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A Thirsty Land: The Making of an American Water Crisis by Seamus McGraw

Published in April of 2018.

Larry Wright is the reason that I read (listened to) A Thirsty Land, Seamus McGraw’s deeply researched new book about the Texas water crisis.  Amazon saw that I was reading Wright’s God Save Texas, and suggested that I’d like McGraw’s book.

Or maybe Amazon recommended A Thirsty Land because the AI (Alexa?) knows that I am something of a water scarcity nerd.  One of the best nonfiction books that I have ever read is Marc Reisner’s (1948-2000) Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife would probably make my list of 10 best dystopian hard science fiction books of the last 10 years.

A Thirsty Land delves into the origins, likely consequences, and possible solutions of water scarcity in Texas.  You don’t need to live in Texas to worry about what the state is going through with water.  Texas, like much of the South and the West, is the driver of our 21st century economy.   It is in Texas, and other areas of similar climates, that both population growth and job creation are concentrated.  More than any other resource, all of those Texans rely on water for survival.

Water is the one irreplaceable and non-substitutable natural resources.  All the water that has ever been, and will ever be, already exists.  We cannot make more of it.  In Texas, population and industrial growth is rapidly outstripping the ability of traditional water sources (such as acquirers) to meet the growing demand.  Texas will be forced to dramatically improve conservation, while finding alternatives sources of potable water, such as desalination plants.

The big takeaway from A Thirsty Land, and the reason that non-Texans should also read this book, is that water is set to become the world’s most important commodity.  It will be access to water that will determine which communities thrive.  It will be the ability of state and local governments to set and enforce water conservation policies that will determine the long-term viability of the quickly growing cities and suburbs being planted in the desert.

For a technologist, the story of water is particularly fascinating.  McGraw takes a deep dive into the history and technology of desalination plants.  There is a very long, and decidedly mixed, history of governments attempting to process seawater into drinking water.  Saudi Arabia is spending billions on water purification.  Israel gets over half of its drinking water from desalination.  As McGraw points out, the technology to convert salty or brackish water to drinking water is incredibly resource intensive.  The combination of high costs and of rapid growth limit the ability of desalination to solve the Texas water crisis.  People and companies (particularly agribusiness) will need to change their practices.

Why should a higher ed person read this book?  I’d say the answer to that question depends on how you decide what to worry about.  We academics love to worry.  We are champion worriers. But we need to worry about the right things.

I’d say stop worrying about robots taking the jobs.  Stop worrying about AI.  Stop worrying about population.  (Unless you are worried about too little population growth, not too much).  And stop worrying about the impact of technology on young people.  (They will do just fine).

Start worrying about water.

What are some other books that you would recommend for the water scarcity nerds of academia?

What are you reading?

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