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'Blue Revolution' and 'Driving Home'

By Anthony Doerr
October 2, 2011

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“Water is life,’’ runs the biology teachers’ precept, but water is wealth too. Gold and diamonds are nice, but clean, crisp, controlled water has long been the preeminent hallmark of the rich.

First-century Rome, for example, with its aqueducts and public baths, was full of hydro-fanatics, perhaps none more rabid than Emperor Nero, whose 300-room party palace featured canals, pools, fountains, perfumed mists that could rain from the ceilings onto guests, and an artificial lake. Louis XIV constructed over 1,000 fountains, ponds, and waterfalls at Versailles. There wasn’t enough water to run them all at once, so his engineers would switch on whichever one the king was closest to as the royal retinue wobbled past.

In the 1890s, tobacco baron James Duke built himself a water wonderland in New Jersey featuring nine man-made lakes, pergolas, well houses, and 35 fountains described by American Homes and Gardens in 1914 as among “the most beautiful in the world.’’

Céline Dion churns through 500,000 gallons of water a month at her Florida home. In a single month in 2007, Donald Trump poured 2 million gallons of water through the lawns, pool, and 22 bathrooms of his Palm Beach residence.

Indeed, what suburban symbol of abundance and good fortune has endured longer than that of the backyard swimming pool? Use Google Earth to troll over fancy neighborhoods and try to count how many aquamarine shapes gleam up at the sky.

And yet: Our supply of fresh water is anything but inexhaustible. Groundwater supplies all over the nation are dropping, even in the relatively wet Southeast. Wetlands have become as rare as sea-run salmon, and Lake Mead, which supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas’s water, could be dry by as soon as 2021.

“Like our other great, national illusions say, the unending bull market, or upward-only housing prices,’’ writes journalist Cynthia Barnett, in her new and eminently sensible book “Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis,’’ “the illusion of water abundance is a beautiful bubble doomed to pop.’’

Each American, on average, uses 147 gallons of freshwater every day, four times what we used in 1950. Las Vegas residents use 227 gallons per person. Sacramento residents use nearly 300 gallons per day.

Add the water our power plants guzzle, plus the water our farmers use, and the average meat-eating American uses about 1,000 gallons every day.

That’s unsustainable.

What Barnett urges, in 12 unflustered and even-handed chapters, is a new water ethic along the lines of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, something that “would help Americans see that our future ecological - and economic - prosperity depends on how well we take care of the water flowing under our feet, down our rivers, and through out wetlands.’’

Amid the sluice of water-related books published over the past few years, two things make “Blue Revolution’’ stand out. The first is that Barnett examines issues in every region of the country. When she roves internationally to look at attitudes toward water in places like Singapore, Australia, and Holland, she’s relating her soft-spoken questions back to us, to our thirsty American lawns, air conditioners, and politics.

Even more importantly, Barnett does not come off as a Cassandra, shrieking about looming cataclysm and dumping figures over her readers’ heads. In “Blue Revolution’’ she is part journalist, part mom, part historian, and part optimist, and as a result her text comes off as anything but a polemic.

“It’s not that we don’t have enough water,’’ she writes. “It’s that we don’t have enough water to waste.’’

At one point Barnett writes, “Water is art as much as science,’’ and few lines could more accurately describe Jonathan Raban’s new book, “Driving Home: An American Journey.’’

Raban, a British writer and critic who moved to Seattle in 1990, has collected his essays from the past 20 years in a big, slow, patient hardcover that spans his interests, from the singular writings of the 20th-century literary critic William Empson to the Mississippi River floods of 1993, to a Tea Party convention in Nashville in 2010.

More prominent than any other subject here, except perhaps language itself, is water. Raban pays beautiful attention to water, whether it’s chuckling through the Mississippi or reflecting the lights of Seattle, seeing it as medium, message, and metaphor. The sea of the Pacific Northwest, he writes, “goes in swirls and gyres. For every current there’s a counter current. It is chronically turbulent. Its most typical facial expression is the whirlpool: water rubbing against water to make turmoil.’’

Some essays in “Driving Home’’ are satisfyingly huge, while others seem a bit less worthy - a full nine pages of a review of a single story collection, and the film made from it, for example- but throughout the book, Raban’s funny, acerbic, and deeply astute prose makes the reading a joy.

Fans of W.G. Sebald’s strange, hallucinatory journeys around Europe might especially enjoy seeing Raban’s eye as it pores over America. Raban is more straightforward than Sebald, but his curiosity is as wide-ranging, and his ability to render the memories of past lands beneath the lands he’s currently looking at is equally as keen. If books were people, Barnett’s “Blue Revolution’’ would be the trim, reasonable speaker at the podium, arguing persuasively for a new water ethic, while Raban’s “Driving Home’’ would be the soulful smoker on the balcony outside, squinting out into the rain.

Anthony Doerr, author of the story collection “Memory Wall,’’ can be reached at adoerr@ cableone.net.

BLUE REVOLUTION: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis By Cynthia Barnett

Beacon, 272 pp., $26.95

DRIVING HOME: An American Journey By Jonathan Raban

Pantheon, 512 pp., $29.95