What work do you do?

I work through a creation of mine called the Global Water Policy Project to promote the protection of rivers and other freshwater ecosystems. My goal is to generate ideas and inspiration to change the way we use, manage, and think about freshwater.

How does it relate to the environment?

Water is the basis of life and the blue arteries of the earth! Everything in the non-marine environment depends on freshwater to survive. Because we haven’t managed water wisely in the past, many freshwater species are at risk of extinction. And because we’ve used water too profligately, a lot of rivers now run dry before they reach the sea, and a lot of groundwater sources are being depleted.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?

I mostly read, write, and think. That may sound boring, but I love what I do! When I’m not pounding out books, articles, or research papers, I’m traveling to give a talk somewhere or heading over to Mount Holyoke College to teach — a course on (you guessed it) international water issues. I also do a fair number of interviews with journalists, because their stories get the issues out to the public.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to devote my life’s work to the environment. I thought about environmental law, environmental science, environmental writing. I studied geology and political science in college and then resource economics and policy in graduate school. In between college and graduate school, I had the good fortune to receive one of the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] Science and Mass Media Writing Fellowships, which landed me in North Carolina at the Charlotte Observer newspaper for a summer. With the help of great editors, I learned more about writing and loved working on science and environment stories. I nearly bagged graduate school to stay with journalism until an assignment tested my aggressiveness and I realized I had limits to how far I’d go to “get the story.” All for the better. After finishing at Duke, I headed to California to work with a small policy research consulting firm, where I was thrown into water work. I wrote a handbook on water conservation for the U.S. EPA, and I was hooked. Three years later, I headed to Washington, D.C., to join the Worldwatch Institute, where I took my water work global. Worldwatch and I were a perfect match, and I stayed there for 11 years. I left in 1994, moved to Massachusetts, and formed the Global Water Policy Project as an umbrella for the new things I wanted to do.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

How many emails are currently in your inbox?

Dozens — but most of them are listservs like Planet Ark that I think I’m going to read in the next day or two but don’t. Yep, need to file them in a Reading Folder and clean up that inbox.

With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?

Rivers for Life, by Sandra Postel.

I interact with lots of great people — it’s one of the best parts of my work. Scientists, activists, policy people, journalists, students. For sure, much of my work is solitary (the nature of writing), but I have also had great collaborative projects with great people. I wrote my recently published book, Rivers for Life, with Brian Richter, who directs the Sustainable Waters Program at The Nature Conservancy — one of the most synergistic partnerships I’ve had. A few years ago I went to India and Bangladesh with Paul Polak, the head of International Development Enterprises, to see the great work they were doing to spread affordable irrigation technologies to poor farmers. Most recently I coauthored a chapter called “Boosting Water Productivity,” for Worldwatch’s State of the World 2004, with Amy Vickers, author of the Handbook of Water Use and Conservation — a bible in the water conservation field. I serve on a number of advisory boards, which also puts me in touch with wonderful people at great organizations like American Rivers and the Environmental Leadership Program.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

Hollis, New York — and I grew up on Long Island. Today I live in Amherst, Massachusetts.

What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?

Grist relies on the support of generous readers like you. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations matched!

It must have been my first emergence from water — my mother’s womb — because I feel like my love and concern for the environment has been in my bones since the beginning. Sounds corny or at least improbable, but I think it’s true. Stories about Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching fire fanned the flames and reading Henry David Thoreau deepened the passion. A trip to Walden Pond when I was about 12 sure did solidify things.

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

I’m not sure it was the worst, but one of the most difficult moments for me was meeting with villagers and NGO representatives in the “disaster zone” of the Aral Sea in 1995. After hearing their stories and requests, I felt despairing, like nothing we visiting “experts” could say would respond adequately to their plight. Certainly nothing would bring back the Aral Sea, which had already lost about two-thirds of its water.

What’s been the best?

Can the worst also be the best? I think it can. Because while waiting for my turn to say something to the Aral Sea gathering, it occurred to me that all I could honestly offer was a feeling of hope — and that Mono Lake in my home country provided a good example. And so I told those gathered the story of Mono Lake — how a small committed band of people could make a difference against the odds, and begin to return the lake to better health. The Aral Sea problem, of course, was far larger and more complex than that of Mono Lake — but the message of hope seemed important. When I finished talking, I looked around the room to see if my message had come through the translation — and all the smiles on their faces told me it had.

