What Does Water Want?: A Conversation with Author Erica Gies — @circleofblue

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website (Brett Walton):

Modern societies have dramatically disrupted the water cycle. We have paved wetlands, diverted rivers, overpumped groundwater, and built levees that allow no room for streams to ebb and flow.

The problems — and the opportunities — that spring from this mismatch between the natural world and the built environment are the topic of Water Always Wins, a new book from journalist Erica Gies.

“In our standard development, we’ve taken a very control-oriented mindset toward water,” Gies told Circle of Blue. “We want to keep it in its little channel, we want to store it in a big reservoir. When we push water in that way, we find that there are limits to our powers of control.”

Gies suggests that many societies need a major cultural shift in how people relate to water. She calls this shift a “slow water” movement — an ethic that gives water space to move across the landscape and seeks local solutions.

“The way that we view water as a sort of contest is not required,” Gies says. “We can choose a different way.”

Brett Walton

Welcome to Speaking of Water. I’m Brett Walton, I’m a reporter for Circle of Blue. What does water want? That’s one of the central questions in a new book called Water Always Wins that explores failures and opportunities in water management. The author is Erica Gies, who joins me today. Thanks for being here Erica.

Erica Gies
Thank you for having me.

BW
It’s a big book. There’s a lot going on here. We have flood plains and drought and microbes and beavers and sponge cities and stories that range from the U.S. to Iraq, to the Netherlands, to China. And in all of these stories, there’s a thread in that there’s often a mismatch between how the natural world operates and how we designed our built environment.

BW
And your book title, Water Always Wins, suggests that it’s a one sided contest. So what does it mean that that water always wins?

EG
Well, sooner or later, water does always win. You know, that old joke you’ve probably heard about levees, two kinds of levees, ones that have failed and ones that are going to fail. So I think that’s kind of illustrative of the concept. Anyone who’s ever tried to keep water out of a building understands the power of water. But my subtitle is “Driving in an Age of Drought and Deluge.”

EG
So that’s the key message of the book, is that if in our standard development, we’ve taken a very control-oriented mindset toward water, we want to keep it in its little channel. We want to store it in a big reservoir. And when we push water in that way, then we find that there are limits to our powers of control.

EG
And we’re seeing that increasingly often now, both with climate change, which is exacerbating water extremes and also just population growth and development. You know, the area of cities worldwide has doubled since 1992. So that’s a really good indicator of why we’re seeing so much urban flooding now. We just have so much more pavement. I think this attitude of control is not necessarily a given.

EG
You know, I went around the world and I met people from all different cultures and not everybody approaches water with this attitude of control, which sees water is either a commodity or a threat. There are a lot of Indigenous traditions that see water as a relative. Rural traditions that see water as a friend. Water brings nutrients to the soil.

EG
People who have amphibious housing rely on water to lift them to safety. So the way that we view water as this sort of contest is not required. We can choose a different way.

BW
So in the contest that Western societies and cities are set up today, you know, water wins we’re not talking about bingo or checkers here. There are real consequences when water wins in these scenarios. What are the stakes that are involved here when we’re talking about water winning?

EG
Right. Well, flooding is the big one and also water scarcity. We’ve filled in 87% of the world’s wetlands to build in or plant upon. We have dammed or otherwise intervened on two thirds of the world’s big rivers. There’s the massive urban paving that I talked about. And all these ways, we’ve dramatically disrupted the water cycle. And I’m sure you and some of your listeners know that, you know, 96% of liquid freshwater on Earth is underground.

EG
And the underground and surface water are linked. And so when we don’t allow water to flow on land, we’re disrupting that hydrological cycle. And that creates all kinds of unintended consequences. So, you know, flooding is the really obvious thing when you have water where you don’t want it to be. But a lot of our water scarcity problems that we have in the West are also due to this same phenomenon.

