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The Worldwide 'Thirst' For Clean Drinking Water
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The golden age of water is coming to an end, the age when we could
assume we have an unlimited supply of cheap and safe water, writes my
guest, journalist Charles Fishman. He says everything about water is
about to change: how we use it, how we share it, how we think about it.
His new book, "The Big Thirst," lays out the problems, describes this
new era of water we're entering and examines how some cities, businesses
and individuals are starting to rethink and redesign their water usage.
Fishman is also the author of the bestseller "The Wal-Mart Effect,"
which will soon be published in a new edition. Since 1996, he's worked
for the business magazine Fast Company.
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.
GROSS: I'm sorry that we're having a technical problem with the
interview that I recorded with Charles Fishman last week, but we'll have
that for you in a moment. And again, he's the author of the book "The
Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water." And I will
now ask our engineer if we're ready with the tape, and we're not yet.
So I'll tell you he's also the author of a book called "The Wal-Mart
Effect," which is all about Wal-Mart, that was a bestseller. And there's
a new edition coming out, actually, very soon. So - but what we're going
to be talking about the smart use of water, how we have to rethink how
we use water in order to make sure that we have clean and abundant
water, which is something we can no longer take for granted.
So let's see if we're ready to go with that. You know, this is one of
the issues with new technology. You have this, like, great new digital
technology, and occasionally it just kind of chokes up and doesn't give
you what you put in it. And we appear to be in one of those moments now.
So putting me in the position of having to figure out what I want to
tell you. So here's something I want to tell you, that Tina Fey is going
to be our guest on Wednesday's FRESH AIR. So you might want to make a
note about that. As you probably know, she has a new memoir that's been
published. So we'll be talking to her about that and about her show, "30
So now we are ready to present the interview with Charles Fishman,
author of the new book "The Big Thirst."
Charles Fishman, welcome to FRESH AIR. You say water is the secret
ingredient in our fuel-hungry society. What are some of the hidden uses
of water that either we don't know about or we don't think about?
Mr. CHARLES FISHMAN (Author, "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and
Turbulent Future of Water"): Well, water shows up in all kinds of
places. So when we launch the space shuttle, I'm sure anybody who's
watched a space shuttle launch sees the launch pad covered in this
enormous cascade of water as the engines light.
And you would naturally think that that has something to do with the
heat and the flame. In fact, the water on the launch pad of a space
shuttle launch is a sound-dampening mechanism for the space shuttle. The
space shuttle is so loud that the sound would ricochet off the concrete
and metal launch pad and tear the space shuttle apart, literally destroy
it, before it cleared the pad without the water.
Water is the secret ingredient in how your microwave oven works. Your
microwave oven doesn't actually cook food: It spins the water molecules
in your food. It spins them up to a billion times a second.
Water happens to absorb microwave frequencies. And so the microwave oven
heats the water, and the water heats the food. That's why microwave
pizza tends to be a little soggy.
GROSS: Well, you say electricity power plants are the biggest consumers
Mr. FISHMAN: Yes, power plants in the United States use something like
five times the amount of water that all the homes in the United States
use. In fact, a typical American uses 99 gallons of water a day, real
water, for things like washing and cooking and toilet flushing.
The electricity that a typical American uses, just at home, each
individual American, is 250 gallons of water a day. The electricity we
use requires 250 gallons of water to generate.
So your flat-screen TV has a little hidden water spigot running to it,
10 gallons of water an hour every hour of every day just to power our
computers and our refrigerators and our washing machines at home, which
is kind of remarkable.
And that's not hydropower. That's electricity from coal and nuclear and
natural-gas-fired electric plants, which use water to make steam and to
cool, you know, cool nuclear reactors and things like that, so truly
GROSS: And that little water spout in your flat-screen TV, that's
figurative, right? You're just talking about electricity.
Mr. FISHMAN: Yes, it is, absolutely.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: There isn't really water being pumped into it.
Mr. FISHMAN: No, there is no water spigot to your flat-screen TV. But
that's the point. It's a kind of a hidden use that we never acknowledge.
In fact, one of the biggest uses of water, which is really a signal of
the profligacy with which we treat water, one of the biggest uses in the
United States is simply leakage. One of our six gallons of water
acquired, treated and pumped by water utilities in the United States
leaks back into the ground before anybody can use it.
