THE BLOG
08/22/2010 09:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

At Last, A Book That Says: 'We Need to Care More About Water Than Oil'

A few years ago, when we were deep in the fiction of "choosing a school" for our little monster, the director of admissions of the city's most respected girls' school asked us to describe our hopes for our daughter.

"We hope she'll be resourceful enough to be a leader in the great challenges of her time -- like the water crisis of 2025," I said.

I wish I could say the woman's expression was quizzical. I'm sorry to report that it was closer to distressed. Water crisis? What water crisis?

We slunk out. And, shrewdly, I think, withdrew our application.

The thing is, we were right to be worried about water. And 2007 was not exactly early to be concerned. But as long as Americans don't have to pull our cars up to water tanks and pay $5 a gallon for water-fuel, we're going to pay attention only to oil. And that disaster in the Gulf of Mexico -- it wasn't because a water main broke.

I have been looking for a book about water that is smart without being scholarly, concerned without sounding apocalyptic, optimistic without being unrealistic. And now it's here: Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource. [To order the book from Amazon, click here.] The authors are Peter Rogers, Professor of Environmental Engineering at Harvard and a Fellow of the Water Resources Institute of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Susan Leal, former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

235 pages -- considering the science, that's ultra-brisk. And it's a very straightforward approach: Scare the shit out of the reader, share what others have done to conserve and refresh water, suggest what the reader can do. A few hours with this book, and you'll be able to dominate any party conversation about water. And, even more, you'll want to read -- and think -- more about this most precious of all liquids.

Susan Leal had considerable success in getting San Franciscans to move beyond sentimental pride in their water to actual conservation. And though she too has a Cambridge affiliation -- she's a fellow of the Advanced Leadership Institute at Harvard -- I thought she was the author I wanted to talk to.

How did you get interested in water?

As a kid, I went to the Pulgas Water Temple, a monument to the project that brought water from the mountains to the city; it made quite an impression upon me. Growing up in San Francisco, school kids learn that the city was destroyed not by quake but by the fires that burned out of control because there was no water to fight them. And I had an uncle who was an engineer with the San Francisco water authority. He spoke about our water with a sense of ownership and pride.

When did you decide to get involved with the city's water?

When I was the city and country treasurer, the mayor's chief of staff asked me to take over the troubled water agency. I'm not an engineer, but I saw what was wrong -- it didn't need another engineer or scientist, it was in need of management and financial expertise -- and I thought I had the background and experience to fix it.

As the book explains -- with unusual restrain and modesty -- you did. Now that you're an expert witness, tell me: Which is the bigger crisis, oil or water?

Water, definitely. When I talk to people, I start by saying, "You know, it's the same water since the beginning of time." They ask: "What do you mean?" I say: "We're using the same water -- just recycled. Water is finite. How we treat it affects the quality of all of our water in the future." And I go on to say: "There is no substitute for water. Solar or alternative energies might replace oil, but there's no alternative to water." At which point, someone says: "Desalinization." I say: "Do you have any idea of the cost, the energy, the environmental impact?" They say: "But Israel..." I say: "Israel is a small country." And then they start to get it.

Is the urgency to deal with the water crisis increasing?

Yes, and it's kind of sad. Thirty years after the Clean Water Act, we need a Right to Know Act that lets you be informed that your beach was fouled. People forget that all the water we use, we also have to dispose of it. And often we don't properly treat it before we dispose of it into lakes, rivers and oceans -- polluting the very sources of water we will need and use in the future.

Sounds almost like we're going backwards.

The basic problem: People get 30-year mortgages -- but they don't know if they'll have water for 30 years. And they don't think to ask. We're on a collision course between the increasing demand of a growing population and a finite amount of water. To make matters more complicated, we pollute the water we have and then you can add climate change into the mix. We already see the effects of climate change in the West with decreased snowpack and water shortages. On the East coast, climate change means storm surges that overwhelm the aging waste water treatment plants.

Has any stimulus money been spent on water projects?

Very little. Every year there's a $20 billion shortfall in maintaining water and waste water systems in the U.S.

Does the Obama administration care about water?

It's a much bigger priority than in the last administration.

In 2002, Secretary of Energy Norton slashed California's water allotment from the Colorado River. That looks like the high point of government's commitment to water conservation. What was the follow-up?

On the federal level, that was one of the high points, but some individual cities and regions did take some groundbreaking action. In San Francisco, we were able to improve our aging waste water systems when we got people to pay attention. Elsewhere in California, municipalities were forced to take a harder look at how they use and reuse water, and to begin to think about solutions like using locally recycled water.

How did you get San Franciscans to pay attention?

We did a nonstop education campaign with billboards, mailers, dozens and dozens of neighborhood meetings throughout the city. We went after every demographic and age group. We even started sending a six-foot guy dressed as a water drop to kindergartens. That worked.

How about bottled water? Were you able to slow consumption?

Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse and the "eat fresh and local" movement, was very vocal against bottled water, which helped. More recently, the economy has been a factor here -- people now see bottled water as a luxury.

At home, we use a water purifier/dispenser. What else can we do to protect ourselves?

Water utilities are required by federal law to test for contaminants and report the test results to its customers. For example, San Francisco tests its water at least 80,000 times a year. So make sure your water utility is doing ongoing testing for contaminants. If you are concerned about the pipes in your building, have your tap water tested for any contaminants. Many water utilities will test it for a nominal fee.

In some California counties, water companies are paying customers to remove their lawns. How about golf courses?

Golf courses should be using recycled wastewater, and we're seeing a trend toward that. A greater concern for me is how little individuals understand that they have a water footprint that is much larger than their daily household use. Most of us think we use 80-100 gallons a day. Wrong. Our water footprint is about 1,800 gallons a day. Like me. I love steak -- and we need 630 gallons of water for one 8 ounce steak! But now that I know that, I am a much more conscious consumer of beef and other water-intensive foods.

San Francisco pioneered restaurants and individuals collecting cooking grease that gets turned into biofuel. How hard was that?

It's difficult to get past inertia. But, once you explain the problem and make them a partner in your effort, it's much easier. People don't feel a sense of urgency. But that's one of the reasons we wrote the book -- to celebrate forward-thinking, can-do people. We hope that by describing real-world successes we will provide a road map to avert this looming crisis.

If you were buying a second home, what would you buy -- a beach house, or a house in the mountains with its own water?

The house in the mountains -- and I love the ocean. The more I know about water, the more important I feel it is to have a reliable water source.