I have read several books about water scarcity issues, but they have always been told through a certain western U.S. water point of view. So, it was with great interest when I recently read Cynthia Barnett’s new book, Mirage. Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S., which was published earlier this year.
This book should be a must read book for anyone vaguely interested in water issues. The book flows from start to finish with clarity and fast flowing fluidity. No mind numbing water statistics that you might encounter on this blog. This is a compelling narrative that is part environmental history and part journalism. Personally, she really helped me connect some dots in the historical development of Florida. While the book’s launchpad is from Florida, global water issues are also explored such as the price of water and the bottled-water industry.
Cynthia was gracious enough me to allow me to interview her.
Why did you choose this topic for your first book?
I didn’t set out to write a book, but stumbled across what every journalist is looking for – a great story that hadn’t been told. As a complete side-interest, I was working part-time on master’s in environmental history at the University of Florida, reading these wonderful books like Nelson Manfred Blake’s Land into Water, Water into Land, the definitive history of man and water in Florida. I was reading about how 150 years ago, Florida’s developers got rid of water, got rid of water, got rid of water. Then at my job as a reporter for Florida Trend magazine, I found myself covering the story 150 years later of a group of powerful business leaders who’d realized Florida no longer had enough water to sustain growth.
This irony – that the same characters who ditched and drained the water in the first place now saw they got rid of too much – planted the seed. Then I began to look into the bigger picture, picking up the great American water narratives, like Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, and saw the irony was much larger: The entire eastern half of the country, historically so wet that explorers like John Wesley Powell predicted it would never even need irrigation – had pumped, ditched and drained itself into the sort of shortage and conflict that should have been confined to the arid West. That became the theme of Mirage.
I really thought this book was very readable and the chapters, such as water wars and bottled water, and the valuation of water were important for anyone in the country on the east coast or west coast. In writing this book, what are some common themes in water issues that surprised you?
The commonality I didn’t expect is that the “crisis” of water supply is basically the same at any level, whether you’re looking at Florida, the Southeastern U.S., the continent, the globe. The problem is not really supply. It’s timing and distribution. Whether looking through a Florida-centric or global lens, there is plenty of water to go around. It’s just not where people need it at the time they need it.
You comment in the book that the water use per person in Florida has increased in recent years, while many states’ per capita water use has decreased. Do you think Florida as a whole has reached its “peak water use per person”. Do you think new data will show a drop in per capita water use?
I certainly hope we’ve reached our peak water use per person. While 174 gallons per person per day is abysmal for a state that gets 55 or so inches of rainfall a year, we have communities where per-capita use is upwards of 200 gallons a person. In the huge Villages retirement community in North Central Florida, it’s 240. My statements about our conspicuous consumption irk Florida regulators who say the numbers look worse than they really are because the most recent data available is year 2000 – when we were suffering in the last drought. Floridians used more water than usual to keep their lawns from turning brown, they argue.
But it doesn’t make sense to me to use drought as an excuse for unsustainable practices. Shouldn’t we value our water more, not less, during drought? I hope and I expect the new data will show a drop. The 2005 Florida data should be ready next month, according to the USGS scientist who compiles it. Meanwhile the national USGS water-use report, which lets you compare U.S. states’ use since 1950, will be updated with the 2000-2005 data in the spring. You’ll be able to find it here.
What was the biggest surprise you discovered while researching material for this book?
I was and remain shocked that some 9,000 children on our planet die every day for lack of access to fresh, clean water. There is something uncomfortable for me writing and speaking of the water “crisis” in the eastern U.S. when 1 billion people lack access to any improved water supply. Americans – so generous in times of crisis, such as the Asian Tsunami – don’t understand how severe the global water crisis is, and especially the childhood deaths. I certainly did not. One curmudgeon criticized Mirage for veering into the global water crisis, but I’m so glad I did.
I spoke to a group of Rotarians last week who were quite concerned about water supply here in Florida, at the same time they were paying for and working on water projects in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and elsewhere. I thought the juxtaposition was beautiful. Another impressive effort here in Florida, which I talk about in my book, is the Patel Center for Global Solutions at the University of South Florida in Tampa, working just as hard on global water sustainability as it is on Florida water issues.
Tomorrow, I’ll share the second part of this interview with Cynthia and I will ask her about her own water ways and how we should encourage smarter water choices among other questions. We will also learn, more importantly, where you can see a 50-year-old grandma in a Confederate flag bikini. In the mean time check out her book on Amazon.
Learn more about Cynthia from her website