So you fill the reservoir, or you pump the water out of the aquifer or
out of the river, you treat it to drinking-water standards, you pump it
out with expensive electricity and big pumps into pipes, and then one
out of six gallons leaks before it can get to a home or business and be
used. And that actually constitutes a significant quote-unquote use of
water in the United States.
GROSS: Now, you say you hope we're on the verge of a second water
revolution, the first water revolution being the delivery of safe,
drinkable, piped-in water into your home that you could rely on. That
changed the United States because people weren't dying from germs in the
Mr. FISHMAN: Water-borne diseases, right.
GROSS: Yeah, so what's the second revolution that you're hoping will
Mr. FISHMAN: I think we're leaving what I think of as the last 100 years
has been the golden age of water in the developed world: water that has
been safe, unlimited and essentially free.
Your 17-year-old's shower may irritate you because it's really long, but
you don't shout: Get out of the shower because of the water bill. That
era is over. We will not, going forward, have water that has all three
of those qualities at the same time: unlimited, unthinkingly inexpensive
We'll have plenty of safe water for drinking, but we'll think
differently about water for things like watering the lawn or washing our
cars or flushing our toilets.
I think we're going to move from an ear of abundant, safe and free to an
era of smart water. The way we use water now is, in fact, kind of dumb.
We use purified drinking water to flush our toilets and water our lawns.
That doesn't make any sense.
In an era of scarcity, we won't need to limit whether we have water to
boil our pasta, you know, or take a bath, but we will think differently
about a whole portfolios of waters. There will be different kinds of
waters for different uses.
And water itself will get smart. The reason one out of six gallons of
water leaks away - that are provided by water utilities, without anybody
using it - is that the water utility companies are run the way they were
30 or 40 or 50 years ago. There's no technology.
They don't understand what's going on in their own pipes. And so as
technology allows us to see what's happening to the water in the water
system, whether it's in a factory, university or whole ecosystem, we'll
be able to manage that water much more smartly. And so our use of water
will get smarter, and the water itself will get smarter.
GROSS: Well, let's look at an example that you write about in your book,
which is called "The Big Thirst," and I'm thinking of Las Vegas. First
of all the absurdity that Las Vegas is, like, the driest city in the
United States, but it's also the two-mile stretch with the most, like,
you know, aquariums and water entertainment, incredible fountains. Let
me see if I - oh, yeah, 100 sharks and eight bottle-nosed dolphins live
in this two-mile strip of the desert, kind of amazing.
But there's been a lot of water innovation in Las Vegas. Let's talk
about grass. There has been a lot of grass in Las Vegas, and now there's
a penalty for having grass.
Mr. FISHMAN: Yes, Las Vegas is literally the driest city of the 280
largest cities in America, which is kind of amazing. It gets four inches
of rain a year.
And 30 years ago, Las Vegas was run much the way every other city in
America was run: People watered their lawns whenever they wanted. They
washed their cars whenever they wanted.
And a woman became the head of water in Las Vegas and the larger Las
Vegas municipal area, Patricia Mulroy, and she looked at the pace of
growth of the city and the fact that Las Vegas takes all its water from
a single source, Lake Mead, and that water is limited by federal law to
a specific amount. In the last...
GROSS: The amount that Las Vegas can take is limited?
Mr. FISHMAN: The amount that Las Vegas can take is strictly limited by
federal law. It's 300,000 acre-feet, for whatever that means to
listeners. That lowers Lake Mead two feet a year, three feet a year. The
lake actually evaporates more water than Las Vegas takes.
And she saw how fast her city was growing, and she knew there was no
other source of water for the city. And so thinking ahead, she started
working on rules that would, over time, change the culture in Las Vegas.
And she has succeeded dramatically.
So, for instance, Las Vegas will pay you $40,000 an acre to take out
your lawn. It's not a penalty; it's an incentive. If you have a front
lawn, and it's a half-an-acre, you can get $20,000 by pulling out the
grass and replacing it with zero-scaping.
Mr. FISHMAN: It's called zero-scaping, and it's desert landscape, you
know, rocks and native plants, cactuses and native bushes.
GROSS: Now, that sounds like a very expensive proposition for the city.
Does the city lose money in the long run?
Mr. FISHMAN: It's not nearly as expensive in a place like Las Vegas,
which is a desert, which only gets four inches of water a year, four
inches of rain a year. It's not nearly as expensive as acquiring the
next gallon of water.