EG
We tend to think of surface waterways, streams in the West as seasonal features that only run in the winter. But in fact, that wasn’t always the case. There are, of course, some streams that only run during wet season, but a lot of the streams we think of as dry in the summer, in fact, used to run in the summer, and it was because groundwater systems were healthier and connected to the surface water and they were feeding them in the summer And, you know, we look at the fire problems that we’re having in the West, and partly that’s because the lands, the soil, the plants are so desiccated.

EG
And again, that is a problem that could be helped quite a bit if we allowed our hydrological system to be healthier.

BW
Your subtitle mentions thriving. And throughout the book, you mention and bring up and reference a concept called ‘slow water’ as a way to position us towards a more thriving future. So I wonder if you could just explain what ‘slow water’ is and how that term has come about.

EG
Slow water is when you look at how standard development has preceded, a lot of what we’ve done is erase water’s natural slow phases. You know, wetlands, which we’ve filled in 87% of them, the floodplains that we’ve built on or planted upon, even a high altitude grasslands and forests that generate a lot of our rain and downstream water flow.

EG
When we cut those or change that landscape, then we impact the ability of water to be generated from these water towers. So all of the people that I met around the world who were trying to ask what water wants and trying to figure out how to accommodate that desire within our human landscapes, we’re all looking to either conserve or restore some of these slow phases for water.

EG
And slow water has some commonalities with slow food in that it draws attention to where our water comes from and how our treatment of it affects the environment and other people. And it is ideally local, which is sort of anathema for someone from California to say, because we have such a dramatically engineered water landscape there. But, you know, there’s a lot of problems of moving water from one place to another.

EG
You’re depleting the donor ecosystem. You’re potentially introducing invasive species to the new system, but also you’re creating this false sense of security. And so again and again, when people bring large quantities of water from one area to another, demand expands to use all the new water. And then you have a water scarcity problem again. The big problem is just that we’ve become so disconnected from our water, so we don’t understand where it comes from or what it’s doing or how it functions and its relationships with rocks, microbes, beavers, people.

EG
So local water helps people to better understand that. And we’ve also moved toward this very centralized water system where we have centralized drinking water treatment, sewage treatment. I’m not saying we should do away with those things. They’re very important. But the result has been that people really take water for granted. They turn on the tap, they have clean drinking water, and many countries, their sewage goes away and this is treated.

EG
But in the past, people were very intimately involved with their water and caretaking it and capturing it when it rained and moving it underground and keeping canal systems clean of sediment. And the result was that they understood very clearly how much water was available to them in a given year and what they could do with that. And there was also this kind of stewardship attitude toward it.

EG
And you see that in a lot of these indigenous traditions as well. You know, rights come with responsibilities. There’s a reciprocity in that relationship where, you know, you take care of water and what water needs, and then water provides you with the things that you need.

BW
Well, you start the book with the example of a water detective in the book is dedicated to water detectives. And the opening scene is you looking around San Francisco for evidence of where water is or was. And it can be ghost streams that we have buried, or paved over, or places where water seeps out of the ground. And you mentioned, you know, with the slow water movement that it’s going to take a change in how we relate to water.

BW
We’ve built a very large ship so to speak, with our water systems, our pipelines and centralized treatment plants and large ships take a long time to change course. So I’m wondering, you know, in reporting the book, if you saw how these cultural, political, economic, social changes can occur to change course towards more of a slow water movement?

EG
That’s a really big question, because what I’m suggesting in this book is that we need a major cultural shift in how we relate to water. But, you know, the most recent IPCC report called for a radical change in how we do everything, including how we obtain and manage water. And so I think the time for small measures is over if we want to avoid significant disaster and harm.

EG
So how to do it is tricky. One thing I will say is the way we’ve related to water has often focused on kind of single-minded problem solving. You know, we have water scarcity, so let’s build the dam and create this big pool of water. Or, you know, we don’t want this field to flood, so let’s build a levee.

EG
But single minded problems solving in nature is problematic because you’re operating in a system and you’re not considering how the system works. So we need a way to better make decisions that takes into account the system and the unintended consequences that we might have. And, you know, that’s beginning to happen with more complex computer modeling. But I think we also need a way to quantify those benefits.

