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Spotlight: Outwater on Water

Water: a Natural History
by Alice Outwater

By Tamia Nelson

January 22, 2002

Beavers, forests, prairie dogs, bison, grasslands, alligators, freshwater mussels…. What do the elements in this unlikely assemblage have in common? Just ask Alice—Alice Outwater, that is. An environmental engineer who's into sludge, Outwater's 1996 book Water: A Natural History makes the connections, and tells a fascinating story along the way.

Pollution, of course, is nothing new. We humans have long had the habit of dumping our waste into the nearest river and watching as the current carried it away. Once out of sight, it's out of mind. It's someone else's problem. Until someone else builds upstream of us, that is. Then we develop environmental consciousness. This is known as human nature. It's also a disease of civilization. The Romans probably invented flush toilets, and in doing so they anticipated Brian Aldiss. "Civilization," he once wrote, "is the distance man has placed between himself and his excreta." The Romans were civilized: they kept their distance. What worked for the Romans, however, won't work for us. We all live downstream of someone else now.

The problem became too big to ignore in the nineteenth century, when epidemics of water-borne disease claimed tens of thousands of lives in London and other large cities, and the stink rising from the River Thames forced Parliament to hang scented curtains from the windows of the House of Commons. Something obviously had to be done, and it was. Cities began to treat sewage before dumping it.

The story's not over, though. More than a century and a half after the first sewage treatment facilities went on-line, many North American cities and villages still discharge untreated waste into whatever river is handiest. So we haven't seen the end of the problem. Not even the beginning of the end. More like the end of the beginning. And we're now dumping a lot more than human waste. Remember "Better Living through Chemistry"? It was a wonderful slogan. And it was true. We all live better lives as a result of post-war industrial products and processes. But we've paid a high price for this progress. The world's waterways are now an alphabet soup of synthetic organic chemicals: DDT and PCBs, dioxins and estrogen mimics, to name only a few. Not to mention some old friends from the nineteenth century, many of them in new and deadlier forms: mercury, lead, and arsenic.

As was the case in nineteenth-century England, America's politicians acted only when the rivers running by their doors became too foul to ignore. The Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. It promised to reverse two centuries of neglect in just thirteen years. By 1985, discharge of named pollutants into American waterways was to end. Our rivers and lakes would once again yield fish we could safely eat and have water we could safely swim in. Astonishing.

More astonishing yet, it delivered most of what it promised.

In 1987, Alice Outwater, brand-new master's degree in hand, took a job with the engineering task force rehabilitating Boston Harbor. It was two years after the Clean Water Act's deadline. Her first assignment? To develop a way to dispose of municipal sludge, the smelly solids left behind after wastewater treatment. First, though, she had to find out what was in it. She got to work, expecting the worst. The stuff stank. It looked like, well, sewage sludge. Outwater was sure it would be full of chemical pollutants.

But she had a pleasant surprise. Her tests rarely found industrial toxins in the sludge, and even when they were present, their concentrations were low. Reports from other cities confirmed that this was no fluke. Industry was cleaning up its act, just as Congress had required. Yet Boston Harbor and other waterways were still polluted. Outwater wondered why.

Not one to be easily satisfied, she began looking for the answer to her question, and she was astonished by what she learned. Cities and industries were no longer the country's biggest polluters. The villain in the piece was America's rural heartland. After thinking about this for awhile, though, Outwater was less surprised than she'd been at first. It made sense. A city's wastewater can be collected and treated at reasonable cost, but how can you collect, let alone treat, the wastewater of an entire continent? Foul water is cleaned by natural filtration, of course. But nature works slowly. For every day that water spends in a municipal water treatment system, it spends up to a decade outside it, circulating through the natural world. And when human engineers can't clean up dirty water, the job is left to natural processes.

This is where the beavers, forests, prairie dogs, bison, grasslands, alligators, and freshwater mussels come in. Very simply put, they're all components in the continent's natural wastewater treatment system. Their story, with all of its complex and interdependent relationships, is the story of Water.

Bisons. Beavers. Forests. Prairie dogs. Grasslands. Alligators. Freshwater mussels. What do they all have in common? One thing stands out. There are a lot less of them than there once were. So the first part of Outwater's book is a history of destruction, the story of a paradise lost. "You don't know what you've got till it's gone," Joni Mitchell sang in 1970. Many of us, living out our lives in cities and suburban subdivisions, with only zoos and bird feeders to remind us of the natural world, still don't know. Alice Outwater tells us.

In doing so, she concentrates on two "keystone species": the beaver and the prairie dog. Each played a critical role in the continent's wastewater treatment system. But as European civilization advanced across North America, each was the subject of a pogrom—a campaign of extermination. Beavers and prairie dogs died by the millions. They were drowned, poisoned, and shot, without let-up and without limit. And wetlands and prairie grasslands died with them.

Times change. The fur trade is now only a shadow of its former self, and the beaver is slowly coming back to claim its place in the landscape. The prairie dog is not so fortunate, however. Its grassland range was long ago converted to farm fields and grazing, and its remaining populations are still a source of sport for shooters who—in Farwell's words, for he was once of their number—"prefer targets that bleed." The prairie dog faces an uncertain future.

No more uncertain, though, than the future of America's waterways. In the second part of Water, Outwater concentrates on the activities of human engineers, the men and women whose dams, irrigation schemes, and canals have forever altered the continent's drainage pattern. Nor is that all. The engineers have played their part in the great die-off of native species, too. Alligators, whose surprising role in the water cycle Outwater makes wonderfully clear, are now nearly gone from the Mississippi River basin. And native freshwater mussels—all of them very efficient natural filters—are steadily diminishing in both number and variety.

So, bit by bit, we are dismantling the system that provides us with clean water. Not content with that, we're throwing away the pieces, too. The probable consequences aren't hard to envision. Nations now fight wars for oil. Soon, they'll be fighting for water. Many centuries ago, a Chinese gentleman who wished to curse a rival would do so slyly, wishing only that his enemy "might live in interesting times." Now all of us live there. It's not a comforting prospect.

Despite this, Outwater's not a hand-wringing gloomster. In her concluding chapters she assigns blame—commercial agriculture comes in for its share, as does clear-cut logging—and offers remedies. Her suggestions are simple ones. Encourage beaver, prairie dogs, and bison to return to as much of their former range as is possible. Expand reserves of wetland, forest, and prairie grassland. Let natural processes do their healing work without unnecessary hindrance or impediment. Take care of the things which take care of us, in short.

Simple, yes. Up to a point. But will her ambitious program ever be acted upon? Probably not, or at least not until we can no longer take clean water for granted. Still, Outwater has shown the way. Hers may be a visionary prescription, but it's also the prescription of a clear-eyed, hard-headed engineer, simply stated and cogently put. Even paddlers who equate "environmentalists" with "terrorists" will find much to interest them in her book. Part history, part scientific monograph, part engineering analysis, Water is all these things, and much more besides. It's an ambitious work, but Outwater pulls it off. Her book now sits next to Silent Spring on my desk, and it enriches my perceptions every time I paddle out onto a river or a lake. I'm happy I found it, and I'm glad I read it. Now I hope you'll want to discover it for yourself.

Water. Don't leave home without it.

Outwater, Alice B.. Water: a natural history. (BasicBooks, New York, 1996) 212 pp, index, bibliography.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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