It is illegal to let your sprinkler, your lawn sprinkler, spray on a
sidewalk or a road. It is illegal to empty your swimming pool in Las
Vegas, and Las Vegas has swimming pools, or your hot tub into a storm
drawn. You must contrive a mechanism for emptying your swimming pool
into the sanitary sewer.
Las Vegas, over time, has come to recapture almost all of the water used
anywhere indoors. So you go to one of the beautiful hotels and take a
20-minute shower, it seems like you're squandering water, but in fact
all that water is collected and sent right back to Lake Mead. Las Vegas'
recycling rate is 94 percent.
So in fact, over time, although Las Vegas has what was, for a long time,
the largest fountain on Earth and, as you said, shark aquariums and a
lagoon that re-create the canals of Venice right on the strip, New York
Harbor right on the Strip filled with water, it sort of looks water-
ostentatious, in fact over the last 20 years, per-person water use in
Vegas has fallen 100 gallons.
GROSS: Because of the recycling?
Mr. FISHMAN: Because of all of these things, because people donât water
their lawns anymore, because they're very careful about recapturing
water that would otherwise be lost. Las Vegas has increased in size by
50 percent in the last 10 years, and it uses no more water today than it
did in the year 2000.
GROSS: So one of the things you write about in your Vegas chapter is how
golf courses have changed in order to conserve water because it's hard
having a lush, grassy, green golf course in the desert, and it was using
a lot of water. So tell us a little bit about some of the changes that
were made to make the golf course more efficient in its use of water.
Mr. FISHMAN: Angel Park is a public golf course in Las Vegas. It's not
untypical in terms of its water use or its water innovations at all.
They have managed to cut their water use almost in half in the last 15
years. They used to use as much water as a city of 10,000 people, almost
two million gallons of water a night.
They have pulled out a third of the turf in the golf course. It now has
a very desert feel. You now tee off from a grassy green, and your ball
heads for a hole that is a grassy green, but in between, dessert ravines
and arroyos landscaped as desert landscape.
And that's all different than the desert used to be. Every single bush
at Angel Park has its own individual sprinkler head, and so they don't
spray water randomly. Each plant actually gets the water it needs. And
the turf has its own sprinklers.
All the sprinklers are computer controlled and take into account things
like temperature and wind. And finally, they only use re-use water. They
are using treated sewage from a sewage plant just two miles away.
So unlike 20 years ago, when Patricia Mulroy first came to Las Vegas,
golf courses and fountains and all of these water features used water
straight from Lake Mead, which you never got back. And so part of her
new ethic is every golf course in Las Vegas has a water budget, and they
are not permitted to exceed the water budget or be fined. And so they've
gone from using more than 600 million gallons of water a year down to
about 376 million gallons of water a year.
GROSS: Which is still an extraordinary amount of water.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FISHMAN: Still, that's right. Still, at this point, each hole of
golf on a golf course in Las Vegas, each time a golfer steps to a tee in
Las Vegas, it requires about 139 gallons of water just to get that
golfer through that one hole. So golf in Las Vegas remains one of the
great water indulgences of the town.
GROSS: My guest is Charles Fishman, author of the new book "The Big
Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Fishman. You may
know him as the author of the bestseller "The Wal-Mart Effect." He has a
new book called "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of
You know, I'm thinking, as I hear you talk about this, that the whole
idea that we're on the verge of a second water revolution. When I think
of the municipal water systems in our city, so many of them are old. The
water infrastructure is old. And with all the budget cuts happening on
every level of government, what are the odds that cities will have the
money to create the kind of infrastructure for us to have smart water?
Mr. FISHMAN: The average U.S. home pays an average of $34 a month. So
our always-on, unlimited, almost, you know, universally reliably safe
water costs us about $1 a day. Our water bill is less than half what our
cable TV bill or our cell phone bill is.
So yes, cities are, you might say, starved for financial resources, and
water utilities are often in terrible shape. In Philadelphia, the...
GROSS: Where we both live.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FISHMAN: In Philadelphia, where we both live, there are 3,300 miles
of water mains in the city, and they replace 20 miles a year. They're on
160-year replacement cycles. One of the officials from the Philadelphia
water utility said to me: We definitely want to make sure we get the 20
miles right. That's not actually a question of money: It's a question of
public resistance to digging up streets.