EG
There are a lot of co-benefits with these slow water projects. Like support for biodiversity, prevention of flooding and water scarcity and … carbon storage in these wetland ecosystems. Better habitat for humans, you know, more nature in our cities and, you know, nicer areas for us to spend time in. And a lot of those benefits are not at all counted or measured when these decisions are being made.

EG
And that is a bigger problem in our economic system. Where externalities are not counted and a lot of the costs of development are born not by the people making money, but by the environment. And by taxpayers or people in disadvantaged communities. You know, our economic system is predicated upon this myth of eternal growth which is an impossibility. And in the field of economics, people talk about moving towards steady state economics or environmental economics.

EG
You know, things like getting money out of politics. I mean.

BW
Yeah, there’s a lot, there’s a whole lot.

EG
You know, let me say two more things. One is, so in Kenya, there are two policies. One is that water is apportioned not first in time, first in right kind of thing. There are people who have bigger water benefits than others, but the apportionment is dependent upon how much water they get in a given year, which sounds like common sense that, you know, if there’s a drought, people share the pain.

EG
But of course, that doesn’t happen in a lot of places. And then they also have a community water users program across the country. Where community groups have some investment in managing their water. So I think that’s really important to give people some agency and some buy in.

BW
One of the things that people often look for in this type of reporting is solutions. Everyone wants to know who’s doing things well. And can I copy what they’re doing and bring it to my place. In the book, you write that the slow water movement ideas are meant to inspire rather than prescribe. And so that suggests that it’s not so easy in some cases to just transfer one project from one area to another.

BW
Talk a bit more about the inspire rather than prescribe and how solutions may not just be as simple as copying project A into area B.

EG
Yeah. So unlike a dam or a levee where we have kind of gone around the world and put those everywhere, slow water solutions are unique to their place. So every place has unique geology, ecology, hydrology and culture. And a slow water solution needs to be specific to each of those particular variables. And I think the culture aspect is very important.

EG
In some cases, Western civilization has gone to places that have fairly sustainable water systems and said what you really need is a dam, a big dam that you’re going to go into debt for and have to pay for forever. And you know, it’s going to disrupt your sustainable fishing economy, et cetera. And one person in my book called this hydro colonialism.

EG
So I would say slow water is the antithesis of that. It is very much specific to each place. What I tried to do in this book is look around the world to find different cultures and to find different water situations, whether somebody was experiencing scarcity because their glaciers are melting or experiencing flooding because they’ve grown their cities too quickly.

EG
So I looked for all these different kinds of water situations and the goal in doing that was that people, no matter where they were, no matter what their water problems were, could find some inspiration of here’s an idea of something along the lines that might work in our place. And then you take that idea and then look at the specifics of your place and figure out how it can work for you.

BW
Given all that reporting, everything that went into the book and all the places you went, you know, after doing all this work, what did you find if anything, that inspires you?

American beaver, he was happily sitting back and munching on something. and munching, and munching. By Steve from washington, dc, usa – American Beaver, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3963858

EG
Everyone I met I thought was very inspiring because they really are setting their own path. You know, the dominant culture is kind of screaming that we do things this way. And all of these people are saying, you know what? That way isn’t working. And we’re going to try something radically different. But one entity I found very inspiring were beavers.

EG
So I have a chapter on beavers in the book. And people in the U.K. are using beavers to prevent flooding in towns downstream. And people in the western U.S. are using beavers as a hedge against water scarcity and helping to move water underground and heal hydrology also as a protection against fires. So here’s this amazing animal that can do so much to heal our hydrology.

EG
And there’s a longer story about how humans have interfered with that in the past. But beavers are really incredible. If we give them space to do their work, they can do so much to help us and to help many, many other species that benefit from the habitats that they create. Plus, they’re—

BW
So you’ve turned into a beaver believer.

EG
Yes. Yes.

BW
I’ve been speaking with Erica Gies, author of Water Always Wins, which will be published in the U.S. in June. It’s already out in the U.K. For Circle of Blue, I’m Brett Walton. Erica, thanks for being here.

EG
Thanks so much for having me.

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