What’s on your desk right now?

A stack of papers on watershed protection for a project I’m working on with researchers at Stanford University — plus a calculator, family photos, unread journals, a stack of unfiled business cards, and — of course — a glass of water!

What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?

The way the Bush administration has been circumventing sound science to serve its political agenda.

Who is your environmental hero?

Rachel Carson tops my list.

Who is your environmental nightmare?

Dick Cheney.

What’s your environmental vice?

Like most Americans, I create too much carbon dioxide. I drive my car too much — in my case an average of 8,800 miles a year. And I also fly on planes a lot — just about all of it for work purposes (we usually vacation in beautiful New England), but still it gives me a carbon-intensive life.

How do you get around?

Size 10 AA feet, an Ironhorse bicycle, and a 1998 Toyota Corolla.

What are you reading these days?

Fiction: Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen.

Non-Fiction: Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft; I’m always reading water books; and I just started Gus Speth’s Red Sky at Morning, which he gave me last week when I was down at Yale to give a seminar.

What’s your favorite meal?

I love fresh pasta with homemade pesto. We collect the basil at our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm in August and September and then make enough pesto for the rest of the year.

Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?

Yep, I’m sure I qualify. We get three newspapers a day: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe. I rely on a few Internet listservs for daily environmental and water news updates.

What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?

I’ve had the good fortune to see lots of beautiful and interesting places around the world, but maybe my favorite place is the Fort River, which runs through Amherst, Mass., on its way to the Connecticut River. I walk with my dog Toby along it several times a week. The day before yesterday, the river was at flood stage after heavy rains — and a beaver was running it, two kingfishers were skimming along the surface, migrating geese were passing, red-wing blackbirds were singing in the tall grasses — and it was grand.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

No lawn watering! Everyone plants climate-appropriate grasses, shrubs, trees, and flowers that require no extra water and no pesticides. If you live in the desert, love the desert landscape! If you live in the East, love a brown lawn in late summer — it’s supposed to turn brown and it will turn green again all by itself when nature says it’s time.

Who do you think (not hope) is going to be president in November?

John Kerry. I think a majority of voting Americans will realize that this country cannot afford another four years of the current administration. I just hope enough of them are in the states that count.

Would you label yourself an environmentalist?

Absolutely.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?

Informing the public about how bad and damaging the Bush administration’s policies are for the environment and for people.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?

We are not articulating clearly enough a vision of positive change that the public can get excited about and work toward.

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?

Billy Joel. Alison Krauss and Union Station.

What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?

Six Feet Under (though we have to borrow or rent it since we don’t have HBO). Among network TV shows we can watch, The West Wing.

Identifying a favorite movie is tough — we just rented The Fountainhead, a 1945 movie version of the Ayn Rand novel. Rand did the screenplay for it, and it was fantastic. I also got hooked on Donnie Darko last year. And then there’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and Casablanca, of course.

Mac or PC?

Mac.

What are you happy about right now?

Our friends just adopted a little girl and I’ll be seeing her for the first time tomorrow.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Begin every day asking what thing you could do differently that would be good for the environment and good for you, too. And then do that thing. If it feels right and good, do it the next day, too. You might start tomorrow, for instance, by not buying water to drink out of a plastic bottle.

I would like to know your perspective on corporate water privatization.   — Lois Levin, Waban, Mass.

Sandra Postel, of Global Water Policy Project.

I believe water is a public trust and needs to be managed as such. As custodians of the public trust, governments need to assume responsibility for ensuring that all people — and I would add all life — have access to sufficient water to meet their basic needs. Once governments do that, then I think it’s okay to allow markets and other economic incentives to allocate water among competing uses. But human health and ecosystems both must be safeguarded and provided with the water they need first. Corporations have a different set of priorities, which is why I don’t think they should own water. They may be given permits to use water according to specified criteria — but not to own it. When it comes to water services, the antidote to corrupt governmental institutions is not profit-motivated, non-transparent corporations, but rather good governance. Citizens need to demand this wherever possible.