One of the big problems with water is that the success of the golden age
of water has created an invisible system. We don't even take it for
granted because taking it for granted would suggest we pay attention to
GROSS: That we even know it exists.
Mr. FISHMAN: Right, exactly. We - taking it for granted would require us
to do more thinking that we do. But that hidden system, that invisible
system, is, as you say, corroding, and as it corrodes, it even corrodes
our support for public water.
We just think: Well, I'll just - why should I pay more for water? I'll
just go buy bottled water. But, in fact, we don't actually spend that
much supporting the system.
In the U.S., we spend $21 billion a year buying bottled water, and we
spend $29 billion a year maintaining the entire water system: pipes,
treatment plants, pumps. We spend almost as much on crushable plastic
bottles of water as we do maintaining the water system.
So if we were to scale back our bottled water spending, say, 15 percent
and divert that money - I mean, you obviously can't do that directly,
but in fact the water system is starved for innovation and starved for
resources, and we're going to have to find a way of making it okay to
spend that money.
I think learning about what's remarkable about the water system - and
also I think public utility officials really need to talk about what's
required to make the system work. They've been very proud of being
silent. Now they need to do a better job of explaining to us that if you
want new water pipes, then it's okay to dig up the street in front of
your house for a couple of weeks.
GROSS: Can you think of a city in the United States, like a new city or
a new town, that got the plumbing right, that got the water system
right, that is using a more smart, innovative system.
Mr. FISHMAN: Well, there's a small picture and a big picture. In
Orlando, Florida, and the county around Orlando, Orange County, Florida,
25 years ago, they mandated a second plumbing system, a gray water
system, which is called a purple pipe system because the pipes are
literally purple so you don't confuse potable water with pretty clean
water that's probably not safe to drink.
They mandated that system for - just for lawn watering and for watering
athletic fields and parks and only in new construction. And in the last
25 years, the city of Orlando and the surrounding Orange County have
more than doubled, and Orange County, Florida, now provides almost as
much recycled waste water in the purple pipe system every day as it does
potable water. They're almost equal.
So the city has grown by a factor of two without needing to increase the
amount of water it uses at all and without having to take some of the
dramatic steps that a place like Las Vegas has taken.
GROSS: Can you explain why it's helpful to have two sets of pipes, one
for drinkable water and one for water that isn't drinkable, but you
could use it for your lawn, you could use it to wash your car?
Mr. FISHMAN: Sure. It cuts the amount of potable water you use. What
happens in Orange County, Florida, is the people use their water for
cooking and washing the dishes, washing the clothes, flushing the
toilet. It goes back to a waste-water treatment plant. It's cleaned
almost enough to be drinkable, not quite, and then piped back to those
same homes and to schools and athletic fields to water grass and turf.
GROSS: My guest, Charles Fishman, will be back in the second half of the
show. His new book is called "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and
Turbulent Future of Water." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Charles
Fishman, author of the new book "The Big Thirst." It's about the water
crisis in the U.S. and around the world. He says we're facing scarcities
in the U.S. because we use water unwisely. We're entering a new era of
water, where three things we have taken for granted - water that is
abundant, cheap and safe - will not be present together in the decades
ahead. He says we may have water that is abundant and cheap, but that
will be water for reuse, like watering lawns and flushing toilets.
Fishman's book examines some innovative water systems.
You write about companies that are using water, corporations that are
doing innovative things with their water usage. Choose a company that
you think is innovating in a way that other companies can follow.
Mr. FISHMAN: IBM, which we think of as a computer company and a data
processing company, still does make some computer chips, and they have
kind of stumbled into real water innovation. The team at one of the IBM
chip plants in the U.S. in Burlington, Vermont figured out that using
water smartly could be a competitive advantage for IBM, that it could
help keep computer chips cheap.
Computer chips require an incredible kind of water, a very exotic kind
of water that exists nowhere in the universe except microchip plants and
pharmaceutical plants. It's called ultra-pure water, and it is nothing
but water. Microchips - the paths on microchips are so small, that when
you need to wash the chip between the manufacturing steps, the water
can't have anything in it.
GROSS: Like minerals or anything like that?
