Drinking Water: A History
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Drinking Water: A History

June 2013

Overlook Duckworth, 320 pages, $27.95, hardcover

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Unlike sex, water is something everybody needs but few want to read about. If you have trouble drifting off at bedtime, try cracking open a copy of the California Water Atlas.

So James Salzman, a Duke University professor in the schools of law and the environment, has pulled off something of a coup with Drinking Water: A History - it is actually a compelling read. True, the story he tells doesn't exactly sparkle like a freshly cracked bottle of Calistoga, but he has managed to invest it with the relevance and urgency it deserves.

For all the talk of looming water shortages, Salzman points out that there is no scarcity of water on Earth. Indeed, the amount of water is fixed. It is endlessly circulated in the planet's hydrologic cycle, migrating from a solid state (snow and ice) to vapor, then precipitating as rain, sleet, or snow to fall on land and sea.

The problem, of course, is that most of Earth's water is salty. And much of the rest is contaminated - and growing more so in lockstep with population growth. There is indeed a water crisis, but it is a potable water crisis. Clean drinking water is hard to obtain for most of the world's people, and it is getting harder to come by.

Salzman limns a fascinating history of drinking water through the ages. Much of the chronicle is dreary; the great cholera epidemics of 19th-century New York City and London, brought on by contaminated wells, are particularly depressing. But some early civilizations got it right - the most notable, of course, being the Romans, whose elegant aqueducts still stand as monuments to their understanding that empires must be founded on clean water as well as martial prowess.

Today, most of our potable water problems are anchored in the developing world, where water sources are generally scarce and contaminated. And even when solutions seem to be identified, they can prove elusive. Case in point: Bangladesh, where the primary drinking water source for generations has been surface water such as ponds, rivers, and sloughs polluted with coliform bacteria and other nasty bugs. In a massive effort to remedy this often lethal problem, the World Bank and the United Nations Children's Fund financed a nationwide program, eventually sinking millions of tube wells all across the countryside so people would have access to pure well water. It was pure from a microbial perspective, at least. Unfortunately, much of Bangladesh overlies soils containing arsenic, which over time has seeped into the groundwater and is now being pumped out for drinking water. To date, no effective solution has been implemented beyond painting some of the pipes of the good wells green and those of the bad wells red; many people still draw water from both.

Addressing the developed world, Salzman looks at the dilemma of determining just what constitutes "clean" water. Advanced technology now allows us to detect some contaminants in the parts-per-quadrillion range. Thus, a glass of water with a few molecules of benzene in solution could, from a legal perspective, be considered contaminated - even though the chances of it adversely affecting human health would be negligible.

Salzman devotes a good portion of the book to discussing the evolution of drinking water from a public resource to a private commodity. Thirty years ago, he notes, bottled drinking water "occupied a niche, elite market" in this country, hardly existing outside a few chichi restaurants that served Perrier or Evian to fastidious diners. Today, it is the norm, to the point that public drinking fountains are now scarce.

Though U.S. consumers may perceive bottled water as more wholesome than public tap water, says Salzman, repeated tests haven't proved that it is any cleaner than water that pours from the municipal spigot - and at times it might be more contaminated. Indeed, many popular brands - among them, Aquafina and Dasani, bottled by PepsiCo and Coca-Cola respectively - are simply treated tap water.

Meanwhile, Salzman notes, the sourcing of bottled water has also become an environmental and legal flash point, with citizens located near desirable springs resisting corporate efforts to establish bottling plants.

In northern California, the small community of McCloud, located near robust springs issuing from the slopes of Mount Shasta, was riven by conflicting factions over a plan by Nestlé Waters North America to establish a huge bottling complex. The anti-Nestlé camp ultimately won, but the town remains bitterly divided over the issue. Indeed, McCloud's internecine battles can be taken as a sign that conflicts over our most essential resource are likely to increase in coming decades. That hoary saw of the Old West - "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over" - now applies to the world at large.

Glen Martin is a freelance environmental writer based in Santa Rosa.

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