How can we best put your ideas into action at the state and local levels?   — Mary Elfner, Water Conservation Coordinator, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Savannah, Ga.

You have asked the million-dollar question! You are clearly working on the front lines and I’m sure have as good an answer to this question as I could give. Indeed, I was impressed to see an article in my email inbox this week indicating that Georgia is now considering restricting outdoor residential water use even in non-drought periods. Bravo! I believe this is the kind of action we need — laws, regulations, pricing structures, and other incentives to encourage higher water productivity. Will people’s satisfaction decrease if they look out upon a backyard landscape of native plants and ground covers that don’t require irrigation, pesticides, or weekly mowing? I don’t think so! Satisfaction will increase, and water use will go down. People need to understand that their water choices have consequences — and to feel empowered to make better choices. Citizen activism and enlightened water managers can encourage utilities, state and local water agencies, and others to choose conservation-oriented policies over the old approach of expanding supply. It’s been done: In my state, Boston reduced its water use by 25 percent — enough to cancel construction of a new dam on the Connecticut River, and saving water at half the cost of expanding the supply. Citizens inspired this effort and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority followed through. I commend to anyone interested in knowing about all the measures that can help us save water and use it more wisely Amy Vickers’ wonderful book, Handbook of Water Use and Conservation.

To protect freshwater resources, is it better to promote changes at the local municipal government level, or is it more effective to work at the international level, since water knows no borders?   — Connie Kretz, Taipei, Taiwan

Great question. I think we need to work at all levels, so work at whatever level you best can. In general, we need to think more like a river and manage water from a holistic ecosystem perspective. Locally, let’s be sure we don’t pave over our key groundwater recharge zones — that’s a bad place for a new shopping mall. At the state level, let’s get strong ordinances that protect the quality, quantity, and timing of flows that our rivers and streams need for good health. Internationally, we need cooperation to ensure that rivers flowing across borders are shared equitably among people and also with nature itself.

What are the schools teaching about groundwater these days — or are we still tracing underground streams with forked sticks? Here in Chesapeake drainage many of us are concerned about the declining health of the bay.   — Richard H. Howe, Camp Hill, Penn.

I think it was Luna Leopold, former chief hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey and son of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold, who said “the health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.” Our failure to use and manage watershed lands wisely has resulted in serious pollution and degradation of our rivers, aquifers, lakes, and coastal bays and estuaries — including Chesapeake Bay, a national treasure. The huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is also attributable in part to the enormous load of nitrogen-laden runoff coming off the land within the Mississippi watershed. One thing countries haven’t adequately done is recognize that farming and forestry activities in watersheds have enormous consequences downstream — and that we need to encourage sounder practices if we want to reduce those damaging effects. This means giving landowners — whether farmers, timber companies, homeowners — incentives to manage their lands in ways that reduce erosion, pollution, and other harmful effects downstream. I’m currently working on a project with some colleagues at Stanford University that looks at precisely this question — how we can better harness and protect the natural ecosystem services of watersheds. There are some promising programs and projects out there, so stay tuned.

Do you sometimes use the digital audio capabilities of your computer to produce audio segments?    — Philippe Boucher, Bainbridge Island, Wash.

Thank you for this suggestion. I haven’t used my own computer in this way. But a number of my recent talks and lectures have been web-streamed and are available via the Internet.

Is it true that there is now on earth all the water there ever was and ever will be? What percent of the total water supply is actually usable for human needs?   — George Harrar, Wayland, Mass.

What’s an award-winning fiction writer like you doing asking such a scientific question? Trying to stump me, I’m sure. The amount of water on earth now has been more or less constant for several billion years. I say more or less because there’s some indication that tiny amounts of water may be brought in by “cosmic snowballs” — small water-containing comets that smash into the Earth. But for all practical purposes we have a finite supply. The arithmetic of planetary water looks like this: More than 97 percent of the planet’s water is undrinkably salty. Of the remainder, more than two-thirds is locked up in glaciers and ice caps. Less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of all the water on earth is both fresh and renewed by the solar-powered hydrological cycle. And only a fraction of that is actually accessible to meet our demands for irrigation, industrial, and urban water uses. Gloomy arithmetic, maybe, but enough water to meet our needs if we use it efficiently, equitably, and wisely. [Disclosure: George Harrar is a friend, acclaimed author (check out The Spinning Man), and husband of award-winning film producer Linda Harrar, who produced and directed the PBS film Last Oasis, based on my book of the same name. Linda is also the executive producer of World in the Balance, which premiered on PBS last week.]