Mr. FISHMAN: Not only not minerals, not even the tiniest parts of cells
or viruses. Ultra-pure water is 12 steps of filtration cleaner than
reverse osmosis, which most of us think of as nothing left but the
water. But that's very expensive water to make, ultra-pure water. They
make two million gallons a day of this very high-priced water. And so
they went looking for ways to reduce their water usage and recapture
some of the qualities of the water that they were spending money on in
one place and squandering in another place. The water comes in cold, but
to make this very clean water, you need it warmed up.
In another place in the plant, they were cooling water for air
conditioning purposes, for the fabrication parts of the chip factory,
and they didn't connect the dots. They were warming water in one place
and cooling it in another. They simply re-plumbed the big pipes, and the
cold water goes to the air-conditioning first, gets warmed up, and comes
back to the ultra-cleaning portion of the factory. In the course of
doing this, they found themselves, for instance, dribbling this ultra-
pure water constantly in machines that weren't - that didn't have any
chips in them. So they were wasting very, very precious high-purity
They went and started examining all the ways they use water and whether
they were using it smartly in each of those places. And the results are
kind of amazing. Over 10 years, they reduced their water use by a third,
while they increased their chip production by a third. So they increased
their efficiency - the efficiency of their water productivity - by about
GROSS: Lessons for other places, other companies?
Mr. FISHMAN: The lessons are kind of amazing. The first lesson is they
didn't save any money, particularly, on the water itself. For every
dollar of water - the water comes in from the Municipal Water Utility in
Burlington - they saved $4 on energy and chemicals and filtration. You
don't have to treat what you don't use. And they found this virtuous
cycle. Once you start looking for ways to save water, the cycle sort of
builds on itself. You reduce your water use, then you can turn around
and reduce the size of your pumps, which reduces your electricity bill.
GROSS: Now, you applaud business for its innovation and water usage and
water cleaning. But at the same time, you're critical of some of the
same businesses for polluting water while they come up with water
innovation. So you do caution in your book that it's important not to
let business get so far ahead that we cede the future of water to
commercial interests. What are your concerns about that?
Mr. FISHMAN: That's exactly right. We need people thinking about new
water technology and new ways of using water. I think the next 20 or 30
years are going to feel a little bit like the telecommunications
revolution of the last 20 or 30 years. Anybody who's over 30 remembers a
time when all your telephone did was ring. You know, there was no call
waiting, no caller ID, let alone access to all of human knowledge on
I think we're going to see the same kind of blossoming across all kinds
of water technology. And it's not going to come from water utilities in
cities. It's going to come from companies. But you don't want to let
companies end up in control of the resource itself. And so that's part
of the point of trying to plunge in and understand water. We are, as a
community, really water literate. We don't know what's required to
acquire the water we use, to treat it, to deliver it, or to take it away
from us, and that ignorance is kind of a gap that entrepreneurial
companies can step into. And we need to be careful not to cede those
GROSS: My guest is Charles Fishman, author of the new book "The Big
Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Fishman. We're
talking about his new book "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and
Turbulent Future of Water." He's also the author of the bestseller "The
Wal-Mart Effect," which will be coming out in a new edition very soon.
You write about how we take water for granted as being drinkable,
unlimited and having a pretty modest water bill. To prove to yourself
how difficult it would be if we didn't have that...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...you went to India, where a lot of people live in places where
water - they don't have indoor plumbing. Water isn't coming out in a
drinkable way in their homes. It's delivered by tanker to their
neighborhood, or - and they had to go get it. So you actually outfitted
yourself with a huge jug. Is that the right word?
Mr. FISHMAN: Better, water jar.
GROSS: So tell us about your experience having to actually get water and
bring it back to where you were staying.
Mr. FISHMAN: I went to the village of Jagadhri(ph), it is only about 50
miles from Delhi. So it's not, you know, in a remote part of India. And
this was one of the things I really wanted to do. When you hear about
water, you always hear the figure that a billion people in the world -
one out of six people doesn't have clean, safe water. Many people have
to walk to get their water. There's typically a picture of a woman or
girl carrying water on her head, yet I'd never read an account of what
it actually like to walk with water. It turns out hundreds of millions
of people in the world have to walk to get their water every day.
So I went to the village of Jagadhri, and I did the water walk with
these women, three kilometers out and three kilometers back. Going out,
of course, you're only carrying an empty jug. Only the women and girls
in India carry water, and that's quite common around the world. It's
just a cultural practice. And in Jagadhri, it's a pretty modest burden.
