would be.