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Cynthia Barnett: There’s No ‘Big Fix’ For Drought

Author Cynthia Barnett tells Water Deeply what she's learned researching, writing and promoting three books on water: There is no single Big Fix for our water problems, but there are many positive ways we can respond to the crisis, the most important of which is to develop a “water ethic”.

Written byTara Lohan Published on Feb. 2, 2016 Read time Approx. 7 minutes
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SAN FRANCISCO – January 27 was the 100th anniversary of Hatfield’s flood. You may have missed the occasion unless you were with Cynthia Barnett . Barnett, an environmental journalist, has written three books about water and last week she was in Corte Madera, California discussing her most recent book, ” Rain: A Natural and Cultural History ,” which was nominated for the National Book award.

In “Rain,” Barnett writes about Californian Charles Hatfield. Hatfield was a “rainmaker” – someone who persuaded the public that he could conjure precipitation with a mix of special chemicals. In 1915 Hatfield convinced the San Diego City Council to pay him $10,000 if he could bring enough water to San Diego by year’s end to fill Morena Reservoir. “He built his derrick, he climbed it, he was cooking up all these chemicals in a pan and right away it began to rain and rain and rain and flood,” said Barnett. “This is in January 1916. The reservoir filled, it overtopped and then the dam broke.” The flood wiped out houses, the city’s bridges and killed more than 20 people. Hatfield fled town chased by armed vigilantes.

Hatfield, of course, didn’t know how to make rain, and meteorologists know now it was back-to-back atmospheric rivers that caused that flood, explained Barnett. But the story still resonates for an important reason. People were inclined to believe that huge problems like drought can be easily solved. We still are.

“Every time we’re in a drought, and that goes for then and now, we seem to have this great wish for the Big Fix,” said Barnett, who is also a Water Deeply advisor. “There is always someone who is going to pop up and say they have this great idea and they’re going to solve our water issues.”

But as Barnett’s work has shown, water issues are much more nuanced than that. While there is no Big Fix, there are lots of other things we can do, starting with developing a water ethic. She recently sat down with Water Deeply to talk about what she has learned researching the history of rain, traveling the world in search of a water ethic and how bad weather has led to witch hunts.

Water Deeply: Last week you visited California to speak at the California Irrigation Institute ’s annual conference. Your talk was about our need for a water ethic, an idea you explored in depth in your second book “ Blue Revolution .” Can you explain what a water ethic means?

Cynthia Barnett: It means that we live today in a way that doesn’t jeopardize things for future generations. But specifically, it means using less water and polluting less, which we actually know how to do. It’s not terribly hard and we could do it in every sector of the economy.

Water Deeply: Where does the idea come from?

Barnett: The real tangible work of it goes back to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. In the “Sand County Almanac,” he articulated a land ethic in the wake of the Dust Bowl that really changed the way we lived with the land and the soil – things like crop rotation, not ripping out all the prairie grass, soil management – so that in future droughts we would not have the huge black dust clouds and the other devastating impacts of the Dust Bowl.

Water Deeply: And the same goes for water?

Barnett: The same is true for water. In every sector, in agriculture, in utilities, with the rest of us who use water, there are really tangible ways to use less water and pollute less. But too often we don’t do it because it’s economically beneficial to keep doing what we’re doing now.

I write about Luna Leopold, Aldo Leopold’s son, who first articulated the water ethic. He took his father’s idea about the land ethic and he put it into terms for water. He said technology wouldn’t solve the problem. We needed a “reverence for rivers” and that we would all have to come to value water and to value it in its natural form.

Water Deeply: Where have you seen this water ethic in practice?

Barnett: I traveled to Singapore and Australia where there has been a widespread public ethic for water and they really changed their water fortunes. So it’s not like a touchy-feely idea. It really is a new way of living with water but it only happens when the whole community is together and insists on it.

The United States hasn’t been there since the early 1970s. That was the last time we all paid a lot of attention to water. There was visible pollution in the industrial rivers of the northeast and that’s when here in the west there was drought and there was a proposal to dam the Grand Canyon. That was a time when a lot of people became upset with what was happening with water and we changed things. We stopped building the huge dams. We created EPA and the Clean Water Act.

That’s what I think we’re getting near to now and that’s what’s needed because the largest users aren’t going to change on their own. It takes that public pressure to change the culture and it needs to be the whole culture.

Water Deeply: What made you decide to write your most recent book “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History”?

Barnett: One reason is that I absolutely love rain, I have always loved it since my childhood. I feel oppressed by too sunny a day. I like to have a little drama in the weather.

The other reason is that when I would go around the country talking about “Blue Revolution_”_ I found that even people who didn’t want to talk about climate change or refused to, they loved to talk about the weather. They want to talk about the drought, they want to talk about hurricanes and extreme rains.

I began to see rain as a journalistic entree to climate change, which I think it has been.

Water Deeply: From the time you wrote “Blue Revolution” until now, when you’re touring with “Rain,” have you noticed a change in people’s perceptions of climate change or how they talk about it?

Barnett: I do notice that. I think there is less denial but in a way the denial that I see is more insidious. Ten years ago Florida’s governor and California’s Gov. Schwarzenegger were both Republicans who were working really hard on climate change. But now for the past nearly eight years, Florida has had a climate change denier as a governor and we’re in a state that is most vulnerable to both sea level rise and more extreme hurricanes.

I see that more people are open-minded and increasingly concerned, and yet at the level where one can make a difference there is a really insidious amount of denial.

Water Deeply: Speaking of climate change and deniers, in “Rain” you wrote about how a misunderstanding of the weather led to thousands of executions of so-called witches.

Barnett: The Little Ice Age between 1350 and 1850 was a period of climate change – really extreme weather, deadly winters. Those conditions led to crop losses, which also led to famine.

The story that stands out to me that has strange connections to modern times are the witch-hunts of the Little Ice Age. The Witch Era is tied to many things – sociopolitical issues, religion – but it was also tied to the increase in extreme weather.

The whole era was a time when the poor suffered more. Just like always. Just like forever. The poor will suffer these extremes more so than the rest of us. That was true then and it’s going to be true with climate change.

Water Deeply: Do you think it will take a catastrophe to motivate people now, like Australia’s 10-year-long drought?

Barnett: Tim Flannery , one of Australia’s most famous scientists, made a pronouncement that Perth would become the first ghost metropolis and it would actually have to be abandoned for lack of fresh water. After that people really woke up and realized they wanted to live differently.

They used to all have bore holes in their backyards, or what we call groundwater wells, and when I interviewed people there they say now they would never think of pumping groundwater out of their aquifers any more, just for something like watering the lawn. They feel totally different about it, but it took a huge disaster, being at the brink for the ethic to change.

I do think it’s changing here. People are using less water all the time. Industry is using less water. It’s happening but it’s not widespread.

Water Deeply: California has done pretty well in the past year with a conservation mandate. It seems lots of people care about water, but they value it differently. How can we make policy changes with that in mind?

Barnett: People have their picture of their water – their water for agriculture or their water for salmon and really every drop is valuable. Even if it’s in a toilet, it can be recycled. And that seems to be the next big thing that will happen – really large-scale wastewater reuse and recycling, which is what is going on in Singapore. Singapore is 100 percent recycled water but Australia is getting closer and closer to that. Even food crops can have reused water. We really have to look at all water as valuable.

Top image: Cynthia Barnett teaches environmental journalism in the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications and is enjoying watery field trip kayaking on the Ichetucknee River with her students. (Jennifer Adler)