They do the water walk twice a day.
I walked with a 12-year-old girl named Anjana(ph). I carried two-and-a-
half gallons of water. I carried about 20 pounds of water on my head.
Anjana, age 12, carried twice that amount. She carried five gallons, 40
pounds of water. I spilled half the water that I carried on the way
home. I was not that good at this right from the start, and I was
carrying two-and-a-half galloons of water. We use three gallons of
water, typically, just to flush a toilet. And so this is a very clumsy
and inefficient and taxing way to bring your drinking water home.
One of the most interesting things about the water walk: People who walk
to get water in developing world nations often don't have jobs, and they
can't go to school because they must go get the water twice a day.
During my walk in Jagadhri, I had cell phone service the entire time out
to the well and back.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's really funny. Right.
Mr. FISHMAN: And so the economy in India, in this state in India, has
contrived to offer people the highest technology available to us in
routine use: cell phone service. They could actually call somebody in
the Ministry of the Environment in India and talk about why they don't
have access to water while they were walking out to get their water and
bring it back each day. So that's sort of a terrible irony.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. One of the things that we're dealing with in terms of
water is new pollutants, micro pollutants. And that includes, as you
point out in your book, pharmaceutical drugs that people take. In other
words, like, if you're taking an antidepressant or a blood pressure
medication on a daily basis, some of that ends up in your urine, which
ends up in the sewage, which is then retreated. Do I have that right?
Mr. FISHMAN: Yes. It actually ends up in the wastewater treatment plant.
But, in fact, the problem is that modern U.S. wastewater treatment
plants aren't quite modern enough, and they don't have the ability to
take out this new class of micro-pollutants. It's pharmaceuticals,
Prozac and birth control pills and, you know, cholesterol-lowering
medicine. It's also chemicals and things like shampoos and conditioners
that - all of which are kind of new. Fifty years ago, none of that stuff
GROSS: And we're not even talking about the byproducts of various
manufacturing processes that have, like, poisons that end up in the
Mr. FISHMAN: No. No. Were not talking about things like what might
happen with natural gas fracking and using water to get natural gas out
of the ground. This is just what's in the water that comes, really, from
our homes. I think there are two important things to understand about
this. The first is the quantities of this material are almost
unimaginably small - one part per trillion. So if you have $10 million,
that's a lifetime of earnings for someone who earns $100,000 a year. One
part per billion is a penny. Reach into your pocket and find a penny.
This is a thousand times less concentrated than that.
And so the amounts are infinitesimal, and yet these are very potent
chemicals. And we don't know what the impact on human health is. As they
accumulate in bodies of water, though, they are having an impact on fish
and aquatic reptiles. Of course, they're living in the water, and so we
don't live in our drinking water, which is important. We're not swimming
in it every day. But even the environmental impact is really disturbing.
It turns out that we have the ability - that we can hardly understand
the vast water system that surrounds us on Earth, but we certainly have
the ability to taint it, to impact it.
And so I think part the second water revolution is going to be finding
ways of getting those chemicals out of the water really even before they
get back into the environment. Just like we did at 100 years ago when
the dawn of a kind of new science of bacteriology allowed us to clean up
our drinking water supplies, there are people working on this question,
not just of what's the impact of a tiny bit of Tylenol in your drinking
water, but how do we take it out in an affordable way.
The technology we have today would require us to double the price of
drinking water at home, which would be completely unacceptable
politically. But there are people working on finding ways to get it out
of the wastewater stream so it doesn't end up back in the environment.
GROSS: So if we're talking about a second water revolution, one of the
things you'd like to see us address is water usage fees, water fees.
They're pretty low now, although people still complain.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What kind of debate would you like to see happening in the United
States about water bills?
Mr. FISHMAN: One of the places I went in the course of reporting the
book was the largest soup factory in the world in Napoleon, Ohio. They
use more water than the city of Napoleon uses. They simply put their
water intakes in the Maumee River, which runs right in front of the
plant, and take as much water as they need for free. That's completely
typical. The water bill at the IBM microchip plant in Burlington,
Vermont, the actual water bill itself is not that significant. It's the
bill to do all the things you need to do to water.