Where and how do you think we need to make the most effort to move toward a more ecological and just society? In your opinion, where do we need good people to be working?   — Cynthia Lin, Emmaus, Penn.

When it comes to water, I think the world most needs an ethic of sharing — with one another and with our companion species on this earth. We need people to work on each of the four big E’s: efficiency, equity, ecological integrity, and ethics. There are plenty of niches for us each to find one that matches our talents and passions.

I remember the days of a cool, clear Ocklawaha River. What advice/help can you give us in our effort to restore it?   — David Zeigler, Salt Springs, Fla.

Brian Richter and I discuss many such issues in our new book, Rivers for Life. I can’t offer any concrete advice without knowing the situation in more detail. But I would offer the idea of attending the River Rally organized by River Network to be held in Wintergreen, Va., May 21-25. Representatives from lots of river and watershed organizations will be there to share ideas and experiences, and to celebrate rivers. Perhaps some new ideas will come out of exchanges there. It’s a great way to educate and energize the public.

I’m getting a Ph.D. in geology and looking for ways to translate my scientific knowledge into applied work to protect rivers. Should I volunteer for enviro groups? Write articles for non-technical audiences? (I’m currently reading Rivers for Life and it’s very good.)   — Andrew Wilcox, Fort Collins, Colo.

Rivers need good scientists! One of the big challenges is figuring out the quantity, quality, and timing of flows that rivers need to be healthy and to sustain the diversity of life within them. If we policy folks do our job well, your scientific skills will be in high demand. In the meantime, I have a feeling your passion for protecting rivers will help you create opportunities to be of service. I’m glad you’re enjoying Rivers for Life.

Incrementalism is a legitimate approach to making policy, but seems inappropriate for problems that become more intransigent with time — like global water shortages. Do you see hope for anything more proactive?   — Jim Dees, Olympia, Wash.

I agree that a little conservation here, a little more efficiency there will not solve our water problems. We do need a fundamental change in how we use, value, manage, and even think about water. We talk about this new mindset at some length in Rivers for Life.

These questions were compiled from Master of Environmental Studies students at The Evergreen State College in Washington state. This quarter we are enrolled in a class focusing on case studies of water and water policy.   — Steven Abercrombie, The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash.

1. What are the most critical questions we should be asking as students of water and water policy?

Here’s one I think about a lot: How can we update/alter water laws and systems of water rights that were crafted in an earlier time and are not serving us well today — systems that rarely considered ecological values, for example?

2. Are there examples of countries with water allocation laws that promote wise water use?

Have a look at South Africa’s 1998 water law. It’s the most progressive water law I know of.

3. What is your opinion on the potential of private companies to provide water to populations in need, especially in areas with limited water and growing populations?

I think the private sector can help mobilize capital and do infrastructure work, but ownership and control over water should remain, in my view, in the public sector.

4. What combination of public and private water management can achieve efficient and equitable outcomes?

No set answer here — this will vary from case to case.

5. What long-term ecological impacts do you see arising from the exploitation of new sources of fresh water, particularly desalinization and harvesting of polar ice or icebergs?

Desalination is touted now as an important solution. But it seems to me that burning climate-altering fossil fuels to desalt ocean water, dumping briny waste into our sensitive coastal ecosystems, and dotting our beautiful coastlines with water factories may not be the most elegant or sustainable way to solve our water problems. Conservation before new supply!

6. Should water resource allocation be more prominent in the reconstruction of Iraq?

Yes, a water-sharing agreement between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq is needed to more equitably allocate the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Iraq is last in line of the three. Turkey is building big dams upstream that will affect the flow into Syria and Iraq.

7. What progress has been made as a direct result of recent international water forums?

These forums don’t generally produce much progress themselves. There may be statements (or declarations) of intent signed by governments, but what really matters is action and implementation.

8. What percentage of fresh water are we currently losing to contamination?

Good question! I don’t think anyone knows the answer, in part because water quality isn’t monitored all that well in much of the world.