I think that if you could fix one thing about water that would fix
everything else, it is price. When water is free, we don't take care of
the environment that the water comes from. It doesn't pay to use water
more smartly. If you install a million dollars worth of technology in
your factory and save $100,000 worth of water, that doesn't make any
So I'd like to see a conversation about making sure that we provide the
basic ration of water to everybody. And I shouldn't even use the word
ration - the basic amount of water that people need to get through the
day in the U.S. and everywhere, and that above that, we start to charge
an amount for the water that makes sense in terms of what's required all
the way back to sort of protect the environment from which the water
comes and to make sure that that water supply is constantly sustainable.
The result will be: Water will be used more smartly. The bills for
everything won't necessarily go up. Your iPhone does require water, this
ultra-pure water to make. But once you start pricing things smartly,
people use it much more smartly.
GROSS: Your investigation into water and how we use it started with an
article that you wrote about bottled water a few years ago, and that
expanded into your new book "The Big Thirst," which looks at how we use
water as a nation, how other countries use water. How have your water
habits changed over the past few years as you've been investigating
Mr. FISHMAN: Well, we use a lot less bottled water in our house than we
used to, as an example. We're always promoting taking the refillable
water bottle to the soccer game or the dance lessons. There are still
water bottles kicking around the minivan and kicking around the house.
I think one of the smallest but most significant changes in my own
habits are I almost never pour water down the drain now. When somebody
leaves a half-empty glass of water around the house or a half empty
bottle of water in the minivan, there's nothing that no one wants
ownership of less than a half empty bottle of water. You can't get
anybody to drink that. I pour them right in the dog bowl, or I pour them
in a plant in the house. It just seems silly to pour that perfectly good
water down the drain.
We actually discovered - in the course of doing this book, we discovered
that the water pressure to our house was way too high. We had the best
showers in America. You turn on the water, and it came jetting out.
Well, it turned out that the water pressure was 50 percent higher than
was legally allowed in our municipality, just because we were near some
pumping station. And so we actually got a step-down valve installed in
our house, and, in fact, it cut our water use 20 or 30 percent. Just
because when you turn on the water to wash the dishes, we used to have
this incredible jet of water coming out, most of which we didn't need.
I'm very careful about how much water I use when I'm rinsing or washing
or something like that, when the volume doesn't matter, but it's easy to
use too much. And, of course, we're careful about how we water our lawn
and things like that. For me, it's a question of water consciousness. In
the U.S., half the water in the U.S. is used by power plants. A huge
chunk of water is used by farmers. And so our own water habits are
important, and the cost of municipal water is quite high compared to
the, you know, power plants, and farmers use water of much less purity.
But for me, the most important thing is that I sort of pay attention to
the water, and I actually appreciate the water. The journey has been
kind of amazing. The saliva in your mouth comes from the Milky Way. All
the water on Earth...
GROSS: I'm sorry?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You want to explain that?
Mr. FISHMAN: Well, saliva is 99.5 percent water.
Mr. FISHMAN: And all the water on Earth was actually formed in space, in
interstellar gas clouds. And it was delivered here when the Earth was
formed, or shortly thereafter, in exactly the form it's in.
So all the water on Earth - the water in your Evian bottle, the water in
your glass of water, the water you use to boil a pot of spaghetti - all
that water is 4.3 or 4.4 billion years old. No water's being created on
Earth. No water's being destroyed on Earth. And what that means is the
whole debate about reusing wastewater is kind of silly, because all the
water we've got right now has been used over and over again. Every drink
of water you take, every pot of coffee you make is dinosaur pee, because
it's all been through the kidneys of a Tyrannosaurus Rex or an
Apatosaurus many, many times, because all the water we have is all the
water we have ever had.
And to me, that's actually good news. Water is incredibly resilient.
It's unlike fuel or other natural resources. It can be used over and
over and over again, and it emerges - except for needing to be cleaned,
ready to use again - exactly as water.
If you use a gallon of diesel fuel, you can't reuse it as diesel fuel
ever again. If you use a gallon of water to water the rice that your
tractor is planting, the water emerges from the rice-growing process
ready to use again as water. That's sort of part of the magic of water,
is it's cosmic juice that came from interstellar space, which is
wonderful to sort of pause and appreciate. And it's the most resilient
thing we've got in daily use that is in high demand.
GROSS: Well, Charles Fishman, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. FISHMAN: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Charles Fishman is the author of "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life
and Turbulent Future of Water." He's also the author of "The Wal-Mart
Effect." You can read an excerpt of "The Big Thirst," on our website:
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
The Smithereens' Sweet Nostalgia, With Fresh Variations
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Smithereens have released their first album of new material in 12
years. The collection is called "Smithereens 2011," and was produced by
Don Dixon, who produced REM's earliest albums, as well as some of The
Smithereens first records.
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(Soundbite of song, "As Long as You are Near Me")
THE SMITHEREENS (Rock Band): (Singing) (Vocalizing)
As long as you are near me, I can see things clearly. Let me speak
sincerely. All my fears are gone. As long as you are near me, I will
have the strength to carry on.
KEN TUCKER: In the world of The Smithereens, women tend to be girls, who
tend to be either the saviors or the destroyers of the singer's closed-
in universe. With a lesser band of middle-aged American men deploying
guitar chords and harmonies that evoke 1960s British Invasion pop, this
could come off as stunted, even laughable. With The Smithereens,
however, it's an achievement and a musical conservatism rendered
(Soundbite of song, "A World of Our Own")
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) When the world just keeps on bringing you
down, you can come by me, and I'll be around. I will try my best to
never leave you alone.
When we're here inside with nothing to do, baby, I feel fine just being
with you. I will tell them all to leave, just leave us alone. You and I
will live inside a world of our own. Just alone...
TUCKER: We live in a world of our own, assert The Smithereens on that
song. Lead singer Pat DiNizio is addressing his observations to a woman
he's obsessed with - or, perhaps I should say, a woman engaged with
DiNizio in a mutual obsession.
That's what a lot of Smithereen lyrics are about: two people who create
a world for themselves against all odds, with everyone around them
trying to divide them, keep them apart. Everything in Smithereen world
is like a film noir shot in psychedelic colors. In "Keep on Running,"
the story plays out like a teen drama such as "Rebel Without a Cause."
They say I'm a fool and I'm wrong for you, the band harmonizes as one.
We will leave this town, and together we'll roam.
(Soundbite of song, "Keep on Running")
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) They say I'm a fool, and who knows(ph) just
for you. But we know they're wrong and that our love is true. Please
believe in me. I'll believe in me, too. And our love will last after all
No, don't listen to the things they say. Just take my hand, and we'll
keep on running. No more suffering, time to walk away. You just take my
hand. We'll just keep on running.
Every move I make...
TUCKER: The soundtrack to these baby-let's-blow-this-joint scenarios is
a thundering mass of guitars and drums that seem powered by the Marshall
amplifiers that gave records by The Who and Jimi Hendrix their thick
reverberation. Combine that with harmonies and melodies that cross The
Beatles with The Byrds, and you know why The Smithereens can hit a sweet
spot among listeners for whom the late '60s and early '70s was a summit
point for pop-rock. The Smithereens have traded in nostalgia, recording,
for example, an album reproducing The Who's rock opera "Tommy" and "Meet
the Smithereens," which covered the entire "Meet the Beatles" album.
But this New Jersey band has a talent for creating fresh variations that
prevent dust or mist from clouding their music. "Smithereens 2011"
reaches a peak with the song that opens the album, the sour-tempered yet
utterly transporting "Sorry."
(Soundbite of song, "Sorry")
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) Things get better when the wind(ph) comes by,
'cause every time I'm with you, girl, you break my heart, 'cause you
don't look at me the same as me. You say stay, and I say no. You make me
want to (unintelligible) and you say hello, 'cause you and I will always
I would stand up. I will fall. Please don't pray for me to go. I would
like to say I'm sorry, but I won't.
TUCKER: I would like to say I'm sorry, but I won't goes the refrain of
"Sorry." It's one of their sullen, why-did-you-do-me-wrong songs. To say
that The Smithereens are stuck in a perennial adolescence is, in a
twisted way, to pay them the compliment they seek.
The band prefers to keep things not simple, but narrow. Their tunnel-
vision romanticism is, at its best, as obsessive and neurotically rich
as a David Lynch film. That The Smithereens has managed to maintain this
obsession since the mid-1980s until now without repeating themselves may
keep it entrenched in cult status. But for those of us in the cult, it's
a hypnotic way to live.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He
reviewed "Smithereens 2011." You can download podcasts of our show on
our website: freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.